Friday, December 26, 2008

Horse (and souls) for sale in Cambodia

I was dismayed to learn on Monday that Isabell, the vet we see, has decided to go home to Germany in March. She will be leaving with her husband Kai and their Jack Russell terrier, Yoyo.

Unfortunately, she is unable to take her Cambodian horse home with her, so is planning to sell it. She tells me horses go for USD1-3k here. Currently Izzie’s horse lives on the Happy Ranch.

The first time we met a year ago Izzie and Kai had already wanted to leave, but they had decided to stay on for the sake of Yoyo. Yoyo is more than 10 years old and they were worried quarantine would be hard on her. But now it seems she does not have to be on quarantine, as long as she is certified healthy and lives for an extra three months in Cambodia after the papers are submitted to the relevant EU bodies.

Izzie said it was time to go home. “Seven years in Cambodia is enough, too long.” When they first arrived, people were friendly and kind, she said, “Now, all they want is money.”

It is something I have heard before. Travellers who have been to Siem Reap before tell me how the place has changed, how the people have changed, with the tourist boom. People here have become greedy and money-minded.

Of course Khmers are not unique in this regard. Recently I was talking to the husband of a Bloom customer. This couple live in Patmos in Greece, famous for its monastery which was declared a Unesco heritage site in 1999. When the tourists starting pouring in, the town’s people and character changed. “It’s all about money now. It’s criminal, I tell you, to buy something for one or two dollars and sell it for twenty dollars,” thundered the husband.

I told him I don’t think prices are marked up that high in Siem Reap, but he said one child book-seller tried to sell him a book for USD20. (The books sold by street-sellers are all “copy books”, some say fake books, meaning they are photostatted, or Xeroxed, copies of original books. There is no way any of them would be valued at USD20, more than what most of the originals would cost! As a matter of fact, the book-sellers buy them for between USD2 and USD3.50 each from a large bookstore here. A fair price would be between USD4 and USD7, which is what Douk sells them for.)

I said that USD20 is outrageous. He nodded vigorously and complained, “They think we tourists are stupid! They must think we are stupid!”

I met another woman, from France, who came on a three-week trip, to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. She was here on research: her husband is a pediatrician in Australia and she came to see if her family could move to Cambodia where her husband’s skills could be used. She had such a bad time in Cambodia, her answer is: ‘No’.

I asked why. She said everywhere she went, people tried to rip her off. She never got an honest price. Even a Cambodian friend-of-a-friend ripped her off, charging her USD20 for half a day to the main temples (usual price: USD15 for a whole day).

It got so bad that this lady would not take any tuk-tuks or even buy from local shops. She would walk everywhere and patronise only foreign-run establishments. She said she just did not want to have any dealings with the Khmers.

More recently Alan and I had dinner with Jim, a traveller from Australia who lives on boats. He loves Thailand and spent a week in Cambodia on route to Laos, where he planned to stay for a month. He, too, found Cambodians very pushy and aggressive in touting their services. If they hassled tourists less, more would visit, he said. “The Thais have learnt to be more relaxed, if we buy, we buy, if we don’t, they don’t bother us. I wonder if Cambodians will learn this.”

My experience is a little different. Of course, living in Siem Reap means I am subjected to the same touting: “tuk-tuk, madam”, “you buy book, madam”, “massage, madam” etc etc. And convenience stores routinely shortchange customers here because most tourists cannot be bothered with the riel, the “small money”, allowing the cashiers to “keep the change”, so to speak.

For me, I realised Cambodians were becoming greedy and money-minded even while I was living in Phnom Penh. There was a discernible change within a year from relocating to Phnom Penh from Singapore in June 2006.

By chance, I had moved to Cambodia at a time when the country was experiencing very good economic growth. The economy grew by 10.75% in 2007 and 13.5% in 2006 according to the IMF, and many Cambodians I knew in Phnom Penh were talking about so-and-so earning USD600, USD1000 a month, made tens of thousands from selling their property, etc etc. There was much envy and jealousy. People who, only a year ago, would have been grateful to have a job, now wanted more pay, more perks. They wanted to share in this booming economy.

I pointed this out to Srey Roth, who was working at the Bloom shop then. For months Roth and Sipha would bug me to buy the shop in the Russian Market. They used to gang up to tell me about how we would make more money if only we owned the shop, instead of renting it.

It is such a silly idea I get tired just thinking about it. In the first place, at that point, property prices were already very high. If I wanted to invest in property, I had missed the boat. Secondly, it would not be a good investment parking Bloom’s money in the shop for goodness knows how long when that money would be better spent on the business, which could generate better returns and more importantly, cash flow. But the main reason I don't want to buy property here is because gambling on property is not the reason I came here: If I wanted to make money that way, I could have stayed in Singapore.

I tried explaining all this to the two women, but they thought I was being stupid with my money. Their thinking is: you will never lose money on property. Try telling that to people around the world who owe more in mortgage than what their property can sell for and those who bought property at peak bubble prices and will never see their property worth as much again.

I’ve said this before: the problem with this country is it has only see growth since the 1990s. They have only seen prices rise, not fall. The ordinary Cambodian does not know what a bubble is and when I try to explain to them, they do not believe me. What they believe is what they see, and they will quickly learn, next year, when property prices come crashing down.

Anyway, I said that to Roth that I had noticed Cambodians becoming more and more obsessed with money, to the point where they do not want to work for their money, but come up with all sorts of get-rich-quick schemes. Obsessing about money is not good, I told her, because you lose sight on what is important in life. You should not sell your soul just to get rich.

Roth pursed her lips, as she does when she disagrees with me. She said, loudly, defensively, what is wrong with wanting to be rich? People everywhere in the world want to be rich. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich; “It’s not like we kill people,” she said.

Roth is a funny person. Unlike Sipha, Roth has never hid the fact she likes money. She used to tell me frequently, “I love money”. I am very fond of Roth, because she is so honest and charming. Unlike Sipha, who hid her avarice and eventually was caught stealing from Bloom, Roth is dead honest. I used to take her out all the time, for shopping and meals. Our favourite haunt was Super Pencil mall near the riverside in Phnom Penh where we scored USD2 bargains on jeans and shoes. On my last trip to Singapore, I even bought Roth a Vidal Sassoon electric hair straightener because she would spend a fortune on that at the hairdressers.

Roth left to go to Malaysia to work as a domestic helper in August this year because she worked out she could save much more money that way, since as a live-in helper, living expenses are taken care of. Her dream is to open a business when she returns. I will definitely help her, if I am still in Cambodia by that time. We had worked together in Bloom for over a year and Roth called me once to ask how Bloom was coming along. She still sends me messages occasionally. Her last one was how much she misses Khmer food and how she has already lost 4kgs.

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