Hash Veasna is an expert on stocks and bonds. The former business mogul has written no less than eight Khmer-language books on trading. But today he negotiates a different kind of bond: the one between lonely hearts.
Two years ago, Veasna set aside his job as finance and operation manager of the Soma Group conglomerate to pursue an even more turbulent market when he founded My Best Consult, Cambodia’s first professional matchmaking service.
He spends his days trying to match the Kingdom’s young singles as they try to reconcile tradition with modernity.
He even has the certificate – from the New York-based Matchmaking Institute – to prove it. Speaking in his Phnom Penh office last week, the 36-year-old proudly showed off the paper, which he was awarded last year after taking a correspondence course.
It’s particularly necessary to prove his legitimacy in Cambodia, he said, where so-called ‘marriage brokering’ has seen young brides siphoned off to foreign men for a fee of up to $20,000. Many such arrangements have amounted to little more than poorly-disguised human trafficking.
Veasna was once forced to explain himself to government representatives who visited to hear how the business is run, he said. He stressed his mission was to find compatible, not profitable, matches for a demographic whose ideas are different to their parents’.
“In Cambodia at the moment, people are fighting to change the way others think,” he said. The sentiment could apply to many different aspects of Cambodian society today, as the country changes and modernizes, but in this instance, he means a shift in the way people approach romantic relationships.
Experts in the field say a decrease in arranged marriages at young ages means the onus has shifted onto the singles themselves to find lovers.
Consequently, a new dating culture has emerged that combines new ideas from abroad with more conservative elements from the local culture.
Veasna’s ideal client is the ‘professional single’, who was raised after the Khmer Rouge regime, has focused on a career and rejected ideas about traditional arranged marriage.
“The media, newspapers, television have broadcast a different way to feel happiness. The tendencies are a bit changed, and they believe they have to find their own love.”
A modern matchmaking service is a natural continuation of traditional matchmaking conducted by village elders, said Veasna. Previously, parents and grandparents met to decide who would marry who, he explained.
“The towns are growing big and the population increases, so how do people know others well? If there is one person who can provide very clear and transparent information, then this changes the form from the old tradition to the new tradition.”
Singles struggling to find partners should approach the marriage market the way they would the stock market by investing time and money while striving for transparency, he said.
Veasna’s clients meet with him individually to present their CVs and undergo interviews in order to determine their requirements and deal-breakers. Lifestyle choices, such as attachment to tradition, religiosity and levels of materialism are also evaluated.
The client’s profile is then entered into his database, and if a potential match arises, he will contact both parties and show them the profiles. The only information he withholds are their names, phone numbers and specific place of employment. If both people are interested, he will arrange a lunch date.
His ideal client is someone like Thyda*, aat a Phnom Penh embassy pursuing a master’s degree. But at 27 years old, she is waiting to finish her education before entering the marriage market. Her parents may try to set her up with a man, but she said it is ultimately her decision.
“After I get a job, I can decide which partner I want, and not have my parents tell me what to do,” said Thyda, adding that she may consider a man her parents chose.
“They may set me up, and then I decide.”
Dr Ben van den Bussche, a Dutch psychiatrist at Sunrise Mental Clinic, said that he often sees young people who are at odds with older generations’ views of marriage and romance.
“It is a society in transition. All the youngsters are on Facebook, they watch MTV, they go out and see what is happening elsewhere in the world. They are changing, and that’s what I see quite often here.”
His Cambodian colleague, Dr Heng Sopheap, a general practitioner undergoing psychiatric training, said arranged marriage, which has long been the norm in Cambodian society, has decreased to around half of all marriages in the past ten years, with the rest mostly meeting their spouses at work or school.
“In my experience, at a young age, like 21 or 22, after one month they separate, or they don’t separate but their relationship has no happiness, because they are so young.”
Srin Manith, a 19-year-old French student at Institut Français with aspirations to enter the business world, agrees. Her relationship, which began three years ago, resulted from a spontaneous Facebook friend request from a boy she had never met.
“Like foreigners date, we go to restaurants, have dinner and red wine, but then afterward he just brings me back home,” she said.
Manith already has mapped a plan for her relationship that, if successful, will break even more social conventions. When she hits her late 20s, she would like to move in with her boyfriend and have children.
But marriage, she said, can wait until her 30th birthday. Cohabitation and planned childbirth before marriage is an unusual concept to many Cambodians, but Manith said that it is right for her.
“My family says no and his family also says no, but between me and him we should live together like a foreigner couple. Why? So we can know each other much more. Just live together, have a baby, one day our kid grows up and we marry, and that’s fine.”
She said her boyfriend would like to get married now, but Manith will not budge. Last time they spoke of the matter, he agreed to her terms.
“I say to him: If you can wait, fine, if you cannot wait, you can leave me.”
Other young people have eschewed the search for love entirely, preferring to focus on the professional path.
Van Dana, a 21-year-old student at both the University of Cambodia and the Royal University of Law and Economics, said that student life precludes him from dating.
“If I have a girlfriend, I want to give her happiness, not sadness. How could I give her happiness if I spend too much studying at university?”
It is tough sometimes, he said, but ultimately his choice.
“I see the couples when I go to the coffee shop and I sit alone, single, and I look around and see them, yeah, maybe I feel jealous.”
Would he consider using a matchmaker?
No, he said, adding that he is confident in his ability to find a girlfriend by himself.
Veasna admits that his business’s path to success has been slow. Despite great initial interest, so far he has set up 10 dates. None have worked out.
However, he said that he must be patient as young Cambodians find their place in the Kingdom’s new love market.
“It is a turning point. Cambodia will definitely change,” he said.
He has no plans to retire. He is presently single, and said he would like to find a wife who wants a part of the matchmaking business.