After spending a few days on the quiet island of Phu Quoc off the southern tip of Vietnam, we boated back to the mainland and crossed into Cambodia at Ha Tien. The change when we crossed the boarder was so stark, it shook me a little. The hustle and bustle of Vietnam stopped suddenly, as if it couldn’t make it past the four layers of gates and guards we had to pass through in the 200 meter stretch of land the separates the two countries.
If you draw timelines of Vietnam and Cambodia’s histories, at first glance they look similar with both their pasts marked with violence and occupation that stretch back for centuries. Occupied by the Chinese. Occupied by the French. The war with the west (US). War with each other. The internal violence and economic hardship in the seventies following the US withdrawal from the region. Ect. The results, both culturally and economically, are graphically different.
The Vietnamese are fiercely nationalistic and carry intense pride that they have successfully repelled every invader for the last 1500 years – no matter how long it took and how much blood was shed in the process. Economically, Vietnam is on the up and up, with their GDP steadily growing at around 7% a year for the last 25 years. It some ways, it’s boggling to be in Vietnam and remember that it was just 40 years ago that this county was being lit up with American napalm and .50 caliber tracer rounds, or just 35 years ago that nearly 500,000 people died in the aftermath of the war, and the economic collapse and triple-digit inflation that dominated the country’s economy into the 1980s. These things seem to have no hold this fast paced and quickly westernizing society from pushing expanding its limits, year after year.
Cambodians have much more recently emerged from their most recent occupations and internal genocide. “Where are all the people?” I though to myself on our first hour driving through the countryside after we crossed into Cambodia. But the answer is painfully right there – 25% of the population died between 1975 and 1979 during the Khmer Rouge regime. Contrast with Vietnam’s exploding economy, Cambodia is a nation where only 34% of the population has electricity, and in certain rural regions food scarcity remains an issue. Monetary exchanges are done in US dollar, with the local currency (the Riel) only serving as change for amounts less than $1. You know its bad when a country can’t even maintain solvency of its own currency.
We spent a few days in laid back Kompot, a quiet little town where the river that bares its name meets the Gulf of Thailand. There we met our friend Chris, who is living and working in Cambodia. A day on motorbikes took us up beautiful winding roads into the mountains to visit a giant Buddha (96.4% of Cambodians are Buddhists). Late afternoons were spent on the floating dock outside the bungalow where we were staying.
We then headed up to Phnom Penh, the one part of the country that can be described as bursting economically. The city of 2.3 million uses 55% of the country’s total electricity capacity. The metro area is popping with growth, with the first round of foreign funded and designed skyscrapers just finished in the last two years or currently under construction. We stayed in a trendy new guest house, with a pool in the open air lobby where the bar and restaurant are. Prostitution remains common place in many neighborhoods in the capital, and there were some sex workers working in our hotel and throughout the neighborhood. After spending a day in the city we rented dirt bikes and took a day trip north to the former capital and buddhist temple, Udong. There are stunning buddhist temples all over the country side, with incredible attention to detail and craftsmanship in their execution. Many left me feeling a calm sense of awe.
More soon. And of course, photos