‘I can’t come to the phone now. Please leave a message.’

iphone6s-rsgld-frontWhen you call someone in Cambodia who doesn’t answer the phone, tough luck.

When you miss a call from a number you don’t recognize, tough luck again.

In the Kingdom of Wonder, I never have laid eyes on a phone that was not a mobile.  Perhaps some businesses have them, but cellphones here in Cambodia are as inescapable as cockroaches in a New York City tenement and barbells in a gym.

As for voicemail, it is as rare as snowshoes in Phnom Penh.

I understand that the situation here is not unlike conditions in other developing countries. Apparently, folks with cellphones originally used them primarily for text messages and so skipped over a desire for voicemail when the number of mobile devices increased.  Relying on text messages has become a habit on the phone.

According to a recent study by the Asia Foundation and USAID, smartphone penetration in the country has now reached nearly 40 percent – up 41 percent from just one year ago.  Based on the parts of the iceberg that I encounter, the percentage here in Phnom Penh must be much higher.  Even the deeply impoverished seem to rely on them.

Answering machineThere is no Verizon or AT&T to provide telephone service.  (The purchase of phones is unconnected to service; you buy them outright for the full retail price.) But there are several companies that provide service when consumers buy their SIM cards.

The SIM cards establish an account. Consumers periodically top up the account as the number of minutes runs down.  I usually purchase around $5 worth every couple of weeks, and the funds cover phone calls as well as text messages.  (My monthly bill back in the States exceeded $100 a month.)

Adding funds couldn’t be simpler.  I can buy phone cards in ubiquitous minimarts, scrape off the substance covering a long string of numbers, dial a three-digit code on my device, enter the number and presto!  I also have the option of going to a small sort of vending machine opposite my apartment building to deposit as little as a $1 note, enter my phone number and push a button to enable calling.  Even if I forgetfully dip into a negative amount before refilling my account, I still can use my phone briefly.

Not only are phone calls and text messages permitted, but I also can enable an Internet data connection that easily lasts me a month for a mere $5.

If they don’t communicate via text message, many Cambodians seem to prefer Facebook Messenger to e-mails. In fact, I sometimes have to alert recipients of my e-mails via text message or Messenger to check their e-mail account.  By contrast, many expats here seem to depend on e-mail as opposed to the other options.

Interestingly, Facebook is experiencing swift growth here, and an Asia Foundation study shows that the vast majority of Cambodians access Facebook via their phones, not a computer.

I have noted that much news and opinion travels on that site.  For instance, if someone wants to invite true friends to an event, most young Cambodians will post the information on Facebook instead of using an e-mail or online services such as Evite.  It is really hard to keep up with things worth knowing in Phnom Penh without checking Facebook, I have found.

As for Twitter, Cambodians sometimes don’t even know of its existence.  A few do, of course, but expats here appear to be the most reliant on it and not so many of them either.

Although missed and unanswered calls are common, I have discovered that the lack of voicemail does not create much of an inconvenience for me.

text messageWith a caller whose number I don’t recognize, I probably will not answer, correctly figuring that someone with a legitimate reason for wanting to reach me will call again or that it was a wrong number.  More likely, such a person will simply send me a text message to let me know who called and perhaps why my phone rang.  I do the same.

Would it be more convenient to listen to a voicemail instead?  After more than two years here, I have dim recollections of folks who rely on voicemail don’t know when to stop recording their greetings or messages.  As you must know, text messages don’t tend to run very long.

All in all, I kind of like the system.  No longer do I have to listen to greetings in which cellphone owners try to impress me with how much they enjoy inflicting their taste in music on me or their mistaken impression of how witty or pithy they can be:

“I can’t take your call now.  You know what to do.”

“You’ve reached _______.  You’re call is very important to me. . .”

“I answer voicemails only between 12:01 a.m. and 12:02 a.m. on alternate Thursdays, and I will respond then.”

“If you have a medical emergency, please hang up and dial _______.  If. . . If. . . “

“Thanks for calling.  You can reach me faster by e-mailing me at _______ or at _______ or by calling ________ or, or, or. . .”

“I can’t come to the phone right now.  Please leave a message.”

Thanks for the options, but the more I think about it, the more I prefer the system here.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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