“I take you somewhere special” are usually the words that precede a visit to an favoured uncle’s antique store, so when the tuktuk driver uttered this phrase in Siam Reap, i prepared to bale out. I am a very lightweight traveller, but even with the amount of space left in my bags, there’s a limit to the number of antiqued buddha heads and hand woven packs of black pepper i can carry.
The experience of bartering is alien to anyone who grew up in the UK. Price displayed is price paid and the thought of questioning it or making an offer is likely to bring out an acute case of self consciousness and middle class angst. I can’t tell you if my few attempts went well or not: as i haggled for the price on a scarf to take home for a friend, the wizened and elderly Chinese lady stared me hard in the eye, muttered an invocation, spat at my feet and took my money. I’m unclear if we parted as friends.
In common with many developing tourist spots, you can find two types of market in Cambodia: the ones people buy frivolities like food, clothes and hardware, and the other, more authentic ones, where you can buy distressed tin vases and elephant print linen trousers.
Earlier i’d gone to the latter: my tuktuk driver questioned me deeply as to whether i really wanted to go there, with, i suspect, the tone i’d use if, having taken a visitor to London, they turned their back on the Palace and asked for an afternoon in Aldi. But of course what was everyday to him is novel to me. The sights, smells and bustle of a market in Cambodia are very different from my everyday reality in Europe, and part of my experience of a new country is to explore these other spaces.
Even in the heart of the market, the motorbikes found paths to weave through the shoppers: baskets of onions and other more unusual fruits lining the paths, fish on display, the reek of hot meat and endless racks of clothing, with the roar and flash as a bike pushed through the crowd and the background burbling of the children running through the stalls.
Having exhausted the potential for photography, i found the tuktuk sat in the sun, the driver asleep on the bench, whereupon he uttered that fateful phrase. But satisfied with my explorations so far, i agreed to whatever he had in store.
Social enterprises are those where the value is embedded within the community. Instead of exploiting low price labour to support premium price sales, and holding the value in the middle space of the manufacturer or distributor, the profit is shared equally, or the distribution is handled collectively. Social enterprises, at their best, fulfil both needs and desires: the desire of the consumer for a good quality product at a fair price, and the need for workers to learn, work safely, be fulfilled and earn a fair wage.
Angkor Artisans, the workshop that the tuktuk driver took me to, does just that: supporting and training hundreds of artisan workers across the country, helping them develop skills that drive value into their households, whilst curating a collection of goods that people can buy with a certainty that the value is shared, not hoarded at the top.
It’s an interesting application of market forces in an emerging tourism economy: my guidebook warned me that Cambodian market traders have developed a superb ability to make anything look old and valuable, but it failed to tell me that other Cambodian traders have developed a superb ability to craft beautiful artefacts within a social enterprise framework. The market force of tourists like myself, who want to buy a prop to leave on their shelf back home to remind them of their week in the sun drives the new markets to emerge, the ones that don’t sell food and buckets, but rather those ‘ancient’ vases and wooden buddhas, alongside craft beer and karaoke. Nothing of the experience is authentic, but it may be enjoyable.
By contrast, with a focus on education, opportunity, fairness and the development of new skills, the social enterprises still manage to fulfil my end of the bargain: i still have my hand carved head to sit on my bookshelf, to stare at when doing my accounts and sipping my $4 latte, but i am able to engage in the trade with more certainty that my time here is fair.
Of course, on one level, i’m yet again rationalising my presence as a dollar rich tourist grazing on abstract cultural artefacts to decorate my workspace. I’m using the veneer of ‘social enterprise’ to salve my guilt at my wealth and make me feel less bad about ignoring the kids scavenging the rubbish heap. It makes me feel less bad about my dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe which, by my reckoning, cost the equivalent of twenty times the national average daily wage in Cambodia (which is itself less than half what is considered a minimum living wage).
But such is the reality of an imperfect humanity: we take our dollars and make our choices.
It’s not just the premise of quantum physics that the act of observation changes the thing observed: whilst i feel like an outsider, subscribing to a local culture for a few short days, i am in fact co-creating the contemporary culture in the moment, my presence here (both financial and physically), my interactions, conversations, transactions and reflections all, in their own small way, changing both myself and the culture i am squatting in.
So the fake antique trade, the craft beers, the dollar cafes, the elephant pants, the imported Starbucks, the hotel chains, the aspirations of locals, the demands of visitors, the need to buy vegetables, the desire to hear local music, the heat of the day and the grinding poverty all fuel the crime, the commerce, the experience and the culture in multivariate and faceted ways. We all feed off each other: the trick is to find ways to do it that are fair.