Today was the first and most important day of the Pchum Ben festival in which Cambodian people honor their deceased relatives and ancestors. They all go to their home provinces for this so Phnom Penh becomes quite empty and peaceful. I had to go to a 6:15 AM mass across town and took a few photos coming and going.
Shops normally bustling in the morning are all closed up. Three very well dressed adults go visiting on a motorcycle. One man celebrates the holiday sitting in front of his shop. Two boys return from buying some takeaway food for the family for breakfast.
I had another nightmare experience with Cambodia Public Bank today.
One of my least favorite endeavors in Cambodia is going to a bank, any bank. It is an experience of inefficiency from the late 1800s, made even more ridiculous because now they use computers to perform so badly . To their credit, the branch manager did call me a few days ago and said that because I had not made a transaction with my account for almost a year, I would incur a $10 bank surcharge, but that I could come in this week still to make a deposit or withdrawal and avoid the fee.
What she didn’t acknowledge is that the reason I hadn’t made a transaction is that the bank canceled my ATM card without telling me and then said I had to pay $5 to get a new card, a debit card which I don’t want. Because it is such a pain to go into the bank and because now I don’t have an ATM card, I haven’t used the account.
Today I went in to make a withdrawal to avoid the surcharge. I arrived at 1445 and got a number ticket, #2016. There were 13-14 people sitting in chairs waiting to be called and that number stayed consistent the whole time I was in the bank. Behind the counter there were six bank staff. In front of the counter, being waited on, was one person. My number was called at 1510. It took an average of five minutes to deal with each customer at the counter, one by one.
I gave the teller my completed withdrawal form. She asked me to sign it on the back, where there is no place for a signature, even though I had signed it in the required place on the front. Then my withdrawal slip had to be stamp, approved, and authorized by three people! The teller then took out a $100 bill to give to me but first she ran it through a bill-counting machine. Not too surprisingly it registered that it had counted one $100 bill and it printed out a receipt to that effect. Then I had to sign that receipt, after which the teller gave me the $100 bill. It took 31 minutes to accomplish that.
Why do Cambodian banks have waiting rooms full of chairs? Why are they full of people waiting, waiting, waiting for one, two, three, or more trips to the counter? Why can’t a person go in for a deposit or withdrawal and be out in five minutes like in the US? Why do customers need to sit down if they are not negotiating a loan?
Pchum Ben is an extremely significant festival, holiday, and celebration in Cambodia. It is their lengthened celebration of what in the West would be All Souls Day, a period for honoring their deceased ancestors and relatives. It is a two-week celebration but only the last three days are observed as holidays. This year that will be September 27, 28, and 29. Much goes on in the period before the holiday. The scene above is at a major wat (pagoda) in Phnom Penh. The Buddhist flags are up, cars are delivering people to the ceremonies, the standing man is selling special flowers to those arriving, and the food cart is hoping to attract anyone coming or going.
Tomorrow evening, Friday, 13 September, is the big celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival when all of China and much of East Asia goes out to view the full moon and play with lights and lanterns. It’s a fun evening and whole families gather in the parks to carry their lanterns and celebrate. One part of the celebration is the giving and receiving of mooncakes, round puck-sized cakes with lotus or red bean paste or egg yolks as filling. Phnom Penh won’t see too much of the lanterns but mooncakes are currently available along many of the city’s major streets.
This is a really good example of what’s wrong with Cambodia. I have no problem with respecting the culture and traditions of a nation–I encourage it–but….pointing your foot at a car? Who was offended? The government makes a big deal of things like this to convince the populace that the government is with them and protecting them. And such antics distract from the failures of the government to do all the things it should be doing: providing schools, insuring medical care, protecting the forests and rivers, preventing land grabs, etc.
This is a common site on the streets of Phnom Penh—one woman picking lice out of the hair of another woman or girl. Women here wear their hair long and it provides a natural environment for the lice which are extremely difficult to get rid of. For guys, they just shave their head to solve the problem which is perfectly acceptable and not so uncommon, but for women the search-and-kill approach usually gets tried first. The lice make one quite cautious in borrowing another’s motorcycle helmet.
In Moving Up earlier, I opined that the advent of a market for new and used water coolers, washing machines, and other appliances is an indicator of Cambodia’s gradual rising to a lower middle income country. Another such indicator is the increasing number of electrical shops that used to sell 50-watt bulbs and are now selling high-end chandeliers. They know some people have money and are will to part with it to show their new-found status.
Here’s a picture of a schoolboy riding in the fast lane of one of the busiest major streets in Phnom Penh. But it’s the Kingdom of Wonder, so don’t wonder too much about the insanity. My theory on such counter-intuitive behavior is that 90% of the urban population grew up in the rural area where there were no cars, no paved roads, etc., and daily life was lived in the dirt roads of the village. They were the only clear places to gather and there was no traffic to disrupt a gathering. Those people later moved to the city and brought their ways of doing things with them and passed them on to their children. That’s why we average six traffic deaths a day.
This is a scene unimaginable just a few years ago when I first arrived in Cambodia—an appliance store, first of all, and then a row of water coolers and washing machines being offered for sale. When I came, an organization might have a plastic water cooler with a spigot and one plastic cup for everyone to use. Now the appliances above offer both hot and cold water. And as for the washing machines–there basically were none. Maybe some of the high executive families brought something in from abroad but they weren’t for sale here.
The number of headlines in the newspapers that allege illegal and immoral activity on the part of officials here is amazing. These are three headlines I cut out of newspapers today. In case there’s any doubt, the Supreme Court headline is about officials grabbing poor people’s land. There seems to be something in Cambodian culture that encourages elected and appointed officials to see themselves as above the law and presented with an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people. Of course it’s not all officials, but headlines like these are a daily occurrence, pointing out the misdeeds of ministers, the police, the military–anybody with authority.