Don’t call me, Ishmael

August 28, 2015

Well, the game is up. Our revels now are ended. The second shoe has dropped. Starbucks is coming to Cambodia.

The US-based coffee giant has announced it is to open its first outlet at Phnom Penh airport by the end of this year, with plans to open a second store in the city centre by the end of 2016. Starbucks already has more than 22,000 outlets around the world.

Whether Cambodia needs Starbucks is a matter of some debate. There is no shortage of coffee shops in Phnom Penh: there are probably 60 shops within a 15-minute walk of where I sit. Most of them, especially the locally-owned and entirely estimable Brown Coffee, offer a far superior product to Starbucks’s bitter, over-roasted nonsense and expensive and tasteless sandwiches and buns.

Is it a sign of progress that Starbucks is coming? It joins the likes of Costa Coffee, KFC, Burger King and Dairy Queen in clogging the streets, and the arteries, of Phnom Penh. Sure, it’ll provide a few jobs for bored students, but with all the profits winging their way back to the States, does Cambodia need it? A friend of mine used to be friends with Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and would come back from dinner with him raving about his numerous Picassos. Schultz is worth over a billion dollars. I expect Cambodia will propel him even further up the rich list.

A spokesman for the company, with the unwieldy title of Group President, China/Asia Pacific, Channel Development and Emerging Brands, issued a statement saying: “Cambodia is a vibrant country with a rich cultural heritage, and we are proud to bring the unparalleled Starbucks Experience to this market.” Yes, he actually did write “Starbucks Experience.” It makes my soul weep.

A few years ago, The Onion ran a spoof piece on US bookseller Barnes & Noble opening a branch in Cambodia. “Speaking from Barnes & Noble’s New York headquarters, John Day, company vice-president in charge of overseas expansion, said that Cambodia represents an outstanding new market for the book chain. “Cambodia has all the signs of being a book-friendly country,” Day said. “Did you know that only one Cambodian in 10,000 has a television set? That, to me, is the hallmark of a literate culture.””

Now all we need is Macdonald’s to arrive, and we’ll have the full house of soulless corporate behemoths jostling small local businesses aside and expanding their bland cultural hegemony over this once-proud nation. Oh, the joy…

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Welcome, Thunder Dragons!

August 26, 2015

I’m not particularly interested in sports. I maintain a passing interest in the fortunes of the mighty Fulham Football Club and in the England football team. I’ll watch the Ashes, and maybe the Wimbledon final. But otherwise, I find professional sport pointless and boring. In my final year at school, I managed to wrangle playing pool as my option for PE – that was a very good year.

The last time I watched an international football match in the flesh was in Nairobi in about 1987: it was Kenya vs someone like Egypt in the African Cup of Nations. I was travelling around East Africa with a girlfriend, and we thought it would be fun to watch. It was not. Just after half time, all the lights in the stadium went out, and the entire 40,000-strong crowd decided it would be a good idea to start running, en masse, round and round the stadium, in silence. When we managed to make our way out, the fans were rioting, turning over cars and setting them on fire and looting shops. It was a torrid night, to say the least. I don’t know who won, and, quite frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Recently, Cambodia have been doing quite well at football, making it into the second round of the World Cup qualifiers, for the first time ever. So far, they’ve lost to Singapore, 0-4, and Afghanistan. But big crowds have been turning out to watch them, in a triumph of hope over experience for a team rated 180th in the world. So when it was announced that they would play a friendly against Bhutan, I thought I should go and have a look.

Bhutan (population 750,000) are generally rated as the worst team in the world, swapping 209th place occasionally with Montserrat (population 4,500). However, they’ve been on a bit of a streak recently, going up to 164th, after beating Sri Lanka. Since then, they’ve lost 0-6 to China and 0-7 to Hong Kong. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to watch two of the world’s worst teams play each other.

As football matches go, it was pretty tiresome, as was probably to be expected. But the crowds were great: happy, non-violent and sober, unlike back in the UK, and completely lacking the terrible miasma of pies and stale beer that is so prevalent at matches in England. Whole families were there, cheering Cambodia lustily: there was no chanting or swearing, no racist or homophobic insults; just a lot of people cheerfully supporting their national team.

I didn’t see any Bhutan fans in the crowd, probably because there are no Bhutanese living in Cambodia, as far as I know. I was one of the very few non-barang in the stadium, so was interviewed live on national TV, and was able to pontificate on Bhutan’s lack of penetration and how Cambodia should work the channels better, thanks to my sterling work with Angkor Beer.

The Vann Molyvann-designed Olympic Stadium is an impressive sight, although it is supposed to hold 50,000 people, whereas I can’t imagine more than about 15,000 squeezing in. The walkways behind the stands were full of women barbecuing pork and ears of corn, and people selling a large number of heavy wool Cambodia scarves (motto: “You’ll never walk alone”).

Cambodia won, 2-0, and everybody was happy (except me, because I secretly wanted Bhutan to win). Cambodia play Syria next, in early September, and I might well go along to that as well.

Except that I probably won’t, because it’s still pretty boring.

Oh, Canadia!

August 17, 2015

When I first came to Cambodia, in about 2008, I stayed at Raffles, the city’s grandest and most venerable hotel. I had a suite on the second floor, and from my balcony I could look out across the city, and actually see most of it. I couldn’t remember coming across such a low-rise city: most of the buildings were only a few floors high at most.

There was, unusually for a capital city in the twenty-first century, only one skyscraper, the 32-storey Canadia Tower, which was right in the middle of my view. It is not a pretty building: it looks as if someone has rammed a large, square-barreled syringe into the earth.

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Over the years I’ve been here, I’ve come to rather like Canadia Tower. Although it’s an office building, it has almost no tenants. The Cambodian Stock Exchange was located on two floors for a while, and the offices were pleasantly empty, there being only one stock to trade (and practically no one ever did). Once the exchange doubled in size, to two stocks, they moved out into a converted mansion nearby, which I should imagine is still as quiet as a tomb.

But Canadia Tower was, for years, a highly useful landmark in Phnom Penh. You could tumble out of a bar and instantly orient yourself. You could tell tuk-tuk drivers that you were going somewhere near the tower. They would switch the lights on the roof off at 2230hrs, if the geezer at the switch remembered, so you could get a rough idea of the time. From the balcony of my flat, you could watch planes coming in on the Western Track to Poechentong Airport fly at precisely the same spot through the line of the building.

But, as I’ve said before, Phnom Penh is undergoing a property bubble, and high-rises are going up all over the place. Everywhere you look, pretty old houses are being ripped down and ugly multi-storey apartment blocks are going up. There was a lovely little wooden house I looked at the other day with an eye on renting: last week they tore it down and a 10-storey monstrosity is going up in its place.

And just last week, I wandered out onto my balcony to see that a new tower block was about to hide Canadia Tower from my view.

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vatican Tower to the right.)

Bye-bye Canadia Tower! (Vattanac Tower to the right.)

Obviously I’m delighted that Phnom Penh is developing. But I’m still mystified by who’s going to live in all of these apartment blocks. Most Cambodians can’t afford to. People say the Chinese are buying them to rent out, but to rent out to whom? I’ve looked around a few of these developments, and they are, uniformly, grim.

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Copyright: When Asia Meets Asia

Canadia Tower is no longer the tallest building in Cambodia. DeCastle Royal, Olympia Towers and Gold Tower 42 are all higher. Gold Tower 42 has stood unfinished since the last global property crisis, like an abscessed tooth in an otherwise attractive smile. The country’s tallest building, Vattanac Tower is apparently finally finished, three years behind schedule. It is mostly empty. There is apparently a Hugo Boss shop in there: I haven’t been.

Finally: I don’t usually post about Cambodian grammatical infelicities in English, but this sign made me laugh.

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