Expat entrepreneurs in Cambodia, scooting around Bokor National Park, and the Australian “Gap Year”

Our first morning in Kampot we grabbed breakfast at a place near the Keyhole. The owner was a 29 year old guy from the UK. He had just taken over management and was in the process of finalizing his ownership of the restaurant. His plan is to revamp the food and drink menus, give the place a face-lift, and turn it into one of the nicer restaurants in Kampot. I commended him for making such a bold move at a young age and asked him how the process was going thus far. He summed up his experience perfectly: “The best part of owning and running a business in Cambodia is that things are unregulated. The worst part of owning and running a business in Cambodia is that things are unregulated.” Easy and cheap to start a business but problems with running it.

We had heard similar things from an older man at the Rusty Keyhole the night before, a guy born in the UK who had lived in Australia for 26 years, but had recently (2 years) started and been running a fish farm in Kampot. Not unlike many of the older white men I’ve seen in SE Asia, he had a muchyounger SE Asain woman with him. I don’t mean to cast a wide stereotype here on old white men in SE Asia, but you really do see it a lot.

Similar to the young man from the U.K. with the restaurant, the older man had not had much problems buying land and obtaining proper licenses and visas to start and run a business, but had encountered many problems in running it. Problems with employees, problems with suppliers, and major inability to enforce contracts gone bad – many deals these guys had done were with an interpreter (who may have incentives to be less than 100% accurate) and a shake of a hand and they have no remedy if they get screwed.

In Cambodia, it is very difficult for a business or individual to start a civil lawsuit to solve a personal or business related grievance. One must largely rely on the government to initiate and prosecute an action and if you don’t have enough money to “pay” for the regulations and/or enforcement that we take for granted in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, the government just might not feel your business problem is not a high enough priority. This is just another reflection of how Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and playing catching up with its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Plenty of land which is literally dirt cheap and plenty of business prospects but right now you have to be a little brave to stick your foot in the water as a foreigner. You don’t speak their language and you can’t rely on business protections you’re used to back home. But the opportunities are ripe for the picking and those brave enough and smart enough to come make it work will reap the rewards. I hope things work out for the folks we talked to.

After lunch we rode rented motos over to Bokor National Park, a jungle-mountain national park 15 km west of Kampot. Bokor is part of the Cardamom and Elephant Mountains in Cambodia. The ride into and around Bokor was the best part of the trip so far. The road in Bokor is without doubt the best road in Cambodia though the reason is somewhat disheartening. Thansur Bokor Highland Resort (and casino) recently opened on top of the mountain and several other massive mega-resorts are in the process of being built near the casino, including a 36 hole golf course. We went by a few of these construction sites and they looked big.

Naturally you need a good road to bring all the rich guests up to the top and through Bokor. It is sad to see much of the natural beauty plowed away but I didn’t complain too much – the wide, smooth, pot-hole-less asphalt was pristine. And because none of the resorts (except the casino) are finished yet, we were basically the only ones tooling around Bokor – an unspoiled road to ride and it was all to ourselves. The road up the mountain was a series of switchbacks and angled hairpin curves. From the side of the mountain as we went up, we had a great view of the Gulf of Thailand.

There was even a very large Budha sitting near the top of the mountain.

Once on top of the mountain, km-long straightaways made for perfect opportunities to grip and rip, testing the power of our little motos.

Eventually we came to the Popokvil Waterfalls, two-tiered waterfalls near the top of the mountain. Lots of folks relaxing and wading through the natural pools. Ben took a turn to tempt death and peered over the abyss of the second waterfall.

The best stop on the top of the mountain was a small monk village with a panoramic view of the Gulf of Thailand.

Several monks were sitting on the edge of a cliff praying. With protruding cliff edges and inspiring views, it is a great place to feel spiritual.

Before leaving the top of the mountain, we made sure to stop in at the Thansur Bokor Casino. I walked out a $5 roulette winner, probably because I have so much skill at the game. 🙂

The ride down the mountain was just as good as the ride up. It got a bit foggy at parts, which makes you wonder why they want a golf course up here.

After we got through the fog, the sun was setting over the Gulf of Thailand and a nice moon had come out.

We went straight to the Rusty Keyhole when we got back to Kampot and got into a conversation with two Australians in their early-to-mid fifties. As their two children were in their twenties back in Australia and somewhat settled, the couple had recently decided to move and live in Cambodia. They bought a nice inexpensive home near Kampot and were working, she a midwife and he a nurse. I mentioned to them that the majority of backpackers I met in Europe were 18-25 year old Australians and told them that I wished that more young Americans would see backapacking as more of an option or opportunity. They told me that in Australia, young people have what is called a “Gap Year” between high school and university (“uni”). It is common, nay, expected, for Aussies to travel and see as much of the world as possible during their Gap Year.

They went so far as to say that if a young Aussie person does not go out and see the world during their Gap Year, they are considered strange. I told them it was almost the opposite in the U.S. While young adults are not necessarily discouraged from taking up a backpack and seeing the world they are by no means encouraged. Young adults are expected to graduate high school and go straight to university, even though many of them have no idea what they want to do and will be incurring debt in the process. College graduates are then expected to go right into work or pursue one or more higher degrees and then get right to work and make that money.

The culture of the U.S. certainly does not look at 6-12 months off to see the world during their younger years as normal. And I think it’s a shame. I don’t mean to say I think every young person (or old) in the U.S. should travel or study abroad, because some people just don’t feel like it (to each his own), some don’t have the means (though most would be surprised at how cheaply it can be done), and some people truly are not meant for it.

But I’ve learned more about life and about myself – how to handle adversity, planning, independence, self-reliance, improvisation, flexibility, negotiation – during my travels than I ever learned in a classroom. And that’s why the Aussies have it right, at least by encouraging world travel as an option to a young person. No problem at “uni”, or in life for that matter, will be too big or too scary for a young person after 3, 6, or 12 months of backpacking. Maybe the U.S. will come around someday – maybe soon because college education is now more of an evaluation than an automatic thing – but at least for now, the U.S. could take a page from the Aussies’ life option playbook. They are born world travelers and adventurers, both young and old alike.


3 thoughts on “Expat entrepreneurs in Cambodia, scooting around Bokor National Park, and the Australian “Gap Year”

  1. Pingback: Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America | mattbrowntown

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