kompong thom town – It doesn’t look like an Internet cafe. The sign in front identifies the narrow cornerside business only as a pharmacy.
But inside, physician Chan Chamnap operates the first, and so far only Internet connection available in this small provincial capital. The desktop computer sits on a table behind the pharmacy counter, accompanied by a printer.
When there’s a guest who wants to e-mail or surf the Web, Chan Chamnap grabs his mobile phone and quickly sets it up to connect the computer with the Internet.
“The Internet helps bring the world outside down to a computer, where people can explore and share information with each other,” he said. He uses it to e-mail friends in England and other countries.
Cambodia’s rural provinces, marked by poverty and isolation, have taken a step toward the 21st century with the arrival of the Internet. While it is not yet widely used by local villagers, it is now available in several provincial capitals.
A trip through the six provinces around the Tonle Sap lake found Internet access available in all of them—Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang. The Internet cafes seemed all the more remarkable for their contrast with the rice fields, often just a short distance away, where farmers tilled the fields with oxen and handmade plows, using much the same methods they have for hundreds of years.
Chan Chamnap said he set up his connection more than a year ago, after a few foreign tourists staying in a nearby hotel inquired about e-mail.
“I thought there would probably be more foreigners visiting here or coming through town who would want the same thing,” he said.
“Living on just one kind of business, like my pharmacy, is not good. I want to earn more income for my family,” he added.
So far, business has been slow. Chan Chamnap said only about 10 people use his computer every month.
No local people use the facility because they are too poor to afford access and don’t know how to use it. The rate for one hour is $4, the physician said.
Chan Chamnap said he would type a one-page Khmer-language text and send it by e-mail for a local person for 3,000 riel (about $0.75).
The Internet has sprung up in new places throughout Cambodia spontaneously for the most part—the work of individual entrepreneurs responding to current or future demand. In Siem Reap town, flooded with foreign tourists visiting the Angkor temples and anxious to write home, many Internet cafes have opened, with rates around $1 per hour.
Battambang town, which accommodates a number of foreigners working with NGOs and few backpacking through, has a few cafes. Kompong Thom, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces have just one in their respective towns.
Among the six Tonle Sap provinces, the only Internet shop in Pursat has the most expensive rate. Suon Praneth, owner of the Pursat photocopy and Internet shop, charges $7 per hour, compared to $4 in Battambang and Kompong Thom.
Suon Praneth said no foreigner had ever used the connection. “I opened this Internet access because I thought people might want to communicate with their friends or family in Phnom Penh or in foreign countries,” she said.
So far, the Internet is not good business—she makes much more money photocopying documents and producing letters and invitations. But she hopes it will soon take off.
In Poipet, the owner of the biggest bookstore and computer shop plans to set up the first Internet connection in the near future, targeting the hundreds of gamblers who stream in daily.
It’s not clear whether these provinces will follow Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, where a few start-up cafes quickly spawned dozens of imitators. In Phnom Penh, prices have come down from about $8 per hour in 1998 to as little as 2,000 riel ($0.50) per hour today, with local youths using the Internet for everything from school research to pictures of pop stars.
But Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are heavily touristed and comparatively wealthy. In provinces populated by largely illiterate people, clearly, the Internet may take longer to catch on.
Bill Herod, manager of Khmer Internet Development Services in Phnom Penh, has been lobbying NGOs and donors for more than a year to help set up free, public Internet access.
Herod’s idea is to start a program that would help small business owners in rural areas offer Internet, charging foreigners for access but making it free for public institutions and teachers.
Herod believes the Internet has the potential to be a valuable tool in broadening people’s horizons. But NGOs are not interested in the idea, he said.
“The Internet is an important tool for the development of the economy, democracy, human rights and so on,” Herod said. “For example…farmers could search for practical information on farming or markets for their products.”