Toyota’s Land Cruiser was once the undisputed king of luxury vehicles in Cambodia. Brought here in huge numbers during the Untac period in the early 1990s, thousands of white Land Cruisers tooled around a potholed countryside bringing foreign development workers to a still traumatized rural populace.
While “stakeholders,” “gender proofing” and “capacity building” led to some head-scratching among those early audiences, the presence alone of the shiny Land Cruiser spoke volumes. The chauffeur-driven UN Land Cruisers with their go-anywhere four-wheel drive and noisy air-conditioning symbolized to many of Cambodia’s wealthy what owning four wheels was all about.
Soon to be the preferred car of the corrupt, the legit, politicians and Phnom Penh’s nouveau riche, the Land Cruiser was coveted for its sheer bulk, not its off-road performance.
With mechanical utility taking a further backseat to prestige in the 2000s, the blocky Land Cruiser of the UN period was traded up for the altogether more luxurious Lexus, with its VV8 engine, tan leather upholstery, and onboard navigation system.
Muscular Hummers, pimped and chromed, and stocky Chevrolets hit a brief popularity some years back, along with the soccer-mom Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X6.
Now the vehicular pecking order has changed yet again as Cambodia’s rich are taking to the Range Rover like their parents did to the Land Cruiser, forking over sums in excess of $100,000 in exchange for a car that makes a statement.
Branded on the lifestyle of pheasant shooting and fox hunting in a John Constable rendering of English countryside, the Range Rover is an icon of old-school wealth and a landed aristocracy. Although it is no longer owned by its original British maker, the brand conjures up a vision of cashmere sweaters, chocolate Labradors and a double-barreled Winchester rifle.
“Whoever drives a Land Rover is a rich person,” said Vanna Peo, who owns a restaurant in Phnom Penh, and bought a 2006 Range Rover last month for $65,000.
Ms Peo said she mostly wanted a Range Rover because it is an obvious symbol of wealth.
It was her girlfriend’s dream car too, she said, noting that wealth and safety were married in the Range Rover’s many features, particularly the car’s many airbags.
“It isn’t like the other cars,” she said. “When I drive fast it makes me feel safe.” She added that her black Range Rover’s heavy frame and the comfortable ride the car provides give her confidence as she cruises the streets of Phnom Penh.
Naing Sokey, owner of Tang Meng Ly Jewelry Shop near Central Market, made the switch from a Lexus to a red 2006 Range Rover last year. He said the red color is unique because it isn’t yet available in Cambodia–he shipped his Range Rover here from Germany. “In Cambodia right now there are only four or five there are red, the rest are all white or black,” he added.
“It’s safer for you to drive,” he said. “Before I drove a Range Rover I used to drive a Lexus, and after…about a year I found it’s really better. The problem is the spare parts for a Range Rover are very expensive.”
Seng Takaka Neary, who owns Sentosa Silk on Sothearos Boulevard in Phnom Penh, spent $120,000 on her black 2010 Range Rover.
“Every street when we drive we see each other,” she said of other Range Rover owners. “The people, maybe they like the fashion…. I don’t know for others, but for me it’s something updated.”
Although Ms Neary wasn’t too concerned with the technical aspects of her vehicle, she said she chose the color for a reason. “Black is a VIP color, but it doesn’t stand out as much,” she said. “If I use another color somebody will look at me, and for security reasons I didn’t choose white.”
In 2005, Finn Gundersen opened Envotech, the only licensed Land Rover retailer in Cambodia, and this April he followed up with a new Land Rover showroom on Highway 6 near Phnom Penh. (The Land Rover company makes a variety of four-wheel drive vehicles, including the eponymous Land Rover and its pricier cousin, the Range Rover.)
The business has now seen three times as many sales from April through July of this year than it did in the same period last year.
One Envotech customer, Phat, who declined to give his full name, owns a 2008 Range Rover and said he saw the vehicle as a sign of power. “It’s very famous, also very expensive,” said Phat, who is an employee at Cambodia’s KT Pacific Group.
“The car has been famous for a long time already… especially in the US. People begin to drive the Range Rover [here] now because the engine is good, it’s stable, more security.”
Before Mr Gundersen opened his dealership in 2005, two other licensed Land Rover retailers in Cambodia had closed down. But he was determined to succeed despite the doubts of his friends and family. “When I started to sell Land Rovers…everybody said I’m crazy because it didn’t work for two other companies, why should it work for you?” he said.
So Mr Gundersen set out to generate popularity for a vehicle that can cost up to $200,000 in a country where the per capita GDP in 2008 was just $768, according to UN statistics.
Luckily for Mr Gundersen it has worked, and he attributes his persistence in the Land Rover business to his Norwegian heritage. “I’m a stupid Viking,” he said with a laugh. “When we start something we never give up…we go for it 100 percent.”
He said that many Cambodians like to add video screens for backseat passengers, special rims and body kits to their Range Rovers, which raise the price substantially. The most expensive Range Rover, the $200,000 Autobiography, already comes with the most lavish features, such as 20-inch alloy wheels in three styles, heating and cooling built into the front and back seats, all of which recline. Customers can choose between several types of air suspension.
According to Ly Bunhay, sales and marketing general manager for Toyota in Phnom Penh, a new Land Cruiser bought at the dealership can cost up to $124,000. Although there is no official Lexus dealership in Cambodia, a 2011 Lexus SUV can be bought for close to $170,000. Mr Bunhay added that the Toyota dealership has sold twice as many Land Cruisers this year compared to last year.
When Mr Gundersen opened his business, Land Rover requested that he sell 100 cars in his first year, but he negotiated for a lower number because Land Rovers were so new to Cambodia. He knew the vehicles would take time to catch on, even though he said Cambodia was in need of four-wheel drive vehicles at the time.
“I said to Land Rover ‘Hey, if you want something to grow, you need to put the seed in the soil,'” he added. “That seed has been growing…and we are doing pretty well. Of course we want to sell more.”
While the seed has been growing, Mr Gundersen said he has also seen a shift in the type of demand for Land Rovers. People want the expensive vehicles now so that they can follow trends, not out of any need to drive off-road or in difficult conditions.
According to Mr Gundersen, Cambodians buy 90 percent of the Land Rovers he sells. “It’s the upper class in Cambodia buying these kind of cars, there’s no doubt,” Mr Gundersen said. “They are not cheap.” Range Rovers, the most expensive vehicle he sells, are also the most popular.
But for the most part, Cambodians seem to accept the cost of spare parts in exchange for the Range Rover’s bulk and glamour.
“I am not handsome, so I don’t feel like a movie star when I’m driving my Range Rover, but this car is sturdy and easy to drive,” said Mr Sokey, the jewelry shop owner. “I won’t be driving anything but a Range Rover anytime soon.”