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Khmer Chameleon

On 7th January 1979, the Vietnamese Army entered Phnom Penh and established a pro-Vietnamese Kampuchean state, known as the People's Republic of Kampuchea, liberating Cambodia of the scourge of the Khmer Rouge killing machine. The Khmer Rouge leadership, with much of its political and military structures shattered by the Vietnamese invasion, was forced to take refuge in neighbouring Thailand.

2019 marks the 40th Anniversary of this ‘liberation’, and the face of the now-Kingdom of Cambodia has transformed once again. This time the ‘invasion’ comes from Mainland China, in the guise of an unprecedented real estate construction boom, casinos and mass tourism. All this cash pouring into Cambodia may hold promise for a select group of politicians and the small but aspirational Khmer middle classes, but is proving less than liberating to poor Khmers who, left behind, complain of becoming second class citizens in their own country.

As traffic in the once sedate capital snarls to a standstill around the base of the iconic French-era Central Market – dwarfed now by skyscrapers and over-shadowed by billboards advertising Chinese mobile phone brands, such as Huawei and Oppo – it is hard to spot the spires of temples or lines of Buddhist monks advertised in postcards and guidebooks.

It now takes almost twice as long to travel by bus from Phnom Penh to Cambodia’s sole port, Sihanoukville, than it did 20 years ago. A geopolitical notch in China’s 'One Belt-One Road' initiative, the old road is in dire need of widening. It is clogged with container lorries and oil tankers, and hemmed-in nearly all the way by new housing developments – bulldozed plots of denuded land where eddies encourage small twisters of dust to rise in the shimmering heat. Factories, producing everything from sportswear to steel – and run mostly by Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean companies – lie secured behind high walls. These provide employment to thousands of local women as lowly paid seamstresses, and to their men as security guards.

In central Sihanoukville, the pair of golden lions guarding the main roundabout are looking rather forlorn these days, dirty and dwarfed by more than eighty new casinos and even more resort hotels that have sprung up here in recent years. Again, locals find employment as poorly paid croupiers, cleaners and security personnel, and still others as prostitutes. At night, sidewalk restaurants, their names and menus lit in neon Chinese characters, cater to Chinese workers whose shift as engineer or foreman has just ended. A few lost-looking western backpackers, perhaps relying on out-dated guidebooks in which none of the hotels listed remain standing, stumble between building sites trying to find their way to the town’s sole remaining attraction, Ou Chheuteal Beach. And the pile drivers continue pounding, all through the night.

Some respite from constant construction can at least be found in distant Siem Reap, one of Cambodia’s main cities, famed for its nearby temple complex, the ancient Khmer civilization of Angkor Wat. But even here, visitors must now jostle for position at sunrise near the lake with groups of tourists from China, and voices in Mandarin calling for photos to be taken echo throughout the magnificent chambers and crumbling foundations of this UNESCO World Heritage-rated site.
In the balmy evenings, back in the surprisingly laid-back town itself, live jazz is played outside cafes.

Haggling goes on in the main market, where cash-conscious Beijingers bargain hard for bead bracelets and the Kramar cotton scarves once worn by Khmer Rouge cadres, now mere tourist curiosities. A lively pub quarter attracts equal numbers of western and Asian tourists. Here the tribes are finally at peace, unified in their eagerness to sample the delights of Khmer cuisine and down a few glasses of draft Angkor beer.

Chris Stowers, 2019
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