The 15 Things I Learned about Cambodia this week
This was my second visit to Cambodia and after a wonderful first visit to Siem Reap, I wasn't impressed with the country this time. Cambodia isn't like Thailand Thailand is the world's largest playground and has some of the highest share of return visitors. Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh is just an hour's flying from Bangkok, but the two countries aren't even similar. Thailand has been a country on a mission for decades and has lifted millions out of poverty into a good middle-income country lifestyle, while Cambodia has none of this spirit. Cambodia has seen more tourists in recent years (often because it is so close to Thailand), but has trouble getting anyone to return. It's a time warp I can't think of many changes that actually occurred in Cambodia since, say, 1970. It's still very much like that, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Yes, it's more calm, but also less just and there are far fewer opportunities. Does it remind you of Ethiopia too? Cambodia is missing basic infrastructure like roads, even in the capital, and has abject poverty almost everywhere. It is also scam artist central, with crowds of scammers descending on you. Exactly like Ethiopia, right? Well, Ethiopia is changing quickly, the GDP is skyrocketing and the country is investing billions in trains and roads. Meanwhile, on paper, Cambodia has a relatively open economy, but has not managed to grow or attract major investment. More on scam artist central In a day, you will be approached at least a hundred times for taking a tuk tuk or motorbike or buying some property. The sums are small, but it gets old quickly when someone jumps out at you at every corner, yelling, "Tuk tuk mister". I starting using my headphones, which helped a little to get less attention. It's hard to find great Cambodian food No, it's not hard to find good food in the capital (or in Siem Reap), but it's likely some other ethnic cuisine - often Thai. Khmer (the local word for Cambodian) food isn't an easy cuisine, with fish head curries and bones constantly splintered all over your food. Traffic is manic I'm no stranger to polluted and crazy traffic (after Lagos, Jakarta or the world's worst offender for traffic - Manila). Phnom Penh does have fewer cars and isn't polluted, but what gets you is that everything shares one lane - pedestrians, motorbikes, rickshaws, stray dogs, trucks, land rovers... Most drivers watch out for each other and they aren't very aggressive but the sheer chaos makes it hard to focus or get anywhere. There is a lot of money in Cambodia This may sound odd, but as with many African countries, there is a lot of money in the country, but investing in fenced-up houses and black Land Cruisers does not help the GDP much (at least not the Cambodian GDP). The amount of Land Cruisers in the city would make Mr. Mugabe jealous. There is little common courtesy Common courtesy, e.g. people watching out for each other, isn't a major strength of Cambodians. Again, there are worse countries in this category (I'm looking at you, India and China!) but for a country so close to Thailand it's not funny. There are lots of smiles for tourists If you bring dollars (or are expected to have any) there are plenty of smiles for you. But without some 'green' those go away quickly. The 'dollar on legs' feeling is strong in Cambodia. Using the dollar for developing economy is a bad idea and here is why Cambodia uses the dollar for most transactions over one dollar in value - sounds like a good idea - right? The problem is that it robs the country to adjust competitiveness through a currency devaluation (which is usually much less painful than reducing salaries). For many developed economies it doesn't make a big difference, but look at what happened to the developed economies with the Euro, as well as the less developed ones. Given Cambodia's low GDP, the effect is disastrous. The price level in the trendier (but not glitzy) areas is easily on a US level. The quality is good too, but a $3 espresso in town and a $6 one at the airport is crazy for a country that is poor. There is no middle class to speak of in Cambodia Owing to the ridiculous minimal growth. Dual pricing is rife As with other countries, dual pricing by race is rife. Locals ride the rickshaw for cents on the dollar, while you have to pay up. Almost everywhere here you will be charged by race. NO fun! There are too many do-gooders Helping the poor and developmental help is well-intended and as a temporary measure is an awesome idea. However, Cambodia should have no problem developing into a middle income country BY ITSELF. To do good, you need to pressure the dysfunctional and corrupt government to set up a country that can lift EVERYONE out of poverty within a decade (as many other countries have shown). Safety is an issue While it's certainly not a country rife with crime, it is an issue in Cambodia, mostly with property crimes and the occasional violence. Given the lack of growth and that it's an unjust society, it's surprising there isn't more. Locals and foreigners don't mix Almost everywhere I went, it was either this or that. Food, drinks, coffee shops, bars - there is a place for foreigners and one for locals. Local places aren't necessarily much different (or cheaper) but it's almost like there is a shocking disinterest by Cambodians of anything that happens in the rest of the world. It's likely due to the climate of no opportunity and high social costs, but it's still frightening.