Thursday, September 18, 2008

Days 22-23: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I'd never thought of Vietnam as a rich country... until I crossed the border over into the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The differences were visible immediately.
The houses were in far worse shape in most cases, kind of like when first seeing Laos coming from much richer Thailand. There were less cars and motorbikers (but more tuk-tuks)--and many more animals in the countryside... and on the roads. :)
Likewise, for a new democracy emerging from communism (since 1993), it felt strange to see the ubiquitous "Cambodia People's Party" on the main highway leading to Phnom Penh. It almost felt like the same one-party state in Vietnam, for, until I reached Phnom Penh, that was the only party's signs I had encountered.
In Phnom Penh, though, prices for many of the tourist sites were high by local standards, such as a visit to the royal palace ($6.25). The drivers were more civilized than in Vietnam, though, and the currency was slightly stronger ("only" about 4,200 riels to $1 rather than 16,500 dong in Vietnam). What made Cambodia more unusual was its e-visa regime, where one can apply for a visa on the Internet and have it e-mailed to him/her. For a third-world country having such a hi-tech way of doing things was unusual.

Phnom Penh felt like a big city, even after Saigon, although its population was some five times smaller (about 1 million people). There were more beggars than in Vietnam, too, although they were not as aggresive. Nonetheless, Phnom Penh felt one level richer than Laos's capital city, Vientiane. Indeed, at least Phnom Penh had taxis that actually worked in addition to the tuk-tuks.

The country's coat of arms is still its old communist one. Street names are unusual, too: it seems Cambodia tries to be friends with everyone, for there is a Russian Street (as well as a "Russian" Market), a Mao Zedong Street, a French Street, and most Khmer TV programming has Chinese subtitles. Likewise, there was a lot of Chinese signage in Phnom Penh (I was later told that this is because many of the investors in the city are of Chinese, and Vietnamese, origin).
Perhaps all of the aforementioned--the extreme poverty as well as the present-day democratic changes--are not so surprising for a country emerging from one of the worst genocides in history. Out of a total population of roughly 7.5 million people, some 2-3 million Cambodians were tortured, starved, and executed in the mid 1970s under the vile communist Khmer Rogue regime under its leader, Pol Pot. It truly is a tragedy, and the killing fields outside Phnom Penh are a testament to that. The country is still emerging from those dark days with pain, although nowadays it has a lot to look forward to (read the next post).

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