Southwestern Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand has been gifted with white sand beaches, tropical islands, budding resorts, and provincial towns. It’s no surprise that tourists from all over the world are flocking here to sample these offerings, potentially promising a boom for the local economy. Cambodia desperately needs this but will it succeed at getting it? Unfortunately, I see some black clouds on the horizon threatening their dream.
Before I begin to figure out how Cambodia can possibly deal with those black clouds I see looming over it, I want to relate how my stay this past week at the Village of Outres between the beaches of Outres 1 and 2 reminded me so much of the ’60’s when the ‘hippies’ of that era began their search for their nirvana which would come to be an escape from the troubles they saw in their world around them. Down through the ages there have many idealists wanting to set up their utopias in order to live life the way in which they felt it should be lived not how their governments dictated. They wanted to live on the fringes like the ‘hippies’ and create their own perfect world. The problem is that most of them were out of sync with their times so their experiments usually failed. Those of us who were around in the ’60’s witnessed their demise when drugs took over their lives. Others just got disillusioned from trying to right the wrongs and gave it all up to go back to normal living. However, their movement and the ideas behind it weren’t a total failure because what they did accomplish was an awakening in many of us that our western society didn’t have all the answers on how our world should work.
You are probably wondering where I am going with this but bear with me. Since I arrived here three weeks ago, in what is now referred to as Coastal Cambodia… first in Kep, then a little inland to the old French provincial town of Kampot, and, finally, this week to Outres Beach 2 near Sihanoukville, the largest city in this tourist haven…. I have stumbled upon a community of sorts bearing an odd resemblance to the hippy communes.
For the past week I have been calling a comfy enclave of bungalows called Om Home in Outres Village, my home. I couldn’t help noticing that the ex-pats and many of the backpackers here were dressing and living a life similar to our “hippies” of the ’60’s. They are mostly young people wearing weird clothing, maybe some facial jewellery, sporting long hair, dread locks, and beards, and definitely showing off bodies with lots of tattoos. There are a few older men and women interspersed in the group. This group of ex-pats, digital nomads, or barang as the locals call them may dress and lead a laid back life style reminiscent of the hippy era but the similarity ends there.
Unlike our idealistic ‘hippies’ who were too far ahead of their time in their search for a better world, today’s young people are more practical and here just when Cambodia and the world needs them. Their goal is not to escape our imperfect world but to immerse themselves in it. They are not sitting around dreaming about what to do: they are endeavouring to do it. They are aware of what they are facing and open to changing with the times in order to carve out a life for themselves.
The Village of Outres has basically been created by the barang over the past eight years. On my first visit back then, all that was here was a handful of thatched huts and small restaurants renting out beach chairs for the few tourists who wanted to escape the crowded beaches in Sihanoukville. Seeing an opportunity to use their entrepreneurship and creativity, adventurous barang began to open up guest houses, restaurants providing foods from around the world, yoga studios, arts and craft shops, and, of course, numerous Internet jobs which has earned them the title of ‘digital nomads’…people who can take their skills anywhere to make a living as long as they have a computer.
Cambodia has been the perfect place for them to do this with the government basically turning a blind eye to what they are doing… that is until the tourists starting arriving in larger numbers. The increase in the number of Chinese tourists has quickly caught the interest of the government and the developers. The rising middle class in China wants to see the world, and they have the money to do so but not in the style of the backpackers. They prefer five-star resorts, fine cuisine, and easy accessibility to all the hot spots, such as Siem Reap with its ruins from the ancient Khmer Kingdom of Angkor. Before this influx of tourists from China, it was almost a win/win situation for all sides as it brought money into the country’s coffers and provided much-needed jobs and business opportunities for the locals. However, the influx of the Chinese tourist is changing all of this.
You must have guessed by now the cause for the ‘black cloud’ hanging over this unfortunate country. In the past few years, rampant construction driven by Chinese millionaires has been changing the natural beauty of this coastal region to what is beginning to look like a garbage dump with a landscape dominated by cranes and high buildings. This is particularly noticeable in and around Sihanoukville and gradually creeping into Kep and Kampot.
Depending on who you talk to, there are various moves from China that are causing not only the ex-pats but the locals much concern. Fancy resorts are replacing the bamboo huts and little guest houses which were once affordable to the young backpackers and middle class tourists.
As I mentioned, the new resorts are geared to cater to the emerging middle class of China, Russia, and more mature tourists from Europe who no longer want to backpack it. When the developers start drawing this kind of tourist then there’s always another money-maker to be considered…gambling! Rumour has it that when all the construction in Sihanoukville is completed, the city can then boast of over 40 casinos! Now you might think that all this will benefit the Cambodian people by providing them with those much-needed jobs making it all good, but you will be wrong!
Apparently the construction crews and eventually the operators of the resorts and casinos are being staffed by the Chinese. All of this is creating gate-like communities which could ultimately destroy the efforts of the young ex-pats and the locals here in the Village of Outres where they have been learning to work together to make their community more sustainable and peaceful. Many of them are outfitting their buildings with solar devices to heat their water and run their generators, which they often have to rely upon when their power is cut off by the construction sites. Moreover, many restaurants are offering organically grown foods on their menus. They are proud to claim that their village is a foodie’s haven with everything made from scratch.
However, this could conceivably become a past dream with the impending Chinese invasion which right now weighs heavily on the mind of the locals and the ex-pats. To add further insult to injury, their invasion is being openly aided and abetted by the present government led by Hun Sen. You can read more about him and his government in my most recent post Cambodia – Past and Present.
Of course, he’s doing everything in his power to keep the status quo in this country which is to line his and his cronies’ pockets with cash. China has no problem with this way of doing business for it’s the custom in this part of the world. They appear to be out to get whatever they need to take care of their aging population by building comfortable apartments for retirement, and for the younger generation, who are eager to escape to beaches, those five-star resorts. Then there awaits them the forests, the water from the Mekong River, and the minerals that Cambodia can still claim to have but are rapidly disappearing. Granted some of this money will filter down to the people. The infrastructure that the government has put millions of dollars into, enabling the people to travel around more easily and quickly is a plus for those who can afford motorbikes and fancy cars but what about those many poor people who can’t?
Cambodia is still a corrupt country. The only winners who can come out on top to improve their lives are those with the money. If you have that, you can buy anything you want including a job, but it you don’t, you can’t go too far.
I know Cambodia isn’t the only developing country facing this problem…. all the SE Asian countries and other parts of the world are to some degree dealing with this sickness depending on how much unspoiled land they have left, other valuable resources, and the degree of governmental transparency. The invasion of the Chinese is a great concern to all.
The opinions of many Cambodians and those barang I have talked to is that of all the SE Asian countries, Cambodia stands to be the biggest loser. It will continue to need our help, but it will have to be the kind of help that can empower them enough so that they can regain some of their pride of culture. They have been constantly beaten down over the years with totally corrupts leaders.They have also had over half of their country slaughtered during the reign of the Rouge wiping out almost all their well-educated and older generation. Now they are faced not only with a totally corrupt government, but a floundering population of young people who have by and large been poorly educated unless they were fortunate to have parents who were wealthy enough to send them to an International school.
Most NGO’s focus on teaching English and various skills such as making crafts and learning computer skills to those disadvantaged kids who have no parents or prospects, but I think that what they probably need more than anything else right now is to be empowered. More emphasis on Life Skills training could do this. They have to be given a better understanding of their past and learn to take pride in their culture again. This could help them to stand up to the Chinese in a way that isn’t going to get them killed. They need to change their thinking from despair to hope in spite of the obstacles that are facing them. Everyone agrees that a change of government is needed, but for now they will, unfortunately, have to accept the fact that their present government is here to stay for a while.
I wish that the Cambodian people had fewer odds facing them and their lives could be easier. I wish that their future could be more promising because if any people deserve more, it would have to be them.