We’ve been in Cambodia for almost two days now so this post contains some of our initial uninformed impressions about the country.
We flew into Siem Reap from Bangkok. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia after the capital Phnom Penh. SR is a popular tourist destination because it is where the Angkor Wat temple complex is located.
We were struck by the poverty almost immediately upon leaving the airport.
On our way to our hotel, we saw cows so skinny that all of their ribs were visible. There weren’t as many cars on the road or as many tall buildings as one would expect in even in a medium-sized city. SR struck me as being a hundred times smaller than Bangkok. The people seemed pretty happy, but poor. There were a lot of barefoot kids running around.
It made me think about why one country like the US could grow so prosperous, while another languishes in poverty. In the US, there is enough employment for most people, whereas in Cambodia we saw a lot of people just milling around during the day. Most people who were employed were servicing the tourism industry, including many kids who should have been in school instead.
As we were wandering around the enormous temples, I couldn’t help but wonder whether religion played a role in the stark difference between our countries. Buddhism teaches a lack of want, in particular as to material possessions. It seems plausible to me that a focus on growing a culture based on such beliefs could set the country behind in a world economy. But it might not be fair to point solely to religion, as the region underwent a lot of turmoil in the 20th Century, from WWII to the Khmer Rouge.
I suppose the incentives for jobs would be different in a country like Cambodia, even without all the conflict. For example, kids might be taught to become monks because monks are held in such high esteem. Others might become farmers simply because that they play an essential role in a non-industrialized economy. But where is the incentive for kids to become scientists to develop new medicines? Or engineers to build and design useful things? It’s not there because the infrastructure does not really support such jobs as much as it does in the US. So either the kids do something else, or they are brain-drained outside the country.
In a global economy, Cambodia has the ability to buy what others are selling like air conditioning, motor vehicles, etc. But it’s a one way street because other countries would not necessarily need to buy what Cambodia was selling. Furthermore, trade agreements proposed by powerful countries could further raise barriers to entry to countries like Cambodia as the cards become stacked further against them. So in its position, Cambodia has no choice but to rely on (i.e., pimp out) its natural treasures by creating an economy out of tourism.
It seems to me like a confluence on factors has gotten Cambodia to where it is today. It’s hard to say for certain, but I believe things will get better for Cambodia. Most importantly, there is much more awareness about the country today than ever, which leads to more tourism. Tourism is the catalyst or at least a first step towards an improved quality of life for Cambodians. Not only does money flow into the country, but it makes those of us in gilded cages (e.g., Americans) care about what is happening here. But it is important for Cambodia to ultimately move beyond tourism if they wish to be an integral part of the global economy, even if doing so is somewhat contrary to their core Buddhist beliefs.