koh kong town – Kim Sarith likes a Cambodian haircut, but the 37-year-old barber offers his clients wide options.
On the wall of his shop in this backwater coastal town, he has posted yellowing mug shots of a spectrum of styles, evoking everything from a 1980s US rock star to a dodgy villain in a Hong Kong gangster film from the same era.
Dominating the display, however, are two large photos of Thai film stars. As Kim Sarith points out, the style is distinguishably Thai because of the long sideburns.
For Kim Sarith, who keeps his hair closely cropped on the sides and back, it is merely another way to cut hair.
“We’re not concerned about it,” he said.
The idea that Thai culture, from popular style to contentious history textbooks, is suffocating Khmer heritage has gained currency as a main reason that a group of raging Cambodians torched the Thai Embassy and pillaged Thai-owned businesses in Phnom Penh last year. The rioting and looting on the night of Jan 29 did not stop until more than $50 million in damage was done.
Ironically, Thai influence—economic, cultural and political—is heavier here and in the northwest than any other region in the country. The Thai baht dominates the riel and the US dollar. The markets stock Thai produce and commercial products, and the Thai language is plastered on business signs and can be heard in the streets.
The stream of Thai goods into the country mostly goes to Battambang town, including the books and magazines at a shop owned by Cambodian Reasmei Dara.
Reasmei Dara, 35, shut down his business for a few days after the anti-Thai riots last year out of fear his stall would be attacked. The riots had no violent repercussions in Battambang, but Reasmei Dara said sales of Thai publications have dropped dramatically since that time.
“Most of my old clients disappeared,” he said. “Maybe they hate the Thais.”
Teacher Ruob Pharoth, 21, said she still frequents the shop to pick up some reading material. Though she reads the Thai publications, she called last year’s riots “really good.”
“It produced a good result, of not supporting the Thai-made movies,” she said. “That riot has shown that Khmer people love our own culture, and that Khmer children love and are willing to support the culture.”
Koh Kong province not only has Thai goods, but family ties as well. Thais and Cambodians commingle and whatever tension there is between the two peoples is buried under day-to-day interaction.
When the riots erupted in Phnom Penh, “here nothing happened,” said Kim Sarith, the barber, whose wife is part-Thai. “Thai people here are OK. The riots had nothing to do with us.”
Chan Tha, a teacher, wishes they had. When she arrived in Koh Kong from the capital more than 20 years ago, she was shocked that most of her Cambodian students preferred to speak Thai.
She put a stop to it, slapping a 500 riel fine on anyone who uttered a Thai word in her classroom.
“That was my rule,” Chan Tha, 56, now says proudly.
Chan Tha clearly says that she considers Thailand bad for her country. She blames the Thais for dumping expired and shoddy products into Cambodian markets, for arrogance and for igniting an illegal drug problem that has deranged thousands of Cambodian youths.
Her passion for the issue is in stark contrast to the predominantly easy-going nature in Koh Kong, where Thai films continued to play on television, even as they disappeared from the capital. If the people here were more educated, she said, they would care as much.
“The common people, they don’t mind, but I feel angry,” Chan Tha said. “Usually when Thais do business here, they take advantage of Cambodians.”