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Rights & Regulations

My Khmer family’s cousin decided to open a restaurant in our collective front yard. After the men in the family moved the landscape around, a couple of workers came over to lay the foundation. This was fascinating to watch. They bricked in a wall about a foot high, filled it with sand, then laid a cement floor on top of the sand. Two days later welders fastened the metal supports for the walls, which were then bricked in and cemented over. The roof is corrugated aluminum awning. The cousins painted blue stripes on the walls and ran a cord from the house for electricity. Water is provided from a cistern. There is no door to the restaurant—it’s always open, but there is a rolling chain link fence that is padlocked in place at night. The dogs provide security. The restaurant took about two weeks to complete.

Apparently, there is no building code, per se, but there is protocol. The village chief had to grant permission for the project—for a small payment. But there are no codes, building permits, or inspectors to oversee the project. If you want a restaurant in your yard, build it. This is how it is done in Cambodia. If you need an addition on your house, cut bamboo and put up a wall. If you want to open up a roadside stand, build a hut, buy a cooler, and pile up your coconuts. You have the right.Of course, in the big cities it’s more complicated, but in rural villages there are virtually no regulations. From one perspective this is a great freedom, an inalienable Khmer right. Just do it! If you have an idea and enough cousins to help, you can build a house or a business in short order. Upon closer inspection—this might be the first inspection—one notices inconsistencies in construction techniques. The staircase might have steps of different sizes, for instance. But that appears to be of little concern to the village entrepreneur. Projects are built and abandoned. Not a lot is invested either in time or money.Not so in the USA. "Time is money," we say. Which makes no sense to those who have more time than money.

My favorite American cousin, Steve, is a master woodworker. He is planning to build the workshop of his dreams in his suburban backyard in California. He already has it designed, and has the blueprints. He’s paid permit fees and received approval from the building commission. He will need a licensed contractor to build the shop, as well as a licensed electrician and plumber. Before the workshop is complete the building inspector will see that everything is up to code: regulations that inform the builder how tall those stairs can be, for instance. The Code is a very big book—the numbers are precise. In the States we also prepare for disasters. Flood zones require flood insurance; earthquake-prone areas must meet stress standards.

In this part of the world when a “natural” disaster hits houses fall down. People die. There is no mitigation strategy, no exit plan, and no fire drill. Hopefully you will have contributed enough bans at the pagoda to insure your luck is good.

Thinking about rights and regulations plays out in other areas of the culture, like the rules of the road. For a foreigner leaving the airport in a taxi that heads into oncoming traffic it’s miracle we make it home alive. Maybe because the rules appear to be merely suggestions, drivers are extra alert from all angles. Whereas in the USA we expect drivers to stay in their designated lanes, to obey traffic signs, to allow pedestrians to cross. We are outraged when someone does not follow the rules. It’s the law. Buckle up! Yet, when I’m in the front seat of a torry heading to Phnom Penh and we see a police blockade, the driver and I each hold our seat belts in place and smile, although the seat belt has no working catch. Even if the driver’s seat belt does work, the driver will undo the belt as soon as we are out of sight of the cops.

In Western culture we want to know the rules because it makes us feel secure, we like know what’s what. Law and order go hand-in-hand. Cambodia is not a tidy country. There may be law, but little order, or at least little recognizable as an implied sequence, such as: a) First do this b) Before you do that. In the torpid air of the tropics today stretches into tomorrow. First do this, but before you do that is it up to you. Maybe you skip b).

In many ways Cambodians have more freedom, certainly more latitude, than Americans. There aren’t many regulations, not much oversight, and no inspectors to see if your building is up to code. We Americans pay a high price for our goods and services in part because we expect that certain standards are held up. Without them, my cousin Steve’s workshop might fall down.

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