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Friday, July 31, 2015

The Key Conspiracy


At least 5 days a week, I get a locker key from the sullen and disinterested reception staff at the front desk of  The Place- Phnom Penh’s premier upscale gym.    I have been a member since the Khmer New Year sales promotion  The membership investment was a critical part of the decision to reclaim my health and sanity and was combined with a decrease in work hours and responsibilities.  Life has been flowing since April with laps back in forth in the pool and elliptically-propelled daydreams of nordic skiing.

Now I have other frustrations.  Invariably, my key opens a locker tucked into a corner or is perched on a wall that is right next to the sauna or is immediately adjacent to a person that has just arrived.   There seem to be the same keys distributed to certain individuals.  When I overheard a wealthy-looking Cambodian woman asking the locker room attendant in Khmer for a key, I realized that there must be a tiered system for the better locations. This was never an option for me.  I was feeling at the lower-end.


I have a mixed relationship with the place- it’s an air-conditioned luxury gym with an enormous number of top-scale machines and a "min-Olympic size"  pool with lanes of tile and  swimmers who stay within them.   On the other hand,  management insists on playing Electronic Dance Music (EDM) at levels that I can still hear with my earbuds in and the women’s locker room is a microcosm of what I am growing to resent about Phnom Penh's rapidly changing economy.  

From The Place website 
The daughters and wives of Phnom Penh’s wealthy tycoons act in ways that are socially appropriate for them, but a bit perturbing for me.  I see the confident women lounging around, talking and laughing in the early evening on a bench near the water cooler. They are planted firmly in the most heavily trafficked area of the narrow hallway, so that each person must carefully navigate around their outstretched legs and pristine, colorful sneakers.  The younger Asian women bow their heads as they go by in respect.  

Members of this social group order the attendants—likely paid about the amount of my monthly fee—to fire up the steam room, to slather lotions and scrubs on their backs before they enter there, and to carefully carry  their plastic baskets of expensive French and Japanese skin products and a clean towel to the shower and hand products through the curtain as needed. 

The fancy women primp themselves.  Eyelashes are gently glued to the lid in a ritual probably performed at least twice a day. One woman bends over in the in front of the mirrored toilet doors and uses 2 blowdryers to fluff her hair.  Makeup is applied in small dabs and smoothed over what already seems to be perfect skin.  
There's generally at least one
gym bag like this in the locker room.
I never thought about your workout
gear matching your stilettos.  

Then, the attendant girls fasten bras, adjust dresses and pack the bags.  The girls remain poised until their lady is ready, then dutifully tote the gym bag behind the impeccably- heeled woman to the waiting Range Rovers, Lexuses and Land Cruisers. There are small amounts of local currency given for these services.     I see, on occasion, a younger caucasian woman sprinting ou the door in gym wear for a quick bike ride home for her shower and think, "We are all so different".

As written about many times before, there is great change happening in Phnom Penh and in some ways the differences between the expatriate aid workers and the Cambodians is also reaching some level of equilibrium.  The expatriates are not the only rich people in town anymore.  A Rolls Royce dealership opened a few months ago.  The economy is growing at breakneck pace- approximately 7%  a year in Phnom  Penh.  The Khmer Times reported in April that the number of Cambodians with more than $30 million in net assets increased by 170 percent over the past decade and further increases are likely in the next ten years.  In a particularly ironic travesty, the Minister of Rural Development owns a huge estate with its own golf course and 6 luxury villas. (Phnom Penh Post, Febuary 2015).

In recent weeks, there has been increasingly bad news for democracy and civil society.  A new law that severely restricts NGOs ability to speak out against the government was passed to the King for signature.  This had no public comment or review.    Foreigners are prohibited from participating in any public political gatherings. The opposition party leader Sam Rainsy took a selfie with Hun Sen and then flew off to Paris while 11 of his supporters who were arrested in a political rally against the ruling party were sentenced to 20 years in Cambodia's horrible prison system.
Phnom Penh Post "My dinner with Rainsy" 15 July 2015 

This rapid economic growth continues to fuel the environment for exploiting and displacing the poor and limiting the opportunities of the struggling middle class.  Just yesterday, Forest Trends showed the destructive legacy of economic land concessions (largely provided in sweetheart deals among the political elite) are destroying the last of Cambodia's highly valuable timber resources under an illegal scheme.   Over and over again, the ill-gotten gains from the rapacious drive of Cambodia's elite fuels their own ambitions and desires for sumptuous trappings.   The middle class may get a good key some time in the future, but the house will be stripped bare and worthless.  

For the extreme poor, the poor who are working or the lower levels of Cambodia's middle class, they will never have access to My optimism for change and hope for the poor, the struggling lower-middle class and the large percentage of Cambodians under 30 is continually challenged.  Without a profound shift in the ways of doing business, their families will never have the key. 


All over the world, there are families and entrepreneurs who seek the "key to success".  Savings, an ability to invest in their future, affordable and quality healthcare,  good education for their kids and a  prosperous community that provides opportunities to grow.   I'd love to be a part of a society where there are unlimited keys.  The seesaw of life here always seems to come down to the heavy burden of reality and the collective hope of a better vision for future.  Here in Cambodia, I remain teetering  on the fulcrum.