Considering India’s vast cultural impact on Cambodia, the Indian Embassy on Street 466 seems rather unpretentious: the two guards in their little wooden house in front of the embassy gate don’t ask for a passport. Seemingly owing more to personal interest than safety reasons, one of the pair asks us for the purpose of our visit. Telling him that we are here to write a feature on the Indian community, “Oh, that’s interesting!” comes the only reply.
After the Khmer Rouge regime fell, India was one of the first countries to establish an embassy in Cambodia in 1981. By that time, Cambodia was still largely isolated from the rest of the world.
Crossing a small front garden, the unguarded visitor spots a modest brown door to an ordinary house that leads into the embassy building. There are cream and brown coloured leathern easy chairs and sofas in the lobby area, which are occupied by relaxed looking elder Cambodians. With brown wood boarding on the wall, low couch tables and a comfortable sofa, Ambassador Dinesh Pattnaik’s office resembles a homely living room.
Indians are very much at home in Cambodia, he tells me.
“Indians are among the most integrated expat communities in Cambodia,” Ambassador Pattnaik says. With about 1,500 Indians currently living in Cambodia it is certainly one of the larger communities. According to Pattnaik, the community was even larger before the Khmer Rouge seized power. Between 1975 and 1979 almost all Indians had left the country.
“Old friendships, traditional business relations and larger revenues made us come back to Cambodia,” the ambassador states.
Cambodian folklore tells us that the arrival of a Brahman prince marks the birth of the pre-Angkorian empire of Funan in the third century AD. Prince Preah Thaong, as he is called in the legend of Kaudinya, arrived on an island that was inhabited by the mythological snake-race of the Naga. There he met and married the Naga princess, who is known as Neang Neak. To give his son-in-law land and a kingdom to reign, the Naga King and father of Neang Neak drank up the ocean around the Naga island.
According to the legend, the new landmass that was covered by the Indian Ocean before is known as Cambodia today. The offspring that Preah Thaong and Neang Neak produced became known as the Khmer. That is why today some Cambodians still say they descend from the Naga—with a Brahman prince as father of their house the Khmer also have their roots in India.
Today many Indians have their roots in Cambodia.
Restaurateur Sebastian Sabu with his wife and daughter. Alexander Crook/7Days
Businessman Debasish Pattnaik. Alexander Crook/7Days
“Indians usually mix in well with the local population. That is why you don’t find any Indian ghettos in Phnom Penh. Indians only live in ghettos when they are created for them like in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore,” Pattnaik explains.
Similarities in religious practices help Buddhists but also Hindus from India feel at home in Cambodia. Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism are traditionally linked together and share traditions, rituals and holidays.
“For a Hindu it doesn’t make a difference if he goes to a pagoda to pray instead of a Hindu temple,” says the Ambassador.
According to Indian Embassy statistics, the average duration of stay for Indian professionals like, doctors, NGO workers and businessmen is five years. There are also many that come to stay. Most Indians living in Cambodia speak Khmer, leading to a close rapport with Cambodians.
“I have many Cambodian friends,” says 47-year-old Sebastian Sabu, the owner of the Taste Budz restaurant on Street 282.
When he meets his Cambodian friends they usually go for drinks. Mostly though, he serves drinks himself. His restaurant is a meeting point for Indians, especially from the southern parts of his home country. Sabu estimates that half of the Indian community in Phnom Penh has their roots there. At Taste Budz one can often see Indian families going out for dinner, as well as groups of Indian men sitting together, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes.
As much as Indian men may like to have a few drinks with friends they are family people—just like the Cambodians.
“Indians never come alone. They always bring their families,” says Pattnaik.
Sabu came to Phnom Penh with his family five years ago. His wife Mercy took a job at an international school in Phnom Penh. The family moved from Kerala in Southern India to start a new life in Cambodia. Their daughter Dewoo Theresa goes to an international school. The extended family of the small Sabu family is much bigger though: “We have about 80 family members living in Cambodia. Eighty percent of them live in Phnom Penh.”
They all come together to celebrate the major Hindu holidays like Deepavali, the festival of lights, or Holi the festival of spring. The festivities are usually held at the InterContinental or Naga Hotel with other families in attendance.
“On last year’s Deepavali in November there were about 150 people,” Sabu says. “Usually we go on holidays with three or four other Indian families. Over Pchun Ben we all went to Vietnam.”
As much as Indians are a well integrated part of Cambodian society, they also have a strong business influence. Debasish Pattnaik is vice chairman and CEO of the Cambodia-based D&D Pattnaik Group, as well as President of the Indian Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia. His family name suggests that he is related to Ambassador Pattnaik.
“We are just from the same area in the east of India. The Pattnaiks are a big clan,” the businessman explains. Without having to think for long, Pattnaik knows all statistics and figures related to bilateral relations between India and Cambodia.
According to Pattnaik, annual trade between Cambodia and India amounts to US$80 million. Compared to other trade partners like China and Vietnam, the Indian trade volume is relatively low, but the goods imported from India are important to the Cambodian people.
“Pharmaceuticals are the biggest Indian business in Cambodia. Indian western style medicine is good quality and very cheap. About 150 Indian companies bring goods and affordable medicine to the Cambodian people,” Pattnaik says.
Despite Indian investment in Cambodia being comparably small to other countries, they matter a great deal. According to Pattnaik, Chinese and Vietnamese companies invest in garment production and agriculture. This requires semi-skilled labour instead of professionals.
Meanwhile, high-tech companies from the West come into Cambodia with the aim of tapping into offshore oil and gas occurrences. Cambodia lacks the infrastructure and skills to exploit these natural resources.
“That’s where we as Indians can function as a bridge. India can bring knowledge of engineering here. We have already done that in our country,” Pattnaik says.
Indian businessmen like Pattnaik believe that India has its role to play in the economic development of the country.
“We feel at home and not out of place in Cambodia, like we would in Western countries. Here we are at ease and there is mutual respect.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]