Cambodia: Seeing the Cracks in the Picture

February 12, 2018

A construction site in Phnom Penh

I first traveled in Cambodia in 2013. Now I’m back five years later, and I’m getting a completely different impression of this country.

In 2013, I was mostly just having fun. I didn’t know all that much about Cambodia. Yes, I did go to the genocide museums and reflected on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. I also probably read the History and Cambodia Today sections of my Lonely Planet. But I mostly just traveled around, saw the temples, partied in Sihanoukville, and concluded that this is a really fun and cheap travel destination.

This time I’m enjoying Cambodia again, but I’m also noticing much more how terribly fucked this country is. And it’s left me with much more mixed emotions.

I think many things are objectively different in Cambodia now, but a large part of why I feel differently this time is probably quite subjective. Since I was last here, I’ve gotten much more into the habit of asking people questions when I travel. I just try to make more of an effort to ask locals what the talk is around town, as it’s a nice way to get some more background on the places you visit.

But in Cambodia, asking little questions can open big cans of worms. Instead of getting some fun little anecdote, you’ll often get a big infodump on all the bad shit that’s going down. And then you’re sitting there going… wow, yep, that is a lot of worms. I am now covered in worms.

News reports can tell you more, but the gist is that the government in Cambodia is horribly corrupt, and this leads to lots of bad stuff. The country is also in an awful place politically, with independent newspapers and opposition parties having recently been shut down.

I got a small taste of the political climate when I was sat in a cafe in Kampot with my laptop out. I was reading a news article that had a photo of Chinese president Xi Jinping shaking hands with Hun Sen, the man who’s been in charge in Cambodia since 1998.

That picture did not go unnoticed. Straight away, a waiter came up to me to ask me questions about what I was reading. Did I know the people in the photo? What did I think of Xi Jinping? What about the other guy? I was not expecting to draw so much attention.

We talked for a bit about the article and about Cambodia. Then I asked the waiter what he thought about Hun Sen. This made things a bit awkward.

“There are many people who don’t like him,” he said after carefully considering his words. “But I can’t say anything, or else…”. He gestured his throat getting slit. Then he scuttled back to the bar.

Damn.

Soon enough another waiter came to me, also seeing the image and wanting to talk. He was also interested in hearing what a foreigner knew or thought about Cambodia. In exchange, he offered just one thought: “Hen Sun is a strong leader. Very… strong.”

He too then gloomily scuttled back to the bar.

As I spoke with other hostel staff, local guides, and expats around the country, I started to feel a little depressed about Cambodia.

Not only because the regime is oppressive. But also because just about everything seems up for sale to the highest bidder, no matter the human or environmental cost. The seas are being emptied by Thai and Vietnamese trawlers, national parks are being destroyed by illegal loggers and Chinese and Western mining companies, and all the islands have been sold wholesale to foreign investors with no regards for their original inhabitants.

Casinos are popping up everywhere, along with rumors that include words like ‘the mob’ and ‘money laundering’. Bokor National Park, a place that should have never been anything but an ecotourism hub, is now becoming a casino resort. Koh Rong island is getting its first casino soon. All of Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville is being transformed into a Chinese casino strip.

Casinos by themselves don’t have to be a problem, but in Cambodia they do seem emblematic of other issues. A guesthouse owner told me of a riot that recently broke out in Sihanoukville between local Khmer and the Chinese construction workers who were building the new casinos there. The local newspapers had reported on this brawl but left the Chinese out of the story entirely, framing it as a fight between Cambodians.

There are many issues tangled up here, and I’m not trying to untangle them all here. All I’m trying to convey is what sort of things people are talking about. When speaking to locals or expats, I often sensed a lot of disappointment and distress — either with what’s happening with the environment, or what’s happening politically and in people’s lives.

On paper, Cambodia is doing great. Its economy is growing by about 7% every year. You can easily tell from the much-improved quality of the roads, among many other things. But looking at any metrics other than GDP, things seem to be a lot less than amazing.

Of course, I loved being back in Cambodia as a traveler. I especially loved the chance to see things I missed out on before, including some rural and less-visited places. I managed to pop out of the usual backpacker bubble a few times, and had many more interactions with friendly Khmer along the way. But this also left me with a nagging sense of things happening behind the curtains that aren’t really so nice.

That isn’t to say I now have any more meaningful insight into Cambodia. I’ve merely heard some stories and read some news, and I feel not at all equipped to draw any sort of informed conclusions. I suppose none of this makes for particularly good travel blog content, but it does seem disingenuous to only talk about what a fun travel destination Cambodia is.

The truth is that as I traveled around Cambodia — as much as I thoroughly enjoyed it — deep down I also felt kind of bummed out.

I really hope Cambodia has a better future.


Read next: in the Cardamom Mountains, I found a more hopeful story in Cambodia. I trekked for several days through one of Asia’s foremost biodiversity hotspots, where ecotourism is supporting some amazing conservation and sustainable development efforts.

3 comments

  1. Tina Reply February 19, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    Marek,

    First of all, thanks! A lot! I’ve been using your blog since I started travelling last October and it’s been very useful indeed.

    I’m now in my last month of travelling and decided to spend it in Cambodia – this was mainly based on the opinions of two travellers I met in Indonesia and the opinion of a friend back home. They all said that Cambodia is a life changing country and really makes you re-think your Western lifestyle and its luxuries, given just how basic Cambodia is.

    Thanks number two for the article above: I arrived in Phnom Penh a week ago and have been there, Battambang and Siem Reap so far. And – I have not been comfortable. It’s not just the “dark past” (I sometimes feel if I hear someone mention that one more time, I might punch them) – it’s exactly what you speak about above. The brand new, shiny, white, (actually quite dusty!) Lexuses juxtaposed with the man with no legs crawling across the tourist street in PP trying to beg a buck.

    It isn’t right. And while I feel good to be spending my tourist dollars here in (hopefully) the right places, it’s not enough.

    And that’s making me sad.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    Tina

    • Marek Reply February 19, 2018 at 3:57 pm

      Hey Tina. Thank you for your comment – it seems like you had the same perspective. I suppose Cambodia can be very contradictory because I do believe traveling there can be quite humbling and positive for the reasons your friends mentioned (and of course the tourist dollars can help). But… there are also so many things that really don’t feel right at all.

  2. Chris Reply February 13, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    Cambodia has had a pretty rough go of it as a country, and the social and economic scars from that are no doubt hard to recover from. I was there in 2014, and while I loved it, you could also see that the country was struggling. There is SO much amazing stuff there, so I can only hope they work to build a better future for themselves. Alas, Cambodia is not the only country struggling in that regard.

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