Seeing some hope in all the anarchy: Cambodia Update

Both Younghusband and I have traveled to Cambodia on separate trips in 2003 and traveled the country. We visited Angkor Wat, saw landmine museums, played chess with German ex-pats, and shot AK-47s at the cost of a few dollars. Prostitution was advertised regularly and I was told that drugs were readily available for purchase. There was not a hint of high-rises or skyscrapers in the city of a quarter of a million, with the tallest building being perhaps 8 stories high. In talks with my very learned, bilingual and friendly hotel proprietor, he revealed that he used to be a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Economy, but left when the government couldn’t afford to pay his salary for six months. Compared to nearby Thailand, Malaysia, and even Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia was still poor and chaotic.

But things are changing. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on Phnom Penh that said it is “tamed and transformed.”

Today, Phnom Penh still has plenty of rough edges and crime. At certain places, visitors can still order “happy pizza,” or pizza with marijuana topping. But in other ways, it’s a different city entirely. But the government has destroyed 200,000 or more firearms through a program in which citizens voluntarily lay down their guns. It has also shut down the military-hardware market and closed some of the most infamous brothels. Foreign cash is pouring in, with some investors calling Phnom Penh “The New Ho Chi Minh City” after the city that’s Vietnam’s emerging center of consumption. Property values have soared and Phnom Penh is getting its first skyscrapers. One Cambodian developer even wants to dredge the Mekong River all the way to Vietnam, some 60 or so miles south, to create a deepwater megaport, and other financiers are planning a satellite city with offices and malls.

All that activity has brought more well-heeled visitors and more hotels. The Quay Hotel along the riverfront, opened earlier this year, which calls itself Phnom Penh’s first “carbon-friendly” hotel (it measures carbon emissions and then buys “offsets” through carbon-reduction programs) and features minimalist décor of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” variety, spaces “infused with aromatherapy” and a rooftop wine bar. Other new hotels include the Pavilion, an elegant boutique property in a colonial mansion hidden behind the Royal Palace.

Some have complaints. Many of the hardened expats who have turned Cambodia into their adopted home are upset at the gentrification. Tuk-tuks, the ramshackle taxis used for short trips around town, now sometimes cost $2 instead of $1. Rents have soared and the average Cambodian hasn’t yet seen the benefits, and their incomes remain the lowest in the region. But it’s a start on what should be positive changes.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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9 Responses to Seeing some hope in all the anarchy: Cambodia Update

  1. Gordon Craig says:

    It’s so interesting to read these foreign news reports because they give such a shockingly misleading picture of the reality on the ground in Cambodia. I was in Phnom Phen last year and I loved it, but it remains one of the wildest, roughest, most rugged urban landscapes in Asia. It isn’t that dangerous anymore, but it is a wild, very poor place, and any Westerner who hasn’t travelled extensively suddenly finding himself in Phnon Phen unprepared would think he had landed on another planet. “Gentility” indeed. From the article one would think PP is almost a half-normal place by Western standards. The nice bits of PP sit in an ocean of poverty and poverty and decay are the general atmosphere, not any kind of gentility. This is true of many poor countries and what makes traveling in them so strange and mindblowing – nice bits as islands in a sea of insanity. And we should all be way of spotting trends – PP is developing in a pattern very typical for corrupt, poor countries; enclaves of relative wealth, but widespread poverty. There is no reason to think Cambo with all it’s problems will ever develop very far. More likely it will acquire some pockets of wealth, and remain a generally chaotic, crazy place, which is fine for me as a tourist – it makes it interesting – but sucks for the Cambodians. I suppose my chief point is the strange unreality of the WSJ report which does nothing to convey the reality on the ground, and the bland confidence in the inevitability of “progress” and spotting long-term trends in slight changes. Voila. C’est tout.

  2. B says:

    I agree with Mr. Craig on the realities of P.P. I was there earlier in this year and also found it to be rough and rugged – although Vladivostok will take the cake as the roughest, hardest place I have been.

    That said, I feel that that PP has a lot going for it – I believe the urban fabric of PP remains surprising strong (say what you want about the French – they build good and lasting cities) and the places seems to ooze a positive attitude and youth to it.

    Just me.

  3. Felix Dzerzhinsky says:

    Phnom Penh is a great place to visit and live provided you have a expat income and therefore do not keep all your money in Cambodia. This place has all the makings for an Albanian style financial collapse…lots of uneducated people with money they have looted from the money the European Union, the Japanese, the Americans, the Canadians and the Australians provided as aid money. Every year the Hun Sen government promises reform, delivers money to his cronies who buy Black Lexus and Mercedes. Every year the international community pays him again. In short it is governed like an African country only with Asian people.

    Should they have to go to war with the Thai army over the border the Cambodian RCAF are sure to win. No nation’s military is better supplied. They have more Lexus, Mercedes, Hummer and Luxury Landcruisers than anywhere on the planet. Plenty of experience discharging their weapons in fights over women in Karaoke bars or pushing poor people off land to which they have title.

    Khmer people are great. It is just a pity they are run by people who have been allowed to carry on the way they do because of aid money provided by tax payers in the developed world.

  4. Curzon says:

    Great insight from all three of you, thank you.

  5. Nemi says:

    It sounds surprising that one should count the development of a country by the number of skyscrapers they have in their capital. Development is not always synonym of “good things to come”. I have visited Cambodia several times in different times with a few gap years in between and although they are growing in investments, that does not mean that the people are better off. In Siem Reap hotels are being build without control, risking the water supply of the area for the near future. Most of the tourists are still from Asia, and I have heard a few drivers complain that they hire tours in buses and do not leave money in the local economy, meaning that the money ends up in the hands of the few wealthy owners of the hotels. The underdevelopment of Cambodians provide the people with a “safe” environment for their mental health. I love them, they are amazing people, what happens in PP and SR is just another example of what bad investments and government management do to people, they uproot them, they mingle with their minds until they become bold and devoid of dignity. I’ve seen that in Manila, and I’m sure it happens in a lot of places as well. Development is only positive when it’s done with the people in mind.

  6. Mark in Ark says:

    Gordon and Felix and absolutely correct. I’ve lived in Cambodia and visited for 15 years. Nemi is wrong-the people need more freedom and enforcement of contracts and deeds, which they don’t currently have (and will never have, I’d guess).
    They rulers of every state are corrupt and deserve to hang.

  7. YT says:

    Gud evenin’ (my timezone), gentlemen. F!@#in’ d$%^s, never knew things WERE that bad in Kampuchea. Sonsovab*****s really do deserved to be hanged. The other day, was just watchin’ some footage on TV ’bout some dragon boat race or somethin’ on one of ‘em rivers. Just goes to show how damned deceptive news networks are in most places.

    Read ’bout how some d***s used to go there as United Nations personnel back in the 90s & trade in girls. As in pimp for ‘em. Any factual basis?

  8. Felix Dzerzhinsky says:

    A really good guide to how the economy actually works here can be found in the unusually titled “The Political Economy of Pro-Poor Livestock Policy in Cambodia”

    I particularly like this quote from an anonymous Khmer private entrepreneur:

    “Regarding government’s role, he believes that only the government canmake the needed changes. International agencies can advise, but they are not the government, nor are NGOs. His take on the government is fascinating. He calls ministers “takay” which literally means “boss” and the PM is a “bong thom” or “big brother” which is slang for gangster or gang member. He does not consider what is known as the government in Cambodia to be a government. In fact, he thinks it’s a private corporation out there to extract resources and is absolutely not ready to make the necessary reforms so long as it hurts their personal bottom lines.”

  9. Seamus says:

    I can’t believe that prostitution was regularly advertised.

    I’ll have to go check that out for myself sometime.