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Michael’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 07 Jun 2007

Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

MapMy fist week at the Council for the Development of Cambodia is almost over. Itís the office that oversees all foreign investment between 2 and 50 million dollars, and also the hundreds of millions in foreign aid. The big projects right now are the Special Economic Zones that are being set up along the border with Vietnam and Thailand and the upcoming donor conference where the big orgs will pledge aid for the upcoming year. Cambodia is in a tough spot right now, on the one hand it needs aid desperately, on the other it is frustrated by donors breaking promises and staying in 5 star hotels (at least thatís what P.M. Hun Sen was saying at a conference this morning at the Intercontinental Hotel). Also, the country is ready for investment in factories (thereís a surplus of cheap labor), but no one has confidence in the corrupt government. ĎCorruptí is a relative term over here, by the way.
Iíve been asked to update the CDC website, on which I collaborate with an IT guy in Japan. Iím also researching the SEZs, and hope to visit some of them soon and talk to investors who are already there. I talked to two Korean businessmen yesterday about a $50 million hotel project. This morning I heard Hun Sen give one of his famous diatribes (he was accused this past week of personally profiting from the destruction of Cambodiaís forests by Global Witness) against Western hypocrites. And I also got to go to a Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) meeting with my boss, the Secretary General of CDC.
Phnom Penh is an interesting city. I stay at a hotel by my office and facing the Mekong. There are lots of great restaurants around, both Khmer and European. Thereís no public transport in the city, if you want to go somewhere you flag down a motorcycle (theyíre the guys wearing old baseball caps). Thereís a lot of extreme poverty, homelessness, drugs, prostitution, and crime. Walking after dark isnít recommended. The other night I saw a crowd of people and asked what was going on. They said a young drug addict had stabbed a foreigner and robbed him.
But itís still Southeast Asia, and last nightís trash is dutifully cleaned by this morningís street sweepers. Streets that were dirt a year ago are now paved. Traffic jams attest to the economic progress. People are happy to help me learn the language, which is about 20% the same as Thai. Iím probably the first foreigner ever who can say ĎIím employed by the Cambodian governmentí but canít count to 10. My office is in a nice old colonial building. I asked a coworker if it was dangerous to carry my briefcase home with me, and she said ĎItís up to your luck, I guess. Just donít keep any valuables in it.í A man sitting next to me at lunch today had a prosthetic foot, a reminder of a past that few people are talking about. But who can blame them? The country seems to be improving steadily, and CDC is a perfect place to watch it happening.