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While on the flight from Taipei to Phnom Penh I meet a stoutly Californian, owner of a dirt bike rental tour company in Cambodia. His clienteles consist mostly Austrians and Europeans; an average cost for a 5-7 day tour package is around $2,500. Over the past 5 years, he has flown to Cambodia numerous times and was will to offer kindly insights on Cambodian culture.

First insight – LIFE IS CHEAP IN CAMBODIA, be careful where you go! He explains that if a car hits a person and that person survives, the driver of the car is responsible for the medical bill, which can be in the upwards of 100k. But if a car hits a person and that person dies then the driver is only fine 2k. If drivers hit pedestrians, they have a financial interest to finish off the victim and that’s why life is cheap in Cambodia. A life is only worth $2k, a little less than one of his touring package.

Second insight – Cambodia has a beautiful culture but their priorities are backward. He said Cambodian would rather spend $700 on cell phone rather than basic need items. He said that a person might not have a pair of shoes, but they have cell phone. He doesn’t know why Cambodian priorities are backward, may it has something to do with the Khmer Rouge genocide. I really did understand the logic of his argument but I was tired so I didn’t ask for an explanation.

Many years ago I read a novel call “The Street” by Ann Petry. In it, the main character, Lutie, tries to escape the poor streets of Harlem. She barely scraps by, saving as much or little as she can, but always falling behind. In the novel she does something particular, she spends some money going to a club to have a drink. I think the author, Ann Petry, is trying to show that Luties’ need to escape the daily grind of poverty by going to the club is a basic human need.

The average Cambodian income is $100/month, military servants salary starts at $100/month, primary school teachers $150/month and college professor $200-$300/month. A girl working at the local Spa makes less than $70/month. Cambodia is poor! You can smell poverty the minute you get off the plane. For people living in poverty, especially when it’s almost a whole country, basic needs are not limited to food, shelter and water. The need to escape the constant grind of poverty is also basic need.

A cell phone is not just a phone for people living in poverty. It’s a vehicle to escape the daily grind of poverty; weather it’s 5 minutes talk time, 20 minutes watching videos or 1 hour playing games; they all provide distractions from the daily grind of poverty, and that’s why people in 3rd world county value cell phones as their basic needs. It’s the same reason Lutie visits the club, in “The Street.” And that’s what the man who owns the dirt bike touring company doesn’t understand, a poor society does not value life any less than a rich society, nor do they have their priorities backward, but they’re just poor, the poverty shape their being.   So the next time I see Cambodians by the streets of Phnom Penh, selling merchandise with phones costing 3 times as much as mine I’ll try to be more understanding and less judgmental.

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