When visiting the Kingdom of Cambodia, it is difficult not to think of its sufferings. Throughout the history, Cambodia has always been threatened by its more powerful neighbours – Vietnam and Thailand. Were it not for its vigilant diplomacy and French colonization, it is arguable whether Cambodia would even exist today as an independent sovereignty.
Its eventual independence, however, is not without price. Prolonged wars, coups and civil wars, failed social and economic experiments, and massacre and destruction by the Khmer Rouge regime have but left Cambodia with a workable framework for prosperity. Generations have been scarred not only by political instability, but a prolonged hardship from poverty and dislocation.
Lacking an independent legal institution, dictatorship, corruption, and human rights violation put immense resource to waste. Lacking sufficient development, its culture remains overshadowed by its neighbours’ influence. Lacking accountable capital markets and comprehensive infrastructures, its economy remains meagre with about a fifth of population still living under $1.25 USD per day.
To get a sense of its poverty, Cambodia’s GDP at 2015 is estimated by the IMF to be 18 billion USD, 35% smaller than McDonald’s gross revenue in 2014 and smaller than 171 other Fortune 500 companies. In other words, the entire value of the goods and services produced in Cambodia, with a population of 15.5 million, is two-thirds of what we spend, in 2014, on McDonald’s fries, burgers, and beverages.
Estimated by UNICEF to have over 600,000 orphans, Cambodia is a prime recipient of global charity support. Amongst those foreign charity workers is a new breed of visitors, the “Facebook Volunteers,” who show up at the orphanages, see the kids, take photos, and leave without material contribution.
Looking at it another way, McDonald had 420,000 employees averaging $65,000 of revenue generated per employee; compare this to $2,100 per person in Cambodia’s labor force of 8.6 million.
Without factoring in purchasing power parity, a day’s labor (assume working six days a week) is just enough for two Happy Meals in the United States. Such is the condition that an average Cambodian faces each day.
Perhaps the most ironic twist to Cambodia’s economic dilapidation is its fast-growing industry in “orphanage tourism.” Estimated by UNICEF to have over 600,000 orphans (five times more than the figure in United States), Cambodia is a prime recipient of global charity support.
Amongst those foreign charity workers is a new breed of visitors, the “Facebook Volunteers,” who show up at the orphanages, see the kids, take photos, and leave without material contribution.
Catering to those “volunteers,” some local orphanages exist solely for tourist visits. They lure children from poor families with promises of a better life, yet exposing them to substandard care and transient traffic and disruptions.
Not only do they profit from tourist donations, they also crowd out important funding directed to improve the lives of real orphans. The growing child-rights violations perpetrated by global tourism operators are getting attentions, like TEDx talk by Daniela Papi.
The Angkor Wat, in particular, serves as the most important national and cultural symbol of Cambodia; its image is used in everything from product packaging to the national flag.
Underneath the hardships lie the memories of Cambodia’s past as Southeast Asia’s dominant power – the Khmer Empire in 9th to 15th century. The empire’s political, cultural, and economic dominance is perhaps best evidenced by the unparalleled grandeur of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap.
The importance of this golden age cannot be overemphasized, as the core of Cambodia’s modern culture and national identity still revolves around the achievements of this period.
The Angkor Wat, in particular, is the most important national and cultural symbol of Cambodia. It was a temple complex built around 1100 by King Suryavaman II. So far, it is the world’s largest religious monument. Even today, its image is used in everything from product packaging to the national flag.
Though a contrast to its present-day condition, it is a reminder of what Cambodia is capable of. It embodies a desire for the past glory to return, a revival of the country and its people.