Cambodia Travel Notes - Part 1 (Overall Impressions)

Whereas on my last two trips I had studied diligently prior to going, I was unprepared for this trip.  My pre-existing ideas of Cambodia came from William Shawcross' book Sideshow about Kissinger-Nixon's secret war, the 1984 movie The Killing Fields and some postcard images of Angkor Wat.  To be quite honest, it is not much to speak of.

Given these circumstances, my original plan was to make the trip, take a lot of photos, publish those photos and then write about them later after I research the background information.  However, I have changed my mind because I am going to write down my overall impressions first.  After all, the hermeutical circle to knowledge has neither a beginning nor an end.  Ever.  I may regret these words at a later time, but this post will be interesting in itself as how Cambodia strikes a person with little prior information.

I am aware that Cambodia went through the trauma of the Khmer Rouge regime and that a new nation would emerge in the early 1990's.  What are the principal resources from which this nation can draw upon in order to develop rapidly?

The first thing is to develop the tourism industry.  Here, there are three principal resources.

The first resource is one of the world's man-made wonders: Angkor Wat and other historical heritage sites such as Bayon.  I will publish my photos later.  I agree that it was wonderful to scale up the narrow stairs to the fourth-level tower to watch the sun set over the temple ruins.  However, I must also say that after a while the next ruin looked exactly the same as all the ones that were seen before.  Unless one is a specialist in the field, there is a limited interest in seeing all the thousands of sites in the country.  Thus, this is good for one or two days, but it loses its allure for the typical tourist after a while.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is a tremendously successful tourist site.  When I arrive there, I saw hundreds of tourist buses in the parking lot, and it was a bustling scene without being impossible to get around.  At US$20 per head for a day pass, they must be generating significant revenues.  Our local tour guide told us that there were more than 1,000 English-speaking tour guides here.  Our local tour guide speaks Chinese (both Cantonese and putonghua), and he says that he has sufficient demand to keep busy every day of the week.

There appears to be a massive number of Korean tourists here.  However, there are few Korean-speaking local tour guides.  So we kept coming across Korean tourist groups in which the talking was done by a Korean tour leader, while there was a local tour guide standing nearby and not uttering a word.  By law, the tour group must be led by a local tour guide and he is paid even he does not say a word.

I am somewhat leery about the perverse effect of the tourist industry on local character.  I walked by a stall and picked out some books.  I asked the teenage hawker for a price, and he quoted me a hundred American dollars.  I felt insulted and started walking away, because I did not even have to pay that much for those same original books in New York City whereas these books were clearly pirated copies.  The boy kept asking me, "So tell me how much you are willing to pay!?" in order to negotiate.  I said: "Look here!  I have a bus to catch in five minutes, and I can't waste my time haggling with you.  You give me the price that you are willing to sell them, and I'll decide."  So he came up with the price of twenty American dollars for five books (including a photo album of Angkor Wat as well as the standard list of Khmer Rouge books).  I counter-offered with thirty American dollars (yes, I did just that), and we closed the deal with a reminder from me that some people don't like being lied to in the first instance.

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The second set of resources is the war crime museum in the Tuol Sleng district of Phnom Penh where tens of thousands of prisoners were interrogated and tortured by the Khmer Rouge before being sent to the killing fields of Choeung Ek to be terminated.  I will publish the photos later.  The obvious question is whether it is correct to profit from the deaths of so many.  I came out believing that this was an invaluable experience, from either the viewpoint that something like this could happen to us or that some of us are capable of doing this.

The third set of resources is the beach resort area of Sihanoukville, which I did not get to visit this time.  I suspect that it is nowhere as developed as Bali (Indonesia) or Phuket (Thailand) at this stage.  The local tour guide was blunt in characterizing Cambodia as a tourist spot -- it is a  place that you must visit, but you will probably never have to come back again.

The second thing that Cambodia did was to develop a manufacturing industry.  That is a misnomer, because the truth is that Cambodia is sweat-shop heaven.  According to the local tour guide, there are about several hundred thousand Cambodians working in several hundred garment factories in Phnom Penh.  They make less than US$50 per month, they work long hours and they are constantly monitored by supervisors for productivity.  Typically, they will send half their salaries to their families still living in rural areas.

How can conditions at the sweat shops be improved?  I don't think that this is something that Cambodians can tackle by themselves in a globalized economy.  If the government enact laws that impose minimum wage, set maximum working hours and require other benefits, the customers are likely to move their operations elsewhere.  In that case, those hundreds of thousands Cambodians will have to go back to their rural villages where their conditions will be even worse.

If this problem is to be tackled, it is necessary to start at the source.  If a Nike track suit is being sold for US$100, then the increase of the labor cost from US$2 to US$3 or US$4 is insignificant.  For Nike, the most important thing is the brand equity that allows its track suit to be sold at a huge premium price over identical generic labels.  So the last thing Nike wants is to see that its brand name be publicly associated with unfair labor practices.

Supplementary reading: FriskoDude.  As I said, this is a country that I knew nothing about, so these comments are enlightening.