For those who come to Cambodia wanting a snippet of what the kingdom has to offer, many end up at one of Bassac Lane’s micro-bars, or partaking in the city’s many guided architecture tours that aims to showcase the side of Phnom Penh that gave it the moniker, the ‘Pearl of Asia’. After all, it allows for newcomers to experience a slice of what the nation has to offer, in a relatively ‘safe’ and small amount of time.
However, as one finishes a lap of the tourist trap, one can be forgiven for wondering, aside from the curated highlights, where are the Khmer influences? Why aren’t their tastes and preferences more represented while the overall scene – from cuisine to couture, drinks to design – is booming? After all, Cambodia is making leaps in economic growth.
Yet this has yet to translate into a widespread evolution in trends, tastes and preferences, which is especially puzzling considering that Cambodia places relatively fewer restrictions on internet usage – unlike some of its neighbours such as Indonesia, which imposes draconian restrictions, even on widely-used discussion forums, such as Reddit.
So what gives? Is the convergence in taste actually happening, albeit at a glacial pace? Or is there a different force at play – dictated by cultural forces or other influences – that are less obvious to the eye?
“Sociologically and broadly speaking, taste is important as a sign of distinction,” said sociologist Dr Chivoin Peou of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “So what is legitimate as a preferred taste for certain groups is significant for their identity and sense of psychological security, but also interesting indicator of a class/group signifier.”
Tastes are evolving as foreign influences come and go.
“Cambodia is a very patriotic nation, which is still reeling from the aftermath of a bloody conflict,” said Rhalyn Maske, a consultant for an interior design showroom in BKK1, which is dotted by Nordic-inspired furnishings as a nod to the growing influence of the region on the design scene.
“For the longest time, rebuilding the nation was the ultimate goal, and as a result, Cambodia became a very inward-looking nation with a preference for what they are familiar with,” said Maske.
“Prior to the conflict, tastes were very much influenced by the French. These days, tastes and preferences are being influenced by the Chinese, as their contribution to the economy increases.”
Indeed, it isn’t very hard to see the influence. A stroll down Monivong Boulevard’s seemingly endless homeware and furniture stores shows no shortage of over-the-top chandeliers, intricately carved beds gilded with faux-gold, and grand marble tables. This is what Peou was referring to – the influx of foreign money has brought along with it certain influences, which become associated with the notion of affluence and power.
All that said, preferences are gradually changing, said Maske, and at a much faster rate than what it may seem.
“People can see this showroom and think that most of our clients are foreigners,” she said. “In fact, around 80 percent of our clients our locals – which indicates that the Cambodians are increasingly becoming aware of other trends and options that are available to them.”
That said, some questions remain unanswered. If tastes and preferences in Cambodia are largely dictated by foreign influences, then what will happen next? Will the face of Cambodia’s urban areas change again as the next wave of foreigners come, or will the increasing size of Cambodia’s middle classes bring about a higher awareness of Cambodian designs, tastes and consequently identity? Given the circumstances, it seems, only time will tell.