Alcohol consumption in Cambodia is high enough that authorities are now drafting legislation for a drinking age. But as the country and its economy develop, many here say it has become an essential part of their social—and professional—lives.
Sitting at the Moon Light restaurant one recent evening, Chhor Ratana, a student of banking, sat holding a beer and waiting for his friends to arrive. “Alcohol is one thing that any meeting or gathering can’t be held without,” he said. “It can make any communication better. And new relationships come from this.”
It’s a common sentiment these days: that alcohol makes communication not only easier, but better. Experts warn this is not, in fact, the case. Still, it has become a part of the culture.
At formal events, government officials and other elites drink alcohol, offering a toast when agreements are signed. Red and white wine are popularly used, according to author In Sophal, in “Diplomatic Protocol and Asean protocol.” Sometimes, champagne is consumed at the end of an important speech or event.
But drinking isn’t confined to officialdom. Ungsitat Virakchamna, a student from the National University of Management, said she drinks at special occasions, including family gatherings, or at business meetings.
“Every time I drink beer with my friends, it makes our communication go more smoothly,” she said. One who cannot drink, she said, is one who is poor at communicating. “Alcohol drinkers consider those who can’t drink as disrespectful to them,” she said.
That kind of attitude may be behind an increase in consumption of alcohol. The World Health Organization has seen an uptick in the amount of alcohol consumed by Cambodians aged 15 or older. And experts say that doesn’t always mean better communication at all.
“Those who don’t drink, they can learn and communicate better than those who do,” said Im Sothearith, the human resources director for Chip Mong Group. People who aren’t drinking are more aware of what’s going on around them, he said, making them more adaptable to circumstances. He discouraged the use of alcohol as a communication aid. “Alcohol is not a factor in improved communication,” he said.
Somchan Sovandra, a lecturer of psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said moderate alcohol use can ease communication. But overuse “will only bring trouble to the drinker,” he said. “It will not only ruin your reputation and health, but your family’s economy as a whole.”
And it can be dangerous. Authorities say drinking is a top cause of traffic deaths. In the first six months of this year, there were more than 2,500 alcohol-related traffic accidents. The Ministry of Health is now working on a law for alcohol control, which would ban sales to anyone under the age of 21 and impose higher taxes on alcohol sales.