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Cambodia as seen through the eyes of two unlikely expats

Rama Ariadi / Khmer Times Share:
Early-wave migrants Firdaus, left, and Kasmin saw Cambodia’s post-conflict potential in the early 1990s. KT/Rama Ariadi

Tucked between lort cha vendors and a highrise development on Riverside’s Street 178 is Warung Bali – the fruits of the labour of two unlikely Indonesian expats.

There is Firdaus, a cook that has served up dishes for dignitaries and drunken revellers alike, and there is Kasmin, a former telecommunications technician who came to repair the infrastructure that lay in ruins as a result of the conflict that spanned the course of three decades.

As Firdaus and Kasmin, who, like many Indonesians go by one name, settled in the dining area of the restaurant, a glass of tea was served on the table. Bitter, just like how West Javanese liked it, joked Firdaus. However, we didn’t come to discuss the culinary traditions of Indonesia – the internet is abound with articles extolling the virtues of a properly cooked beef rendang.

They sat down to talk about their experiences as one of the first waves of migrants who have seen firsthand how Cambodia has changed after years of conflict and neglect, as well as the painstaking process of rebuilding the nation that was on the verge of becoming a failed state.

Firdaus first came to Cambodia from his sleepy home town in Karawang in 1993 as a cook for the first Indonesian ambassador after the fall of the Khmer Rouge – a gig he thought would only be a short stint, considering what Cambodia was going through at that time.

“The entire country was in the process of rebuilding itself – Prince Norodom Ranariddh had just been elected, and the current regime was moving to consolidate its power over the nation,” said Firdaus.

“I didn’t expect myself to last, let alone serve three different ambassadors over the years and remain in Cambodia for 24 years,” he continued. “Forget about modern conveniences – there was bullet holes, broken glass and barbed wire everywhere.”

It was then Kasmin’s turn to recount his story.

“I first came to Battambang via Phnom Penh in 1996 as a part of a survey when a local colleague told me that by no means should I ever rent a taxi to Battambang,” he said. “I did anyway, and as a result I was stopped numerous times by armed guards.

“Cambodia was really different. There was tension in the air, everyone was anxious, and the fact that Untac (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) was here did little to alleviate my fear.”

Neither of their families approved of their decisions to move to Cambodia, but the men stood by their choices and decided to open an Indonesian restaurant – a seemingly bold move to make, as Indonesians are generally not widely represented in Cambodia.

“To many, it was too big of a risk – but to us it was a niche,” said Firdaus. “If we consider how popular Indonesian food is across the region, it was a gamble that we needed to take.”

It was a gamble that paid off handsomely for the pair. As humble as their establishment is, Warung Bali has continued to drum up more business since the day they opened their doors on Street 178 almost a decade ago. Their customer base has continued to expand, attracting curious locals and loyal expats alike.

Sadly, lamented Firdaus, despite the advances Cambodia has made over the past decade, the possibilities that the nation has to offer are now clouded by a political smokescreen that discourages Asean citizens from taking advantage of the opportunities yet to be filled.

“Yes, in the past, it was a country dotted with landmines, but things have turned for the better,” he said.

“Cambodia has truly changed – the pace of development is rapid, and the possibilities are endless.”

Indeed, what Firdaus and Kasmin said is true to a certain extent. As worrying as the current political climate may be to many, from the outside, Cambodia’s neighbours don’t seem to be faring much better.

Indonesia is fighting an uphill battle against the rise of Islamist movements and stability, it seems, remains a pipe dream. Vietnam is preoccupied with divesting its state-owned enterprises and cutting down its red tape, while there is no guarantee the situation in Myanmar will improve as the crisis in Rakhine state continues. The seeds of discontent are sprouting in Malaysia as the election draws nearer, and nobody knows when Thailand will get its ever-delayed polls under its military junta.

“In the end, we cannot judge a book by its cover, because beneath the ugly facade there are opportunities to be taken advantage of,” concluded Firdaus.

Perhaps, there is some wisdom behind the saying that another man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And maybe, Cambodia is one of those treasures – a diamond in the rough, just waiting for the next wave of gutsy entrepreneurs to discover its potential.

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