“Chum reap suor” (Hello!) from Cambodia. I’ve been here in Phnom Penh for 11 days now and I have 9 days left before I leave this “Kingdom of Wonder”. Halfway through my stay, I think this is the best time to share my impressions of and observations in Phnom Penh.
1. The young generation of Cambodians are very much eager to contribute something to their society. They are dedicated to make up to the tragedy of their nation’s past by applying what they learned from their degrees overseas in helping Cambodia become a more democratic and developed country. I admire them.
2. I had several conversations with foreigners who chose to stay here in Cambodia. Talking with them gave me an idea on how they have witnessed the changes in Cambodia, their hopes for the country, and most interestingly, why they are still here. It’s easy to fall in love with the Kingdom of Wonder.
3. It is fascinating how positive the outlook is of the Khmer people despite the bitter history they had gone through and the present challenges they face. There is always this feeling of warm welcome whenever I negotiate with a tuk tuk driver, or enter a restaurant or just ask for directions from a bystander. I never felt threatened or cheated. They are gentle and always ready to give a smile. On the way to Choeung Ek, kids waved and greeted us as our tuktuk passes by, considering that there may be hundreds of visitors going through this way everyday. I even heard a woman encouraging her child to say “hello” to us. No, they were not asking for money. The people I saw there were just going on with their daily business–schoolchildren with their bags, a woman manning a small store, or even a guy resting on his hammock. They waved and said “hello” because Khmer are just like that–friendly, warm and cheerful.
4. Evidence of the wide gap between the rich and the poor is everywhere. So far, I have met people who are driving luxury cars, living in grand houses, and dining at fancy restaurants. At the same time, I’ve seen people pulling wooden carts, tuk tuk and motodop drivers who will take any tourist even though they don’t understand where they asked them to go to, and children and elderly who roam the streets to sell different kinds of trinkets.
5. In relation to the economic gap, the uneven development of infrastructure in this relatively small city is also evident. When I first arrived and took the road from the airport to the Riverside, I was impressed with how much Phnom Penh has developed its infrastructure from what I remember back in 2009. There was a new flyover and plans for new ones are underway. Buildings are taller, more traffic lights and pedestrian lanes, and roads are in good condition. But just a few minutes from the city centre, roads start to show potholes, the air becomes dusty because of the unpaved roads, and streetlights and traffic lights are fewer.
6. I understand that corruption is not unusual in developing countries. But corruption coupled with poverty, restrictions to certain freedoms, and a tragic past, creates an uneasy standstill in Cambodia’s present political landscape. I learned that government positions in Cambodia are open to those who know the right people and they can keep their positions and pay check without reporting to their offices. They are like “ghost workers” who work somewhere else that gives them a better pay and yet too selfish that they continue getting their salary. Cambodia is perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world and ranks 160 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, worse that its 157 ranking in 2012.
While looking at the houses in the newly developed Grand Phnom Penh International City, I imagine the poor at the background, and I realized that war may have been over in this land decades ago but a different kind of war is now being fought in the economic and political battlefields. That makes me sick to my stomach.
After trailing the dark and dusty roads back to city centre, I had a fancy dinner in a fancy restaurant and I can’t stop thinking whether I am a part of this war.
Note: This is my 3rd time in Cambodia (2008 and 2009 were the first two) and I’m here for my PhD field research. I’m interviewing people who were involved with UNTAC (UN staff or members of Cambodian civil society) from 1992-1993 to understand how local perspectives were considered and/or incorporated in the process of post-conflict peace building led by the UN. It was a productive week so far and I expect more interviews to be confirmed for the next days.