I remember a time in Cambodia when there were no skyscrapers…
I remember a time in Cambodia when there were hardly any cars after dark…
And I remember a time when there were no tuk-tuks or taxis or buses…just motos and Land Cruisers and Camrys and powder blue flat-bed trucks that strained under loads of tonnes of cement and bricks.
I remember a time when there were battered minivans filled to bursting with Khmers returning to their home provinces (they still exist!). There were motos strapped to the backs of the minibus and chicken coups tied to the roofs. The drivers shared their driving seat with passengers in a desperate attempt to maximise their returns by cramming in as many people as they could for the hair-raising ride to whatever province they were destined for.
I remember a time when the Intercontinental Hotel (which recently became the Grand Duke – or something or other) was the tallest building in town and, when seated in the business lounge at the Hotel Cambodiana, you could see the iconic ‘wanna-be’ landmark jutting out over the red-roofed bungalows and villas as you looked out across the Phnom Penh skyline.
I remember a time when Cambodia was Africa in Asia, and there were dusty streets and colourful markets with ramshackle stalls and sonorous sellers shouting and touting their wares.
Those markets are still there, but now there are also massive, modern shopping malls. There are also BMWs and Range Rovers and Nissans and even Rolls Royces jostling with Pulsar and Kawasaki motorbikes too.
There are tuk-tuks tucked into every available space and parked two and three abreast on street corners.
Gone, it seems, are the days when Phnom Penh was a sleepy backwater (although Covid-19 appears to have returned some parts of Cambodia to that backwards-seeming solitude…I hear Siem Reap is one such part for instance).
Now, in Phnom Penh, there are modern office blocks and traffic jams and metered taxis and buses. Now there are shopping malls and designer goods outlets. Now there are all the trappings of a developing society. Now there is money from China and South Korea and Japan and Thailand. Now there is progress.
“You must be very rich,” one of my Cambodian friends said to a Singaporean taxi driver when we were on a business trip to Singapore. “You have tall buildings.”
My Cambodian friend equated tall buildings with prosperity and modernity. The comment was made without any hint of jealousy or envy, only with yearning.
“I hope we can be like you soon,” my friend said, smiling.
Many others shared my Cambodian friend’s simplistic view of the world. There was a time when anything made in Cambodia was deemed inferior. There was a time when ordinary Cambodians did not believe that people would want to visit their country.
“Thank you for bringing these famous people to our country,” another of my friends told me when we were about to stage a concert with a European pop band.
At the time we were trying to sell tickets, and people were reluctant to buy because they didn’t believe the band would come. It was only when they saw the artists arrive at the airport that they felt confident that they would actually perform here in Cambodia.
Now things are different – with or without COVID 19.
“Cambodia is becoming an increasingly desirable destination to settle,” an ex-pat friend who had recently made Phnom Penh his home told me.
As for me, well, I still remember a time when I was asked: “If I come to Phnom Penh, will I be safe?”
“You will be as safe as if you were in London or New York,” I would reply, and then I would stop myself. “No. You will be safer.”
“…unless you do something stupid,” I would add as a proviso.
In those days doing something stupid might have included stepping off a path on to grass and shrubs that might cover hidden landmines, or walking down a dark alley in the dead of night flashing cash or an expensive camera. Otherwise, you’d be fine.
After all, Cambodians are warm and friendly and peace-loving. The family is sacrosanct, and parents instil family values long since discarded in the west.
“Never look down on Cambodian people,” a well-connected Cambodian tycoon once instructed me.
He made the comment just after the turn of the millennium when Cambodia was trying to find its rightful place in the world. Now, it seems, Cambodia has.
Cambodia has a voice in ASEAN and was becoming a regular stopover for the heads of regional governments. The country’s youth has become technically savvy and digitally dynamic while their parents are owning and operating successful businesses.
I remember a time when things were different…