Paradoxes in the Kingdom of Wonder PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 29 August 2011 14:34


PHNOM PENH — On this trip I travelled to Phnom Penh with a Japanese friend who works for Toyota in Japan. In previous trips I had already observed the number of Toyota cars- mainly Lexus and Camry- running around in Phnom Penh’s roads. I had told my Japanese friend about this observation. When she was here she realized I was not exaggerating  and also took as accurate what a local friend said: Cambodia is Toyota country. It is not simply that one car company obviously dominates the market ; one can always say that the sales people of Toyota are a hard-driving team. But what someone has to explain to me convincingly is how so many can afford the Lexus, which in my informal count comes up to about a fifth of the number of cars running around. I regularly am fetched and brought back to the house in a Lexus SUV belonging to my host here. If I sound like I am bragging perhaps it is because this will be the only time I can ever say that I ride around in a Lexus since I don’t think I can ever afford to buy one for myself.

I have been told that most of the cars are previously owned units that are brought in mainly from the US. This can be seen by the fact that most of the cars, the greater majority, are the standard right-hand drive models- which are standard for the US but not for Japan. Although previously owned these are not clunkers but shiny models less than 10 years old. There are also other car brands, like Honda CRVs, but these are a small minority.

In my mind the Lexus is associated with the really moneyed. I would expect then that anyone coming out of a Lexus , if it is not the driver,  would be someone dressed for power – dark suit, Italian shoes, etc. Very often there is an anachronism. Instead of “power dressing”, the  someone who emerges may be in sandals or the “tsinelas” type of footwear that is commonly worn here by men. But of course,  in long sleeved shirt and perhaps a tie. I am told that the long-sleeved shirt is actually because of the intense heat of the sun in the country. The sleeves cut down exposure of the arms to the sun.

Some of the private residences here are so large and so massive in the construction materials used that it would not be very far off to simply call them palatial,  in the real  sense of the word. There is one such residence along one of the main boulevards of the city of Phnom Penh, owned by the owner of a bank, that has been in construction for something like 7 years, or so I am told. I jokingly refer to it as the local Buckingham Palace.

In many ways Cambodia is a paradox. It is one of the poorest countries in the region but the number of shiny cars on its roads belie this. In the early 1980s there was supposed to have been only one high school in the whole country. Now, there are 70 post-secondary schools or colleges/universities for a nation with about 14 million people.

More in my next piece.