First impressions can make or break a person’s thoughts, words, and actions not only your own but that of others. As soon as I disembarked from my Thai Smile flight into Cambodia’s International airport, I was impressed with the efficiency displayed by the staff in charge of handling my visa upon arrival, the ease of locating my baggage, and the layout of the airport right down to its signs prominently displayed in English. Within what seemed like minutes, I was ushered through what can often be a daunting procedure. As I stepped outside the main entrance to look for my friend who was planning to meet me, I was approached by some of the taxi drivers who wanted to take me to my destination. Instead of being pestered as in previous visits, they kindly backed off with a pleasant smile when I told them I was expecting a ride from a friend. Needless to say I was totally impressed and felt I was off to a very good start to what would be my fifth visit to this country which many people avoid visiting because of its dark history. If you would like to learn more about this, you can go to the following link: Cambodia – Past and Present.
The first time I visited Phnom Penh (PP) in 2014, I experienced a major culture shock. The ride from the airport to the centre of the city was a nightmare. Traffic was all over the place and in some places our tuk- tuk was meeting motor bikes heading towards us on the wrong side of the street. I had serious doubts I would get to my destination in one piece. However, I need not have worried since most tuk- tuk drivers are used to such chaos. I also had to face streets and sidewalks in terrible shape and littered with garbage. Then there was the the blatant disparity between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike our western cities where the rich and the poor classes are partitioned into their own enclaves, in PP they were all there side by side. This is still true today in some parts of the city, ironically in the area where the Royal Palace is located. These days the city is experiencing a huge population growth which can be attributed not only to the mass migration of young people coming from rural Cambodia to get a better education, looking for work, or seeking a city life offering more opportunities, but also the displaced people who have had their land sold to Chinese developers.
Nevertheless, driving into the city this time with my friend, Michelle Vachon and her tuk-tuk driver Sochea, I was amazed by all the lights shimmering in the night creating the look and feel of a world class city. I was also totally relaxed as Sochea expertly guided us through the heavy traffic. There were no unexpected moves such as motor bikes taking short cuts. Vehicles of all sizes appeared to be minding their driving manners and before I knew it, we had reached our destination. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that the abundance of tuk-tuks, cyclos, motor bikes, and large SUV’s continues to clog the streets and cause traffic problems and pollution as PP doesn’t appear to have any kind of bus system in place. The result is a glut of tuk-tuks making it difficult for us visitors to know what to pay the drivers and where they might take us. Since my hotel and Michelle’s place were centrally located near the Royal Palace and the Tonle Sap Riverfront where many of the restaurants and coffee cafes are, I was able to walk everywhere and avoid using a tuk-tuk. This time I wasn’t confronted with piles of garbage cluttering the streets. Furthermore, all the major boulevards and many of the smaller streets have been paved which has improved the traffic flow.
Garbage collection has been a huge problem for PP and the whole country for that matter. In my 2014 post, I wrote about arriving shortly after a strike and no wonder as I had never seen trucks in such a deplorable state and workers with no kind of protection struggling with heaps of garbage waiting to be removed. Click on this link and you can find out just how desperate the situation was back then: Soaking Up Phnom Penh. These days I am happy to report that the garbage problem has improved. While staying at Prantara Heritage Suites, I noticed what seemed like on most nights a huge state-of-the-art garbage truck collecting all the garbage on the side walks making the streets reasonably clean for the next day. I wasn’t able to find out much about where all this garbage ends up but did learn that any sorting is done at the disposal plant. Furthermore, the department in charge of garbage collection appears to be getting some help from some enterprising people carrying bags of plastic bottles and tins on their trucks and motor bikes to places where they could receive a little money for their efforts. I also noticed the banks along the river were not only cleaner but were showing patches of green where some enterprising gardener was growing his or her veggies. It’s heartening to see improvements in the collection of garbage but disheartening to see that the production and use of it has actually increased. As is practically the case for many countries, especially in SE Asia, COVID has managed to take away any plans they had for reducing the horrendous amount of plastic they use. The switch to more and more “take out” orders is to blame for that.
One of the most encouraging things about PP’s rise from the ashes is the increasing influx of young people moving to this city to either attend university or some training facility to learn English and get not only the skills needed to help rebuild their country, but most importantly so they can send money back home to support their parents. Unfortunately, seniors in this country have not been getting any government support but apparently that is about to change according to the Cambodian People‘s Party five year plan. This party was formed after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge in the 1990’s and is still under the leadership of Hun Sun who has been in power ever since. Although still restrictive and suffering from too much corruption, his goal is to show the people that he is striving for a benevolent dictatorship by following the example set by Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister who for 30 years was successful in making Singapore one of the most prosperous countries in SE Asia. I hope that he is sincere and will carry out his plan as promised. This country with a better educated and young generation who want more than anything else to make a decent living so that their country will gain the recognition that it aspires to and so much deserves can’t afford to be disappointed by their government any more.
During my two week stay, I had the good fortune to meet several young people who share the PM’s goals in making themselves and their country better. I sense they are ready to put the worst parts of their past behind them in order to focus on their future. They do not want to be poor and have to endure what their parents and grandparents did. However, they are not about to relinquish all of their past. There is a growing interest in learning and promoting their ancient Angkor civilization through their writings, dance, food, and most recently a beautiful new museum funded by France and supported by the government. By tracing Cambodia’s history which goes back to well before the rise and fall of the Angkor Empire, this museum’s goal is to restore Cambodia’s pride in its past. I spent a day there and could have gone back again if I had the time. It’s been beautifully done and should achieve its purpose in educating not just the Cambodian people but all those people who live and visit this amazing country. This is a wonderful thing to witness as history can be one of a country’s best teachers for gaining an understanding of where they have come from and what they need to move forward into the future. This should help Cambodians to leave behind the horrors of their past. The young people I talked to are more than ready to face their future and do whatever is needed to make it better than its past.
One such person I had the pleasure to talk to was Danany, a hard working, smart 21 year old girl who with her brother owns and manages a busy coffee cart on the street where my friend Michelle lives. Stopping there most mornings for my java, I found out that both she and her brother are attending university on scholarships and the money they make with their coffee. They spell each other so they can do the work and not have to pay for additional help. Their parents are poor and live in a small village in the north. She is studying Economic Development and upon graduation will try for a job in either Thailand or Singapore so she can make enough money to help out her parents. This is a must for her because of the sacrifices they had to make and the support they have given her to make a good life for herself. This goal for the young is very common in Cambodia today. The want to learn English, get a good education and job, help their parents, and travel. Marriage is not in their plans at least not until their other goals are reached.
I also had the good fortune to interview an enterprising, young man who recently took on the ambitious role of owning and managing the Prantara Heritage Suites where I stayed for my first week in Phnom Penh. An enterprising man in his 30’s, Bruce (his English name) has a university education which was funded by a sponsor. Having lost his father in the Khmer Rouge war at a refugee camp while waiting to migrate to Thailand, his mother was forced to return to her small village as a widow with two young children to support. Of course, there was no money to send her son to university. However, his talents and eagerness to learn, attracted the interest of his sponsor so off he went to study business. He landed the job as manager of the hotel which was owned by Moroccan and French owners who decided to get out of the business during COVID. Seizing the opportunity to do something he knew and loved, he took the leap to owning it. He struggles as he works trying to get a loan from the bank to complete renovations on this old but characteristic hotel. Bruce’s interests don’t stop there. He is married with three small children about fifty kilometers outside the city where his wife is raising pigs. He commutes back and forth on weekends. He does this because he believes heavily in Cambodia’s necessity to be self sufficient in its food production. With such forward thinking and hard work, I hope that this young man will succeed. His hotel is on Booking.com and as a guest I highly recommend it for its great location and friendly staff.
I would be terribly remiss if I omitted telling you about the lovely sales woman I met and bought some wallets and jewelry from at Artisans Watthan, a little store on 240 Street near the popular cafe Barista. All the merchandise in this store is made by people maimed by the land mines left around the country after the war. I didn’t get her name and with her somewhat limited English, I was only able to get bits and pieces of her sad story. I found out that a land mine took her mother’s life just over 30 years ago while she, my sweet sales clerk, was still in her mother’s womb. She was taken in and raised by her grandparents whom she still lives with along with her adorable cat. Although she survived, she was left with serious injuries which, however, haven’t affected her ability to move with an admirable agility around the store and to give her ‘all’ to making sales in a helpful and not pushy way. I am so glad I met her and to have the things I bought which will help her and other land mine victims.
There is one final person on my list of people I met and got to know as best I could and that is Sochea, one of Michelle’s tuk-tuk drivers who has driven me around PP on previous visits. As an older Cambodian with a different mindset from Daneny and Bruce regarding work and plans for the future, he represents an old and established industry in this city which is basically under siege. Sochea has been a tuk-tuk driver for ten years. Before that he worked in construction, a job offering him too little pay with no safety measures. He enjoys his present job and is proud to say he has made enough money to be the owner of not just his tuk-tuk, but his home which he recently built. He is married for the second time after his first wife left him several years ago. I found out that he is the exception for such a separation since most Cambodian women don’t leave their marriages. They will put up with their husbands despite any cheating or laziness. However, he and his second wife are happy together as she contributes some extra earnings she makes for selling her good cooking in the suburb where they live. This is a common occupation for many women who have only their cooking skills to fall back on. Sochea has three children: two daughters in their 20’s from his first marriage who both work, and a twelve year old son from his second marriage. He is totally reliable and always in a good mood, smiling and willing to be helpful at Michelle’s beck and call. However, he did confide to me that being a tuk- tuk driver these days has become extremely competitive with the advent of the modern tuk-tuks and their owners from India. Run by large companies like Grab, the drivers have to buy their vehicles as well as be paid at a minimal wage. They will get more customers in most cases but for smaller profit. Because they offer a fare to their riders which is usually less than the independent drivers, they are becoming the first choice for both locals and tourists who don’t have their own motor bikes or cars. Sochea knows he is lucky to have customers like Michelle who always leaves him a tip for his good service. However, I sensed that he sees the writing on the wall so is preparing for when his job will be eliminated entirely.
I am sure there are many more of the younger generation who have similar goals and aspirations. With better educational opportunities and hopefully a government who will keep their eyes focused on the promises they have pledged for the upcoming election this summer, they will continue to work hard to preserve the good things about their country to the best of their ability and circumstances. The reality is that Cambodia is vulnerable as a country dominated by corruption, a government that up to this point has been repressive, the uncertainty on whether the Prime Minister will carry out his promises, and finally the effects that climate change is having on the country.
Here are some additional posts on what I have learned about Cambodia’s past and the problems it is facing today as an undeveloped country ruled by a repressive government promising to be more progressive.
- Good News Stories From Battambang, Cambodia
- Coastal Cambodia at Risk?Cambodia – Past and Present
- Saving Dolphins and Eradicating Poverty in Kratie, Cambodia
- The Big “C” in Cambodia
- Cambodia – Past and Present