Consumerism booms as Cambodia embraces once-forbidden capitalism

Sun Sep 28, 2014 5:34pm EDT
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By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Chy Sila has come a long way since he invested his $500 life savings in a small shop in Cambodia's capital to sell bootleg music and pirated movies.

Fast-forward 16 years and Cambodians are now watching the films he distributes not on scratchy DVDs but in a $5 million multiplex theater, a joint venture with Thailand's Major Cineplex MAJOR.BK and the centerpiece of a new mall owned by Japanese retail giant Aeon (8267.T: Quote) that drew 2 million visitors in its opening month.

The 39-year-old former tour guide, university dropout and son of a mechanic is one of the biggest success stories in a country that was for years Southeast Asia's war-torn, aid-dependant basket case.

Though poverty is still rife in the countryside, an urban boom and robust growth fueled by garment manufacturing for brands such as Nike (NKE.N: Quote) and GAP (GPS.N: Quote) has given rise to a growing consumer class that earns triple the average income.

"We see there's a lot more buying power than before," said Chy Sila as he took a bite from a croissant and sipped cappuccino at one of the bakeries run by his CBM Corporation, Cambodia's biggest food and beverage firm.

"People can afford to pay so now's the time, we're ready for big brands to come here... Materialism is in peoples' hearts, what you wear, what you drive, represents what you are."

With a fast-growing working population and falling dependency ratio, Cambodia has the demographics most favorable to rapid economic growth.

Young Cambodians now buy smartphones, flat-screen TVs and Japanese motorcycles. They tap banks for loans and credit cards and are fuelling the kind of capitalist culture the 1970s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people to prevent.   Continued...

Chy Sila, CEO of CBM Corporation, holds his mobile phone while driving a car in Phnom Penh August 28, 2014. REUTERS/Samrang Pring