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Phnom Penh Perspective:

Magic business plans

by Bronwyn Sloan

March 2005

It is official; magic cows are passé. They have been done to death. They will not be blindly accepted as fact any more, and they have instead been overtaken by a spate of reports of piglets born sporting the heads of an array of interesting animals including elephants, monkeys and even a pig with the head of a rhino.

This was made clear by an outburst from the Ministry of Cults and Religions this week (yes, this is a real ministry) which reached the end of its tether with the announcement by one farmer south of Phnom Penh that his cow had not only been possessed by a spirit, but possessed by a spirit which had traveled all the way from Thailand. His proof for this was the timely appearance of a woman riding a bicycle who fell down and wept when she witnessed the spirit in the eye of the said holy cow and recognized it from a previous Thai holy cow-watching holiday.

Thus identified as a trans-border spiritual deity in the traditional bovine form, the owner of the cow began selling its excrement and urine to the faithful as a cure-all and general pick-me-up he had hopefully labeled "for external use only".

But in the wake of Prime Minister Hun Sen's advice to his people last year to be wary of magic cows and exercise just a touch of cynicism, the ministry was in no mood for these shenanigans. Local authorities pointed out that the area had been blessed with a magic cow less than 18 months ago and to have two in such a short space of time stretched credibility.

But the big guns were even more strident. From the ministry office in Phnom Penh, secretary of state Minh Khin announced the ministry would begin snap inspections of allegedly magic livestock in coming weeks, and false claims related to magic cows would be dealt with harshly. He was quick to cast aspersions on the motives behind this latest magic beast emerging.

"I think it is a plot by taxi drivers to get people to go where they wouldn't normally want to go," he blustered, pointing out that since this magic cow had inconsiderately plonked itself in an area not serviced by much public transport, people wishing to visit for a consultation would have to hire a seat in a taxi for an entire journey there and back, and the fare the driver charged could be as high as the market would bear. Sick people who have exhausted all other avenues of hope are often able to bear a lot for a last chance at being healed.

So apologies to this farmer if his cow, or rather its blessed crap, really is a miracle cure for everything down to the common cold and he is not actually taking the piss literally. But, jaded by a parade of magic bovines, the government is cracking down and they will have to show rather more credentials than this one has if they are to be officially endorsed in the future.

Which is maybe why the craze turned to the magic pigs last week, with four piglets reportedly born with magic heads in the space of just a few days – two elephant headed piglets, a monkey headed piglet and a rhinoceros piglet. These pigs, most of which died at birth or before, did not share your typical magic cow claims of healing powers, either – the point which had most annoyed the ministry in those cases. No, these were magic in the sense that they were mere curiosities, which welcomed gifts of money and incense from visitors but did not promise any miracles other than an afternoon of entertainment, much like a freak show.

And indeed, the people flocked to see these strange pigs, making the owners very proud and considerably richer. Of these, the elephant, monkey and rhino born to the one mother were the most fascinating, and of all of the piglets born with other animal's heads this month, the monkey has actually survived, meaning that technically in the future, the people of Sa'ang district, just outside the capital, may be able to breed an entire race of pigs with the head of Hanuman the monkey god, bringing in much needed capital and redressing the weirdness imbalance incurred when the cow spirit down the road migrated from Thailand.

Back in the expatriate world of Phnom Penh, just up the road but so far not gifted with any magic animals since that dog gave birth to a kitten last year, the traditional march towards the edge of sanity continued. Sometimes in a good way – the St Patrick's Day madness seemed equally and good humouredly shared between the Green Vespa Irish Bar, and Rory's Irish Bar, but in a tight competition for the most fun St Patrick's Day night it was Rory's on 178 Street which kept the crowds the longest despite quickly running out of free Irish stew, and Rory finally called a halt at around 3am.

[Editor's note: the following item is in no way referenced to either of the aforementioned establishments.] This is in stark contrast to the darker edge of madness that can turn new business owners thrust into the heady heights of managing a hole in the wall in Phnom Penh into megalomaniacs. Why do people who are not of the ethnic background of their menu open restaurants selling a taste of the exotic anyway, but despite the inherent risks of this business strategy then proceed to promptly bar most of their customers the poorly managed staff didn't shortchange already within the space of months of opening because, well, frankly they don't like ethnic people, or people married to ethnic people, or people who associate with ethnic people. Read "ethnic" as whatever race the owner is not. This dark edge is indeed more in keeping with the grand tradition of both Khmer and expatriate business ownership in Phnom Penh, which apparently often turns totally sane and sociable people into territorial monsters and snips out the little part of their brain that once made them likeable.

But restaurants and bars are not the only businesses where customer service is at a premium. My friend, who is Khmer, spent the entire night locked in a garage last night. Not because he wanted to, but because the panel beater had not finished fixing the dent three teens on a motorbike made in his car when they were returning blind drunk from a wedding, and he did not trust his friend the garage owner not to help himself to original parts of his car such as light fittings or siphon off his petrol if he left it overnight. The garage owner, in turn, decided he didn't trust the friend not to help himself to his hoard of spare parts either, so the customer slept in the car and the garage owner locked him inside the garage for the night while he slept in the car. Trust issues are obviously a major problem in the capital. Maybe the urge to get rid of all your customers is natural, like an immune system response?

So which is the more crazy business plan? Opening a magic cow business, or opening a bar or restaurant when you have no idea how to run one when, well, you just don't like customers all that much anyway? Or a garage for that matter, where your customers sleep over so you don't strip their car while it's in for a service? Perhaps it is time the magic cow phenomenon is taken to its natural conclusion and a licensing system for magic cows put in place. Perhaps that would placate the government, and then, for instance, people who like eating magic shit could get it from a fully taxed and licensed source, rather than dressed up as something it isn't and served with a xenophobic scowl in a nasty piece of Russian market crockery in some failing Phnom Penh restaurant.

But enough. The heat is beginning to get to us all. And despite a few bad apples, there is no shortage of bars and restaurants in this cosmopolitan capital that serve great food and beverages with a smile. But after the month that was, I am beginning to see that it is no wonder so many locals are digging out magic animals to front up their dodgy businesses. There's gold in crap it seems, especially if you own a cow with great stage presence, or at least a taxi en route to a cow. Maybe the ministry should just give in and learn how to mine it?

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