It’s the economy STUPID!

My first 2 nights in India I stayed with Aman, a Sikh extended family; three generations all living in a 4 stories house. Bottom floor is family tailor shop, second floor are the parents, third floor lives the brother, and the fourth floor is Aman, his wife, and his child. The tailor shop is small, specializing in wedding clothing.   Aman and his wife shows me a traditional Indian wedding dress, it weighs around 15 lb. One has to be truly in love to wear one this dress for the entire wedding. I asked Aman how long a traditional India wedding last? “As long as the budget will allow” – he replies. I laugh, dismissing as a joke.

Later that night when we return from a Sikh temple the streets by Aman house is closed off for a wedding. People are singing, dancing and playing loud music. I asked him if this is a common practice, he said yes. I ask him if it was legal for them to close the streets. He said “No, but if you call the cops they will just bribe the officer.” So just wait and they will get tired. The music played on until 2:30am. That morning I asked him if they are going to close the streets again tonight. “Yes,” he responds, it will last about 3 to 4 days until they run out money. I suddenly realize he was not joking! Then he said: “Let’s hope they don’t take out any loans.”

“The Street” by Phnom Penh


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. Search for free international people search.

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 a cell phone rather than basic need items. He said that a person might not have a pair of shoes, but they have a cell phone. He doesn’t know why Cambodian priorities are backward, may it has something to do with the Khmer Rouge genocide. I really didn’t 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 called “The Street” by Ann Petry. In it, the main character, Lutie, tries to escape the poor streets of Harlem. She barely scraps, 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 a 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; whether 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.

El Local Phnom Penh

wp-1458861864961.jpgIn the US, Asian cuisine mixes together, grouped into one, and it looses the authenticity. Korean Kiamichi, Japanese Soup with some Cambodian style friend rice are examples of Asian US meal. It’s hard to understand or appreciate foods until you go to the visit the county and try the food yourself. For example, I didn’t understand Cambodian cuisine when I was in the US; when I had it in Cambodia, I finally understood it. Take breakfast, traditional serve porridge rice with some dried fishes. In the US the dried fishes are stale and very salty. But in Cambodia they buy the fish fresh and dry it for only about a day and then cook it. The flavors are totally different, somewhere in between and fresh and dry; crunchy outside and fresh flavorful instead, akin to a good stake.
The fresh ingredients are such a huge part of they way Cambodians cook, they go shopping for the ingredients everyday, fish, pork, beef, vegetables, etc., and it’s this fresh LOCAL ingredients that cannot be replicated; it can only be experience visiting the country.
I had three meals from 3 different places, home cook meal from Cambodian house, small local restaurant and western style buffet. In all three places the food was fresh, they were simple and good, even though they all had a different flavors. For example the home cook had simple flavors, nothing too overwhelming, the local restaurants had a bolder flavors, still very good. The western style had really mild taste, but it was clean. All three places use local ingredients; even though they had different flavors they all had a common thread that made them Cambodian cuisine.


Cambodia Architectural: Outsider Perspective Of Space

cambodian houses
upper view from a Cambodian house

One of the features that amazed me about the houses in Cambodia is their height. For example, the house I stayed was 3 stories and height of the foyer was about 15 feet. The top floor was another 15 feet. The stairs have no concept of “gentle incline”, they are steep, it reminded me of ancient Angkor Temples. It took me a couple of days to get use to the stairs. We went into a restaurant and the upper part of the restaurant was basically a 12ft ladder, nailed to the wall.
When I first say Angkor Wat, it felt that the temple was framing or trying to capture the sky. It was similar to feeling I got when a saw the cathedrals in France. This is what I saw in the design of the homes in Cambodia. From that perspective you can see the beauty in the design.
Many of the houses I saw had the similar designs; it had the living room or foyer in front, kitchen and dining area in the back and the living quarters up stairs. The houses can easily be converted into a shop or business in the front and living area and the resident can live in the back and the top of the houses. That’s what many of the people did; they open a shop in their living room and lived upstairs. I was in the residential are and I saw many small shops, which use to be the living room, selling anything from shoes, bags, fruits, salons services, etc. Next door from where I was staying in Phnom Phen was a beauty salon, around the corner was a vibrant market ally which even had a small shop for everything, even a pizza shop.
Cambodian housing architectural seem to be a marriage of tradition and practicality. The tradition of capturing the open space and utilitarian needs for make money. The marriage I so embedded into the society it is almost impossible to separate the two.

1st night in Phnom Penh

Jet lag,  sleep deprived,  stomach ache,  first day in Phnom Phen and guess what was for dinner at the local eatery?   Go head guess!   Wrong!  freaking turtles! Prepared in ginger sauce server with the shell on the side with  beer which people drank with a straw.   So what do Cambodians do after eating a turtle and drink beer out of its shell with a straw,
that’s right they go to the spa and massage parlor.