Parking in the living room with Cambodia’s middle class (2)

Although this little middle-class neighbourhood has one in every living room, Cambodia as a whole has only one car for every 32 people. The country is at the moped stage of development. Little motor bikes can carry a surprisingly sizable family, or they can be hooked up to a trailer and serve as a pickup. They represent an important economic sector in their own right, supporting thousands of people who sell fuel from old Coke bottles by the roadside, and who lovingly wash, shampoo and massage the machines at countless maintenance shops. As tuk-tuks or as simple two-wheelers, they serve as taxis – essential in a city with no urban bus system, let alone metro.

The rich elite and the international aid community, who can’t perform their humanitarian mission without air-conditioning and stereo, drive monstrous black 4-by-4s. The stupidest thing planners (if any) could do at this stage is to think “those things are cool and the way of the future, so let’s build the city around them.” So that, of course, is what they are doing. Phnom Penh’s third flyover is currently under construction, complete with clover-leaf ramps looping round it. The city will never be quite like Bangkok, Manila or Jakarta (each of which has a bigger population than the whole Kingdom of Cambodia), but officials seem to be determined to make the same mistakes anyway and ignore this never-to-be-repeated opportunity to implement some sort of trendy electric buses/road pricing system before descending into standard Southeast Asian gridlock.

Not that my hosts see it that way. They are actually proud of the new flyover – as they are of the small number of skyscrapers – because it will look so modern. They’ll be able to look snotty, uppity Thais in the eye, and maybe feel better about the Vietnamese taking over all the coffee shops and being registered as voters to help the ruling party. This makes me wonder what other evils of the 21st Century these poor people, with their tragic history, misguidedly imagine to be desirable. Will they, for example, ask to be taken to a tacky, plastic, pseudo-American pizza place for the meal I will treat them to before I leave?

I know the answer because they have already told me and are very excited, because such a dining experience is a really high-class thing to do. For a short time we hang out at a function in the presence of a striking movie star with a big fan and even bigger bouffant hairdo, waiting for Princess Norodom to make an appearance. My hosts are very eager for me to come along, perhaps to prove (not that I doubted it) their social standing. Being irritatingly hard to impress – my biggest vice – I grow tired of waiting for Her Royal Highness and we head off to the Pizza Company, a franchise linked to the Swensens ice cream chain, overlooking the river.

Apart from a few expats with kids, the customers are nearly all young, aspiring, middle-class, urban Cambodians. One group have brought an aging grandmother along in her tribal dress and turban. She looks bewildered enough even before seeing the menu. This offers a choice of three crusts: regular thin; thick with a tube around the perimeter containing melted cheese (well, ‘cheese’, at least); and thick with tubes around the perimeter containing sausage (‘sausage’ – scroll down for intimate and detailed illustration). I make the barely forgivable faux pas of choosing the plain one. Tom yum gung flavour. Pol Pot tried to eradicate traditional Khmer culture; now it’s the Pizza Company’s turn. Outside, lizards scramble over the brightly lit Dairy Queen sign in an attempt to add a bit of local colour to the creeping homogenous consumerist globalization.

Time for one last evening stroll along the waterfront. This is the equivalent of walking along the harbour (if you could) in Central, except the bank on the other side is barely developed, with more trees and fields than buildings. Among the families, couples, ragamuffins and tourists, I can’t help noticing one or two unkempt and frankly putrid-looking 60-something white guys sitting and watching little kids playing on the swings. At least, I think that’s what I’m seeing. As with the colour divide between semi-Chinese light-skinned wealthy and native dark-skinned poor, everyone else seems oblivious to it.

And so we bid a fond farewell to plucky little Cambodia, with its 10% annual GDP growth, crumbling colonial architecture, corrupt government half-controlled from Beijing, children picking through piles of trash, the heart-warming sight (as in Vietnam) of French people having to speak English, and a small but growing population of ambitious and bright folk with enough disposable income to plan what electronic appliance to buy next. Another bit of Southeast Asia succumbs to brands, processed cheese and traffic jams.

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19 Responses to Parking in the living room with Cambodia’s middle class (2)

  1. I thought your pizza looked like a meeting of the Kowloon Cultural Hub planning committee.

    Can you please put parental advisories at the top of the page before subjecting us to this kind of disturbing food porn?

    Here in Hong Kong, the SCMP has asked Edward Snowden for a refund as what he says is so bleedin’ obvious.

    Internationally, the SUN in UK leads with DIRTY DIGGER DUMPS DENG.

    Bon voyage de retour!

  2. maugrim says:

    Cambodia always reminded me of how Asian cities ‘used to be’, even up until fairly recently. For example, I can’t get over how much Bangkok has changed. However as pointed out (by Hemlock? Im not so sure, writing styles seem to change somewhat, occasionally) there is a seedy element there that has always been unfortunately ignored. Wistfulness about develpment aside, the crappy pizza, the Mc Donalds, the 711s, this is what we have and this is what others also want. Can we truly deny them the right to fake cheese and artificial flavours?

  3. Oneleggoalie says:

    French people forced to speak English…ok Oneleg stands wobbly but corrected…The place does not suck…

  4. Sir Crispin says:

    “Little motor bikes can carry a surprisingly sizable family”

    You mean like this (Vietnam rather than Cambodia):

  5. Local Tax Payer says:

    maugrim, I think Hemlock was a bit under the weather yesterday, but has now triumphantly returned to his usual mordant style.

    Bela, I prefer Dirty Digger Dings Deng.

    Hemlock, It’s easy when you’re rich and educated to disdain the unsophisticated delights and prefer traditional Chinese architecture, Shanghai dumplings and road-pricing, but in a lawless, crowded, unstable, multiply-invaded country, the parvenus may be right to want to keep it simple.

    You know you’ve been here too long when everyone looks Asian.

    All, A whole series of column writers in the SCUMP have moaned that, although Chinese or at least Asian, certain HKers are subtly or unsubtly excluding them, even calling some of them evil foreign unpersons. Is it just me, or is there a delightful irony in such a realisation?

  6. Wanchai Dreamer says:

    Of course, some things never change:

    “In India, 43.5 per cent said they did not want someone of a different race as their neighbour. In Jordan it was 51.4 per cent, while in Hong Kong and Bangladesh, over 70 per cent said someone of a different race was their biggest concern in a neighbour.”


    I much prefer Deng Dings Dirty Digger!

  7. Statistician says:

    That article was debunked long ago. The result of the survey was mistranslated – 71.8% of Hongkongers are willing to have neighbours of different origins.

  8. Funboy3 says:

    Dirty Digger Ditches Deng?

  9. sojourner says:

    And yet just a few years back it was …..Dirty Digger Digs Deng.

    It is always saddening to see a beautiful marriage end like this. My heart goes out to them both.

  10. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Cobber capitalist cuckolded by bloodsucking “beauty” bride banging Blair?

  11. Real Tax Payer says:

    I went to Cambodia / Myanmar in the mid- 1980’s when there was a brief opening up window

    We stayed at what turned out to be a private home / turned guest house, close to the golden pagoda.

    I had to shower outside with cold water ( but at least I could shower) … but actually I remember one time there was no water so we all showered in the rain outside in our undies !

    I forget how I crapped and cleaned up

    Petrol was sold in plastic drinking water bottles

    And everyone was digging into the garbage piles for anything of possible value

    So how has Myanmar advanced in the past 20 + years?

    Answer ZERO ( so it seems )

    How has China developed in the past 20 + years ?

  12. Local Tax Payer says:

    ‘doch’s Dong Dongs Dong?

  13. Local Tax Payer says:

    RTP, Er… Hemlock went to Kampuchea, not Burma.

  14. Joe Blow says:

    RTP, are you sure it wasn’t the 1880s, knowing that you are getting on a bit ?

  15. Sojourner says:

    @ Local Tax Payer

    If Hemlock went to Kampuchea he must have travelled by time machine. Kampuchea ceased to exist in 1979 following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

    And if he had been deposited there by said time machine I doubt he would have survived long enough to regale us with his escapades.

  16. Old Timer says:

    “I forget how I crapped and cleaned up.”

    And yet somehow, that’s STILL too much information.

  17. Sojourner says:

    @LTP, I stand corrected.

  18. Local Tax Payer says:

    S, You’re right really: these names change so often that we should probably just stick to the age-old ones.

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