Cambodia Round-Up: Changes, Constants and the Future

Introduction

Cambodia is a country that has changed significantly throughout history. While the higher magnitude (and most horrific) changes occurred between 30 and 50 years ago, there have been significant changes in the ten years that I’ve known Cambodia personally. These changes, though, have not penetrated too deeply; underpinning them are constants, good and bad, entwined with vestiges of Cambodia’s colonial and imperial past. By exploring changes and constants, we can see the relationship between them, and a picture of the likely future of the country soon begins to emerge.

Changes

Diversification

In the past ten years, one of the most notable changes has been to the social fabric of the country, which is beginning to return to levels of diversity which were last seen half a century ago.

Part of the floating village in Kampong Chhnang. Since 2009, this has expanded by an area five houses wide across the river, and several more along it. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/1250 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.
Part of the floating village in Kampong Chhnang. Since 2009, this has expanded by five house widths across the river. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/1250 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

A large contributor to the increase in social diversity has been the influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the past few years. Their presence has been most noticeable in areas with vast amounts of water, including Kampong Chnnang, Prey Veng and on the Tonle Sap. They mostly work as fishermen, though as their presence becomes more permanent, they are beginning to operate other businesses, too. An indicator of their permanence is the Citizenship Advice Office being constructed in Prey Veng to smooth the citizenship process for immigrants.

Due to the large number of Catholics immigrating from Vietnam, religious diversity has expanded, as Catholic churches are constructed to furnish them with places of worship. This builds upon the existing presence of Christianity in Cambodia, as more churches are established, and more influence is felt from missionary work in the region. Add to this the large Muslim Cham and Buddhist communities, and you get a menagerie of religion and culture contained within the country’s borders.

Development

New developments are rife, as foreign money flows into the country both through aid projects and private ventures. These developments seem to have momentum, and are progressing at a good rate, with a paucity of downtime amongst a number of the construction workers. Even the regions have been included in this development, with new schools, health clinics, and Government buildings underway in many areas outside of Phnom Penh.

New apartments being erected on Diamond Island, Phnom Penh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/1250 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.
New apartments being erected on Diamond Island, Phnom Penh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/1250 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

Amongst the myriad of commercial and governmental developments are residential developments, including gated communities, for the emerging and increasingly more affluent middle class. While these are obviously not accessible to the vast majority of Cambodians, bear in mind that as those who can afford it trade up into new developments, they leave their old dwellings available for others to occupy; effectively an upgrade chain.

A large hotel being erected on an island in Phnom Penh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/1600 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.
A large hotel being erected on an island in Phnom Penh. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/1600 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

A fair number of developments of varying magnitude have been made solely for tourism. While tourism forms an essential part of the Cambodian economy, two questions are begged: what does it cost, and is there any real benefit?

Infrastructure for increased tourism at Phnom Kulen. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200.
Infrastructure for increased tourism at Phnom Kulen. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200.

The cost of infrastructure for tourism is most visible in two places: Angkor Wat, and Phnom Kulen. Since tourist traffic has increased, Angkor Wat has deteriorated significantly. Wooden steps now cover many of the stairways that were in use five years ago, while carvings have been eroded by increased pollution from the vehicles used to ferry tourists around. Phnom Kulen hasn’t deteriorated (yet), though the rugged beauty for which it was popular has now been covered with boardwalks and swing seats. Additionally, most of the insect life (in the form of dragonflies and butterflies) has disappeared within the past five years.

While those costs to the country exist, there is a benefit: facilitating increased tourism increases the potential for money to come into the country, which will lead to increasing economic prosperity. However, this in itself poses another question: at what point does increased infrastructure and increased tourist traffic detract from the destination? Neighbouring countries show that this may be a moot point, and nothing to concern one’s self with, but only time will tell whether it is affirmed or negated in Cambodia’s case.

The Environment

The street cleaners have been working double time, evidently: besides side streets, Cambodia (Phnom Penh especially) is much cleaner, and more bereft of litter than any time I can ever recall.

Where once lay litter, now lies cleanliness. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 200.
Where once lay litter, now lies cleanliness. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 200.

While it is nice to see an effort being made to control litter, the main disposal method is still burning. Given the volume of plastics being disposed of on a daily basis, this has had an obvious effect on air quality, which has noticeably worsened in major cities within five years. This has resulted in a large layer of pollution, which is most readily seen in Phnom Penh.

A sign of the times: a thick layer of pollution reflects the plethora of illuminations throughout Phnom Penh. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/13 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600.
A sign of the times: a thick layer of pollution reflects the plethora of illuminations throughout Phnom Penh. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/13 s, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

There is a hope of mitigating the effect of pollution, thankfully. Two stroke motorcycles and scooters have been phased out of the national fleet in favour of four stroke models, which has improved some air quality. Vehicles are becoming newer and better maintained, which has further potential to reduce emissions into the atmosphere. Sadly, those who can afford these vehicles have decided to show the world just how much they could afford. Never have I seen so many late-model Range Rovers flocculating in a stream of traffic. By the same token, never have I seen so many hybrids aggregating on the main street. Perhaps it will balance out…

An affluent traffic jam: a Range Rover, BMW, Porsche, and Lexus cluster together. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200.
An affluent traffic jam: a Range Rover, BMW, Porsche, and Lexus cluster together. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/60 s, f/8, ISO 200.

Constants

Heritage

Colonial area buildings and signage line the road to the market in Battambang. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.
Colonial-era buildings and signage line the road to the market in Battambang. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.

While the temples are an obvious candidate for preserved and conserved heritage, there are many more examples. The second most prevalent example of conserved heritage is the French Colonial-era buildings, many of which are visible around Battambang. These buildings remain in daily use, with the only concessions to modernisation being the occasional fitment of an electric fan or air conditioner. Another detectable indicator is the mile marker stones on the road, which are also a remnant of French colonialism.

Naturally, heritage is not entirely within the architecture of a country. Traditional farming practices (which are more affordable than machinery for the majority of farmers) and cultural customs abound. Most of these customs are courtesies from a bygone era which have been carried into the modern era, while others, such as dancing and music, have passed through time unchanged.

The Poverty Gap

Those with, pass those without. Olympus OM-2n with Olympus 50 mm f/1.8 on Kodak BW400CN.
Those with, pass those without. Olympus OM-2n with Olympus 50 mm f/1.8 on Kodak BW400CN.

A sad constant in Cambodia is the poverty gap. While there is an increasingly affluent middle class, there remains a large proportion of the population with little to their name. It is to be expected, however, in a country which has been ravaged by war, and has yet to fully find its footing in the world again. On the other hand, it could merely be classed as a symptom of modern and modernising societies; the New Zealand poverty gap and its movements were a hotly debated topic in 2013.

The Attitude

Cambodians are among the happiest and most caring people I’ve ever met. Hospitality is excellent, manners are deployed at every opportunity, and they are always there for one another as required. Besides the happiness and the care, there is an enviable work ethic, as they commit fully to a task and see it through to a high standard. This is a large component of the force driving the country forward.

The Environment

While the cities are clean, many of the rural areas have yet to follow suit. It’s the only blemish on the beautiful backdrop that is Cambodian scenery.

Refuse at the foot of a road embankment on the outskirts of Prey Veng. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 200.
Refuse at the foot of a road embankment on the outskirts of Prey Veng. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 200.

The root of the rural refuse issue is difficult to trace, though it is fair to assume it comes down to a combination of recalcitrance (to changing one’s ways), and education (a lack of environmental awareness, especially amongst the older generations).

The aftermath of the market in Battambang. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.
The aftermath of the market in Battambang. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.

Regional towns, such as Battambang and Kampong Thom remain afflicted by litter, though this is showing signs of decreasing, as I insinuated earlier. In the case of those towns, most of it is centred around the market, and most of this may be attributed to a combination of no refuse bins, and feral animals roaming and rummaging.

Regrettably, litter has never, and seemingly will never, be confined to the streets. Waterways have been rife with litter for as long as I can remember. Worse still, the amount accumulating in waterways has not noticeably decreased outside of tourist areas and conservation areas.

A sign of modernisation: a smartphone shop stands sentinel over the refuse riddled water of a slum in Koh Kong. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/640 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.
A sign of modernisation: a smartphone shop stands sentinel over the refuse riddled water of a slum in Koh Kong. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/640 s, f/5.6, ISO 200.

The Future

Development

Based on what I’ve seen over the past ten years, I am confident that development will continue in Cambodia at an ever-increasing rate. Due to the volume of tourism and business, the most development will be seen in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, simply because they will have the most money to facilitate it.

Regional development will start to gain momentum in line with that seen in Phnom Penh, as more money makes it back to the regions. I envisage this money making it to the regions as business developments (such as rice warehouses and processing plants for other foods like fish) and money transfers from people who have made it to the cites from the regions and wish to help their relatives.

The village school in Chok Chey, Prey Veng, which was privately funded from abroad. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 200.
The village school in Chok Chey, Prey Veng, which was privately funded from abroad. Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 with Olympus 17 mm f/2.8. 1/250 s, f/8, ISO 200.

Education and healthcare will develop, improving access across the country, both in terms of facilities, and affordability. The quality of education and healthcare will continue to improve dramatically, as the number of partnerships with foreign countries increases the sharing of knowledge and expertise to develop them to their full potential.

A polyclinic in Battambang. Places like these are becoming better equipped and increasing in prevalence across Cambodia. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.
A polyclinic in Battambang. Facilities like these are becoming better equipped and increasing in prevalence across Cambodia. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Panasonic-Leica 25 mm f/1.4. 1/15 s, f/1.4, ISO 800.

The Poverty Gap

A slum housing area at Tonle Sap. Note that the materials are all fairly robust, and the dwellings themselves relatively substantial. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 60 mm Macro. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 200.
A slum housing area at Tonle Sap. Note that the materials are, in the main, all fairly robust, and the dwellings themselves relatively substantial. Olympus OM-D E-M5 with Olympus 60 mm Macro. 1/400 s, f/8, ISO 200.

This is a difficult one for me to gauge. On the one hand, I’ve seen slums dramatically improve over the past ten years. On the other hand, the rate at which those with a little money are getting ahead of those with very little money is increasing drastically. What is certain is that, on the back of increased cash flow into the country, and increased availability of education and healthcare, slums will get better. This will take time, though how much time, is very difficult to estimate.

Conclusion

Change is afoot in Cambodia, heralding a brighter future for the country and its people. Underpinning this change is the everlasting backdrop: the country, the heritage, and the people within it. Here’s to the next ten years, and the prosperity that it may bring.

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