I wanted to keep an open mind about Cambodia.
I am visiting the country for the first time this week, and before arriving, I read "Cambodia's Curse," by Joel Brinkley. Brinkley, writing a few years ago, painted a picture of a benighted land. In the years since the Khmer Rouge killed perhaps a fourth of Cambodia's population, he said, it has been governed by a kleptocratic oligarchy headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. In the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodians slaughtered their countrymen in the millions. In the years since, though the murder has largely stopped, the country has been pillaged. Brinkley described Cambodia as one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, a place where schoolchildren have to bribe teachers to attend class, peasants must bribe doctors to receive minimal care, and government officials push the people off the land so they can cut down the trees and sell the timber to builders in Thailand.
Maybe, I thought, Brinkley exaggerated.
Then, as I sat waiting for my flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the pretty young woman in the picture at left asked if she could sit beside me. I said yes, and she started to chatter away in English. She was bright and vivacious. She was a little nervous and wanted some company, she said, because it was her first time flying alone. She'd been to Bangkok to visit an older sister, who had just given birth to a child in a Thai hospital.
That piqued my curiosity. I knew that the per capita income in Cambodia is roughly $1,000 per year. That kind of money wouldn't permit someone to go abroad for medical care, let alone to pay a visit to a sister. So I asked the girl about herself and her life. She happily responded.
She is 23, and she is finishing her college education, where she's studying accounting. I asked about her family. Oh, she said, it was a "simple, middle class family."
What did her father do?
He worked for the government in Siem Reap, the town built around the ruins of Angkor Wat and the tourism the ruins attract. It would be, she said, hard to describe his job, but he was a kind of counsellor. Her mother stayed at home. She had an uncle who also worked for the government, and an aunt, married to the uncle, who owns a successful Siem Reap restaurant.
Did her family have a car? Yes, she said. In fact, it had several. Her father has a Toyota, her mother has a Mercedes, and she herself has been given a Prius.
And did they own a house? Yes, she said. In fact, several.
And did they have servants? Yes, her mother employed three girls from the country to clean help with the cooking and run errands. They were each paid $100 a month and they shared a room in the main house.
I asked her if she really considered her family middle class, given the possessions and servants she had described. Oh, yes, she insisted. She knew people wealthier than her family in Siem Reap. Her aunt and uncle, for instance, the government official and restaurateur.
I didn't argue with her, and I am still not sure if she was being disingenuous or naive. I rather suspect the latter. I can imagine the child of a government official in a very poor country being raised to think that her family was just middle class, and maybe intuitively understanding that it wouldn't be wise to ask her parents any probing questions about how they can afford all they have on a government official's ostensible salary.
I have been in Siem Reap for a couple of days now, and I haven't seen much to contradict Brinkley's dismal assessment of the place. For one thing, the countryside doesn't have many trees. But in the immediate vicinity of Angkor Wat, which is a tightly protected UNESCO World Heritage site, there is an impressive tropical forest full of towering specimen trees. I can only assume the rest of the country had a similar forest cover before Hun Sen and his regime started pillaging.
Many people live in evident poverty. They labor. You can see women pedaling on bicycles early in the morning, their bodies laden with some sort of cargo they presumably want to sell in a market. You can see people doing jobs that would be handled by machinery in a more developed country, like the woman on the right, above, who picks weeds on a golf course I played.
And you can see that there's money being made by someone in Siem Reap. The town is full of tourists. By day they jostle into Angkor Wat. By night, they spend their money in the bars, restaurants and massage parlors of a garish district called Pub Street.
I'm afraid not much of that money trickles down. I think most of it winds up in the pockets of government officials, either through bribery or through convenient "investments," just as Brinkley described.