Fortuneteller Ham Navy, 63, sits every day at the Phnom Penh riverside with her magic tablecloth, a pack of cards, a penetrating eye for a customer’s mobile telephone number and advice on purchasing a lucky one.
“If you add the digits and they equal number nine that is the best, the second best is the number seven,” Ham Navy said.
Ham Navy charges only a few thousand riel for her numerical advice, but in Cambodia, those who can afford it are paying up to $5,000 for what they consider the luckiest phone numbers.
“The rich people want to have a lucky number so they dare to spend their money,” Ham Navy said.
Pho Sithal, a computer dealer in Banteay Meanchey province, has a number with six identical digits that he bought for $3,000 in 2001.
“Now some people offer $5,000 for it,” he said.
“I have refused,” Pho Sithal said, adding that he didn’t know whether his number was actually lucky, though it is easy to remember.
Pho Sithal said in defense of his extravagant purchase: “I spent this money for the phone number because I like it.”
With lucky telephone numbers selling at premium prices, storefront telephone shops in Phnom Penh have typed lists of numbers for sale.
The lists feature wildly differing prices. At the Sontepeap Phones Shop on Monivong Boulevard, numbers were priced at $30, $45, $100 and a six-digit number with four sevens was listed at $1,350, while a telephone number with four sixes cost $1,150.
“About 40 percent of my customers buy a more expensive number,” Sontepeap owner Ung Sabo said. “The very rich buy these numbers, especially those that follow Chinese tradition.”
Ung Sambo said that a nearby shop recently sold a 999999 number for $5,000.
Kong Kim, owner of the Sophat Phone Shop and a “lucky number” wholesaler since 2000, said the most expensive number he ever sold was for $1,200.
“Rich people who make business, big business, they need to get a number that is easy to remember,” he said.
Kong Kim said ease of use, and consultations with Chinese or Khmer fortunetellers are the main reasons that customers invest in expensive phone numbers.
But he warned: “Every number works the same and you can’t get through any faster or get rich any faster with the special numbers.”
“Some people just want to show they are rich,” he added.
“Most of the best matching digits have been given freely to the top government officials,” Kong Kim claimed, adding that despite the high prices asked, he only makes $1 to $20 profit on each number sale as the rest goes to unspecified middlemen.
David Spriggs, general manager of MobiTel, said his company does sell a small number of “gold” numbers at special prices, but most price inflation is due to repricing by dealers.
“We sell batches of numbers and then it is up to the dealers if they want to hold them back and charge more,” he said.
Once a product, like status phone numbers, Johnny Walker Scotch or Toyota Land Cruiser Sports Utility Vehicles, are adopted by the rich, it doesn’t take long to rub off on all who can afford it, said Tharo Korn, a research economist at The Cambodian Institute of Development Study.
“I think this is very common in Asian societies. For Cambodians or other Asians, this kind of phone number signifies high status,” he said.
For some, however, status phone numbers can be a burden.
Bouy Try, a Phnom Penh businessman with matching telephone digits, was given his number as a gift from his brother.
“Every day many people [call and] disturb me,” Bouy Try said.
“I think they just dial [my] numbers to see who I am. I’m very tired of the calls,” he said.
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