Just over a decade ago, Phnom Penh was lawless, guns were commonplace, and checkpoints from different political factions leveled "contributions" on all roads out of the city. At night the streets were dark and potholed, and you would be taking a risk by venturing down them at night. Those days are gone and Phnom Penh is reemerging as a boomtown, leaving behind the pressures of the Cold War that drew it into the years of absolute darkness. It is a city that has seen a brand-new economic explosion over the last 3 years.
The mysteries of Angkor Wat are once again being explored by the numbers of tourists it deserves. Rather than being the quiet dusty village of 10 years ago, Siem Reap is thriving as it develops far enough to cater to this never-ending procession of visitors.
Not long ago, traveling around Cambodia was an obstacle course and there were areas where it was dangerous to venture. Now most roads are surfaced and sealed. There is regular bus service to pretty much anywhere you might want to visit. There are good accommodations at often incredibly reasonable prices in every town you would want to visit. New restaurants, serving cuisine from every continent of the planet, spring up daily across Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville. New border crossings open all the time and in many ways Cambodia is transforming from one of the most difficult countries to travel into one of the easiest and most welcoming.
Cambodia may be booming, but that is not to say that all the country's past problems are history. Although there is a new generation looking forward to taking its place in a globalized world, there is also a trauma and collective confusion that will take more than one generation from which to recover. There is also a deep and brooding anger building, as the rich get so much richer and the poor stay the same. Cambodia is still one of the poorest nations of the world and infant mortality is high. Corruption is endemic and accepted at every level of authority. It may be publicly questioned but it is a billion miles from being eradicated or even seriously challenged. There is a phrase in Khmer, "Mien loi, jeut l'or. Ot mien loi jeut ot l'or." This translated means "If you have money you have a good heart. If you are poor you have a bad heart." This karmic perversion explains some of the attitude to power, money, and corruption. Wealth, however corruptly or brutally acquired, is seen in some way as being its own cosmic reward and something to be displayed.
In the light of the swift and massive changes, development in Cambodia should be seen as a mixed blessing if not properly charted. There is development all over the country, but a great deal of it is driven by carpetbaggers, hedge funds, and criminals. Cambodia is often described as a country for sale. There are new natural resources of oil and natural gas lying offshore and about to be tapped, but there is no guarantee that the riches they bring will benefit any more than a handful of people. If the destruction of the high-canopy rainforest and the billions of dollars generated by the trade in hardwoods is anything to go by we can be sure that it won't be. Foreign speculators and investors are pumping billions of dollars into developing Cambodia's coastal areas. The central government in Phnom Penh had, in the '90s, designated the entire coast and its islands as state public land that could not be bartered or developed. Now local communities live in fear of the relentless land grabs. As a nation, Cambodia remains precarious and underpinned by debt and foreign aid, and it has recently found itself a refuge for money and speculators fleeing paralyzed Western financial markets.
Even though not all is rosy by any means, collective experience has taught the Khmers to treasure the stability of the last decade. Although they share many of the qualities that characterize Southeast Asia, particularly in the importance of the concept of "face," they also have a way of interacting that is peculiarly Khmer. They have a casual and warm sense of humor that will be apparent as soon as you arrive. Thigh-slapping jokes intersperse a lot of conversation. Even with all the horror that has befallen them, the Khmers still love a joke and a laugh. Khmers also have a genuine fascination with things foreign. They are intensely nationalistic, but that does not mean that they disdain knowledge of other places or other cultures. That is unless you are Thai or Vietnamese, where a historical and persistent mixture of resentment, hatred, dependence, and jealousy colors the Khmer view. It mostly comes out as pointless racism and sometimes erupts into violence.
While Cambodians are often relaxed and very good company, this does mask a less pleasant reality. They have the reputation for being the most violent people in Asia, and when that side of them is stirred, especially in a crowd, you don't want to be near it.
Family is the absolute and immutable foundation of Cambodian society. Even the direct attacks on the notion of family perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in the '70s did not destroy its importance. When traveling in Cambodia, people will be interested in your family and will see no problem with you being interested in theirs.
Starting in 2009, the long-awaited process of putting some of the surviving KR leaders on trial by a mixed Cambodian and international court got underway in Phnom Penh. It remains a controversial process, since many see it as too little too late and as a token and cosmetic attempt to address only the superficial issues, while ignoring the realities of ordinary people in living with the Khmer Rouge legacy in the country as a whole. Others see it entirely differently as a process providing genuine justice even if it is so many years on. The issues remain fraught with controversy to this day.
Cambodia may be booming, vibrant, and heading toward the future in one way. It may remain vulnerable, troubled, and traumatized in another. It is always complicated. Sometimes it is infuriating, exhilarating, and occasionally horrifying. One thing that it never can be is boring. Whichever side of it you may wish to emphasize, Cambodia remains one of the world's most compelling destinations.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.