Villagers Dazzled by Lifestyle of Capital’s ‘Rich’

A 6-year-old boy from Kom­pong Cham province stood mo­tion­less, transfixed in front of a $5,000, 107-cm plasma flat-screen television with ice cream dripping down his arm at Sorya Shopping Center’s K Four Group electronics store on Wednesday.

“All these things are so nice,” said the boy’s aunt, Lang Sovy, 27. “I just brought my nephew to see it.”

But she, like many villagers at the mall visiting Phnom Penh for the Water Festival, said she felt the goods were too expensive for her to do anything but window-shop.

“There is nothing here for me to buy,” Kompong Cham prov­ince farmer Choy Ros said. “I just want to look and be happy.”

She added that flooding de­stroyed her rice crop in Srei San­thor district this year, but she borrowed about $15 from neighbors so her family could come to see Phnom Penh for the first time.

“If I have food, I share, and if I don’t have any, my neighbors share with me,” she said. “People in Phnom Penh have good food when they return home from work. They ride in nice cars, and we ride in carts or on buffaloes’ backs.”

Despite Choy Ros’ sense that the capital is getting richer while the countryside is being left be­hind, she seemed pleased to ex­perience the modern convenien­ces of the city.

“I have never used an escalator before. It was so good,” she said, adding that she loved the air conditioning. “I am so excited and so cold,” she said.

Squatting at the entrance to Lucky Supermarket as people  weaved around her, Kandal prov­ince seamstress Chea Sopheap, who attends the festival every year, didn’t seem surprised by much.

But the contrast between city and country life was still sharp, she said.

“In the countryside we don’t have air conditioning. Electricity is so expensive we don’t even use a fan,” she said.

“Electricity is a lot cheaper here. In the countryside it costs 3,000 riel per kilowatt, and it’s not 24 hours a day. The generator starts at night, so I can watch my color TV.”

She laughed when told about an announcement earlier this month by the World Bank that Cam­­bodian poverty had dropped considerably since 1993.

At an up­beat press conference in Phnom Penh, the World Bank had de­clared that the number of people living on less than $0.50 a day had fallen from 47 percent of the population in 1993 to 35 percent.

“With 2,000 riel per day [roughly the equivalent of $0.50], how can we buy things?” Chea Sop­heap asked. “One egg costs 500 riel. I spend 1,000 riel per day for my son to have lessons. Fish costs 10,000 riel per kilogram.”

On the mall’s rooftop terrace, 76-year-old Pann Hing rested from her first visit to Phnom Penh with fellow Kampot prov­ince villagers gazing at the view of the sprawling capital below.

“We are poor people, so we are not the same as people here. We can survive from catching the snails in the rice fields,” she said. “Living in Kampot is like closing your eyes and living in the dark, so we cannot compare with people here. Being rich you can see everything very bright.”

“I can see so many things here, it is like I am a child again I am so happy,” she said. “It is both beautiful and scary.”

The scariest thing in Sorya seemed to be the escalators, which were periodically struck by traf­fic jams when someone froze at the threshold, watching their friends or family ahead of them ascending and unsuccessfully coaxing them forward.

Those who did get on often did so with trepidation, nervously giggling as they wavered back and forth and held onto neighbors for support.

“I use the normal stairs,” said Chiv Ngorn, a 55-year-old from Kampot’s Kompong Trach district. “I am afraid [the escalator] might hurt my feet.”

For Kampot province farmer Kong Horl, 39, it was the bustling throngs of revelers that proved the biggest surprise.

“My first impression about Phnom Penh is that there are so many people,” he said. “It is strange for me.”

Luun Sitha, a 24-year-old primary school teacher from Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, was most surprised by the noise on her first visit.

“In the countryside it is very quiet,” she said. “It’s only noisy at night when there’s dancing at the pagoda.”

Expensive or not, Luun Sitha was determined to bring a souvenir home to Kandal.

“I am poor, so if I want to buy something, maybe I can only buy some cheap clothes,” she said. “I’ve come all this way already.”


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