Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Cantering ahead as low pay and oil prospects raise Khmer hopes


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

CAMBODIA LETTER : The opening of a country club shows there is money in this fast-growing economy, writes Mark Godfrey

NARET BOBS up and down on the Cambodian pony, a stocky slim-boned breed with a flowery mane. His trainer, Ray Fisher from Kildare, sees a lot of potential in the 14-year-old, named in a local newspaper as Cambodia’s best young rider.

Fisher is the chief trainer at the Cambodian Country Club on Toeuk Thla Street.

Naret rides every day, but he’d like better gear. He’d gladly swap his rubber Wellington boots for leather boots. “Someone gave him a pair of breeches – now he’s looking for boots,” says Fisher, who relies on the wiry, T-shirted youngster to exercise the animals in his stable of a dozen horses, among them retired racehorses trucked over from Thailand.

Fisher, a white giant next to his dark-skinned Khmer protege, has taken his horsemanship from the Curragh to the hot, dusty suburbs of Phnom Penh. He teaches dozens of local riders to trot, canter and jump in this spacious outdoor sand arena in Russey Keo, the district that sprawls out to the city airport.

The club’s recent opening shows there’s money in a fast-growing Cambodia.

Naret is an unlikely poster boy for the local equestrian scene. He’d never be able to afford the $25 (€19.33) fee for an hour-long lesson at the club – nor the helmets and leather boots of the Europeans and wealthy locals who ride here.

Naret used to sift refuse on the city’s Stung Mean Chey tip until the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation brought him to the Country Club. The foundation was set up by Hollywood actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the name of their adopted son, to help his fellow Cambodians out of poverty.

Six months into his new equestrian life, Naret’s passion for horses is clear from the way he puts his stocky pony through his paces in the afternoon sun. Bosses from the local garment factories like to entertain in an open air bar-restaurant which, like the swimming pool, rings the arena. Cambodians aren’t yet horse crazy: most of Fisher’s students are the children of staff at French companies and NGOs based in Cambodia.

Some Cambodian children have, however, been able to discover their passions, thanks to western NGOs. Diplomats and executives frequent the Lotus Blanc, a restaurant trying out the skills of students at a school run by the French-run Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE). Since its establishment in 1996 to educate children scavenging in the rubbish tip in the suburbs of the capital, the school has become a model for Cambodia. “Companies come here for staff because skills in book-keeping, gardening and cooking are more practical,” explains a student prefect who acts as a guide for visitors. She’s training to be a nurse.

Cambodia is a member of the World Trade Organisation, but skills like accounting are sorely lacking. There are jobs for skilled Cambodians as the country releases potential after decades of war, extreme Maoism and more war. The local economy grew by 6.5 per cent in 2008 and even with the global doldrums the Asian Development Bank predicts 5.9 per cent growth for 2009.

Now the country has corruption with stability under prime minister Hun Sen, a man who fought for, then deposed, the Khmer Rouge. Hun is a kind of Vladimir Putin figure: fond of hanging onto power and telling the people that Cambodia can only have its prosperity and pride restored through benevolently authoritarian (his) leadership.

Hun’s closeness to Vietnam (which put him in power when it knocked out the Khmer Rouge in 1979) and Cambodia’s proximity to Thailand have helped the country get the low-wage processing and manufacturing jobs that its neighbours, and China, hand it.

Low Cambodian wages beat everyone else’s, and the country is situated close by.

Chinese firms are known by their walled compounds and their curious initialled names: firms like WD Cambodia Textiles have sprung up as gated compounds in anonymous tin-roofed neighbourhoods on the edge of Phnom Penh. Signs in Chinese and Khmer offer massages for 5,000 Riel (€0.93), next to shops selling mobile phones and water heaters imported from China.

Koreans have also come, with bricks and mortar. Trucks roll downtown from KRC Concrete near the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in Dankoar district, to Seoul-owned real estate projects, the most ambitious of which is the Gold Towers 42 – twin office towers with glass of a gold hue.

More lately, wealthy desert kingdoms like Kuwait and Qatar have come seeking land in return for loans and technology. They’ll use the land to grow food – and some holidaying. The Middle Eastern link is even more intriguing if you consider that Cambodia has found oil under its territorial waters – and will need Arab knowhow to access it.

Even though its garments trade has been hit, Cambodia’s young economy looks like it will weather the economic crisis – particularly if it gets that oil.

Fisher says he’s kept busy. But getting gear is hard: a blacksmith has to be flown in every couple of months from Thailand. Saddles and bridles have to be imported. “We’re starting from scratch here.”

As Naret’s mount speeds to a canter, a smile lights up the dark features he shares with most Khmers. With his country on the mend he hopefully has a bright future. “He’ll definitely have a job in coaching Cambodia’s future riders,” says Fisher.

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