Spinning for Profit

Bicycle Vendors Offer Disco With Their Wares

prey kabbas district, Takeo Province – These days even the sleepiest villages in this section of rural Takeo throb to the beat of disco or the tender crooning of traditional Khmer song.

Wherever the music is heard, there is probably a salesman of­fering anything from fluid for cigarette lighters to ice cream. Stop them, and you can enjoy whatever music you choose for free. But you have to buy what they are selling.

These traveling micro-businesses are being started by poor rice farmers for whom the recent flooding is just the latest financial burden. Taking advantage of the influx of cheap used cassette players and speakers coming onto the Cambodian market, some farmers are becoming musical merchants.

With a small cassette player and a big speak­­er perched on his old bicycle, Chhay Vis­al was playing music one recent morning, trying to lure villagers into having him fill their cigarette lighters.

Nearly 30 km into his daily 50-km ride, he stop­­ped and injected fluid into a woman’s cigarette lighter for 300 riels (about $.08). Chhay Visal had been playing disco until the woman asked him for traditional music instead. So he played a number sung by Sin Sis­amuth, one of Cambodia’s ‘Gol­den Voice’ singers of the 1960s.

The customer, 36-year-old Khmer noodle soup saleswoman Ming La, said she thinks her village is becoming quite up-to-date thanks to this new variety of en­tertainment.

“It is great that I paid 300 riels for a lighter, and I can get one song,” said Ming La, a wid­ow with two children. Unable to afford a radio of her own, she says she no longer wants one, because the traveling music crosses in front of her house many times each day.

Chhay Visal has been pedaling along this 50-km route for five years. He says he is often surrounded by villagers, especially children. He estimates that he averages about 2,000 riel ($0.51) a day and makes 5,000 riel (about $1.28) on his best days.

“This money is very little for my family, just enough for food,” he said.

Chhay Visal believes that if he had no cassette player, he would not make any money. “With this player and speaker, it can make people know about my arrival,” he said. “If I haven’t got it, I have to shout for sales.”

Married with one son, Chhay Visal said he borrowed $70 from relatives to buy the sound system and batteries. He was able to pay it back within one year, he said.

Another lighter-fluid salesman, 23-year-old Heng Phal, also makes music to attract customers. But he said business is not as good for him as it is for those who have products to sell in markets.

“I want to look for a job in Phnom Penh, but I have nowhere to go because I have not any relatives there,” he said. “I have no profit from my business for my piggy bank; it’s just enough for daily living.

“When I fall sick, I always borrow money and pay it back whenever I get back to  work.”

Micro-businesses, with or without music, are multiplying through­­out the provinces as more and more farmers struggle to survive. Takeo farmers can be seen on long bicycle rides selling noodles or whatever recycled goods they can find.

“The lives of farmers in rural areas are miserable,” Ming La said.  “We live every day just [trying to get] food for our mouths.”




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