Saturday, May 24, 2014

Phnom Penh Cambodia: Another short sojourn

I really want to like Phnom Penh each time I visit here, but she doesn't make it easy.  Tourists are more familiar with Siem Reap, with Angkor Wat and the series of other beautiful temples.  The country has a glorious ancient past, but Phnom Penh represents the Cambodia of today.  The country's more recent history with Pol Pot's reign of madness is one of the world's great tragedies, and engenders a deep sympathy for this country and its people.  The scars of the nation's past are still literally visible everywhere, including on the many victims of the landmines that remain a threat even today.  Anybody who visits Phnom Penh should take time out to visit the Killing Fields and Security Prison 21.

Favorable demographics and a cheap labor base make Cambodia an interesting business locale, as many multinational corporations have already started investing in the country.  For a small businessman like me, Cambodia also holds promise, and I visit here each time with high hopes.

Unfortunately, Phnom Penh is a city deeply mired in corruption and an inept bureaucracy.  The degree of raw lawlessness makes me cringe with each visit.  Perhaps no one should be shocked by this, given that Pol Pot eradicated an ENTIRE GENERATION of anyone with education.  Still, it isn't the scorching temperature that makes me wish for a shower after most of my meetings with local businessmen and city officials.  Moreover, at the risk of generalizing, the country's workforce lacks the same degree of work ethic compared to neighboring countries.

To be sure, there is progress.  The city's noxious past of child exploitation, for example, is fading.  Capital investments continue to improve the city's infrastructure.  And slowly, the seeds of capitalism and true entrepreneurship are beginning to take hold.

One example is in the city's skyline, which is the bleakest of any Southeast Asian capital.  The Vattanac Capital Tower (on the left), however, has now been completed since my last visit in early 2013.  It is the tallest building in Cambodia at 39 floors, and together with the Canadia Tower on the right, bring a sense of pulling the city into the modern world.

Even this building across the river, which to me has been in perpetual construction mode, appears to be getting close to completion.

Naga World, with its casino and nightclub, is as hopping as ever.  Just don't win too much money as local thieves have been known to case the casino and follow outside those with large amounts of cash.  The FCC (Foreign Correspondence Club) still offers overpriced beers overlooking the river, in exchange for a taste of history.  The food choices remain generally good and keep improving, ranging from some chic restaurants like Cafe Metro to one of my favorite local hole-in-walls Thinat on Soi 51.  Thinat provides all of its utensils inside a cup of boiling water.  Why don't all local restaurants take this simple hygienic approach?  I am getting a bit too old and tired for the city's nightlife, but that hasn't changed much either, or the love the local businessmen have for it.

I arrived in Phnom Penh with some long time Asian business contacts to meet with locals about business opportunities.  Each time, I think there is so much potential and promise, only to be disappointed.  This trip, sadly, was also a bit of a disappointment on that front.  But I still remain hopeful of progress.  The history of this country makes me want badly for it to succeed.

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