On Sothearos Boulevard, near Sisowath Quay, is the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda. Ornate, gilded and with classic Khmer roof structures (I’m told), it is a striking contrast to the stark, austere monuments to the Khmer Rouge atrocities and bears a resemblance to its counterpart in Bangkok.
The Silver Pagoda is so named because of the more than five thousand silver tiles, each weighing a kilogram, used in its construction. It is also known as Wat Preah Keo – the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. Filled with highly ornate, gilded and golden statues of the Buddha and other precious collections it is the perfect tourist merry-go-round.
It is mandatory to take off your shoes, hats, caps and scarves when entering the Wat. One’s shorts should cover to below the knees and women must cover their shoulders and arms. I suppose walking over silver tiles amongst golden statues of Buddhas, a life size Buddha made of gold, weighing some ninety kilograms and decorated with nine thousand five hundred and eighty four diamonds, not to mention a seventeenth century Buddha made from Baccarat crystal (the aforementioned Emerald Buddha) requires some modicum of respect; for what, I still don’t really know, but I’m happy to comply.
It didn’t take me long to wander through the Royal Palace compound and peruse the sights. I had more fun photographing reflections of the various pagodas and gardens in the many ponds that can be found in the compound. It was a relief to leave the Royal Palace to the many tourists enjoying their visit and to spend some quiet time reflecting on, and reading about, Cambodia.
While the temptation to focus on the Khmer Rouge’s wanton destruction of the country drives much of my reflection I find myself being reminded that the country has been an area of conflict for centuries. Apart from the Angkor period of relative stability, relative because successive God-Kings built temples and edifices at an environmental and peasant-suppressive cost after declaring independence from Java, Cambodia has seen invasion by the Thais (Siam) and Vietnamese (both before and after the formation of the Vietnamese nation by the French), colonization by the French, a war of independence from the French, the Khmer Rouge control of the country and subsequent liberation by the Vietnamese. It’s a history of successive conflict and wielding of power. And it seems not much has changed in present day Cambodia.
The government is controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party and headed by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who was installed by the Vietnamese after the Khmer Rouge were over thrown. Hun Sen has been accused of maintaining his powerful position by violence, oppression and corruption, with Cambodia ranking one hundred and sixty fourth out of one hundred and eight four countries in the corruption index (2012). There are accusations of corrupt sales of vast tracts of land to foreign investors resulting in the eviction of thousands of villages in what is effectively a land grab. Further accusations of corruption attach to the taking of bribes for grants to exploit Cambodia’s oil wealth and mineral resources.
And as my mate Pete points out, the use of the word “genocide” when referring to the Khmer Rouge murders detaches and distances both the population and officials from what happened, implying this was an atrocity done to the Cambodian people by someone else. That only one Khmer Rouge official has been brought to trial while others have reintegrated with society or are involved in government some thirty and more years later is anathema and confusing.
Yet despite these accusations and confusion, from a foreign investment point of view, there’s a sense of political stability which is attractive and inviting. Hun Sen’s government’s policy is to attract foreign investment through economic reforms exploiting Cambodia’s strategic location and dirt-cheap labour to gradually build competitiveness and profit from an export oriented model aiming at global markets.
What Cambodia has in its favour is its cheap labour and strategic location at the centre of a potentially exciting economic space squashed between the manufacturing economies of Vietnam and Thailand.
It is at the centre of a geopolitical battleground with the United States looking to Cambodia to balance the region against China, while Japan and Korea play on the sidelines seeking to profit from business deals. With Thailand and Vietnam its traditional enemies, Cambodia sees the United States as an added protector and likewise sees China a convenient ally and a source of capital; which China readily provides, seeing the region as a hub.
Cambodia’s story is still unfolding and it is a long way away from the leadership generational shift that is drawing nearer in China. China’s potential for economic slowdown, the debt crisis in Europe and increased involvement by the United States in the Asia-Pacific region mean the curtain is only still rising in this, the latest act in the Cambodia story.
And despite all this high-level geopolitical analysis, it is the stories on the street that add perspective. Our Tuk-Tuk driver, Mr Lucky, has a warm and engaging smile. He tends to us respectfully yet with hospitality. His English is good, having learned in private lessons which he took of his own volition. His Tuk-Tuk is immaculate and he’s a guide (unofficial), driver and advocate for Cambodia. I press him about his concerns and he confides that he’s worried about the number of men coming from Europe to enjoy the young girls and boys that are so readily available in Phnom Penh. He shakes his head and changes the subject and tells me that he earns $6 a month for selling advertising space on the back of his Tuk-Tuk. With his business cards, email address, mobile phone and Tuk-Tuk, he is freelance and independent, entrepreneurial and in charge of his own fate for as long as the powers-that-be allow the country to reform and tourists visit the city.
And two doors down from our hotel is “Touslejours”, a French pastry and coffee shop with free wifi. Consistently busy and frequented by locals it offers trade-free organic coffee, pastries of every description, crispy baguettes and a first-world European decor. Phnom Penh, city of contrasts, emotions and growth, somewhat of a never-ending story.