Is it really only 3 days since I wrote about our perceptions from Phnom Penh? So much has changed since then and we are also 224km away. And yet, all those observations remain valid.
There’s a lot about Cambodia that we don’t understand and won’t even pretend that we’ve got a hold of the psyche and the economic factors that drives it, but the Cambodia between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is a very different Cambodia from the Bavet Border crossing to the capital. It’s the same roadside shacks selling drinks and making rice dishes but it’s a hundred small telltale signs that give away something quite important.
A pre-teen girl is riding to school on a bicycle and she’s wearing a long blue skirt with a clean, pressed white shirt; her long black hair is tied back. She’s just come out of a house that looks like a shack to our Western eyes, and the sun catches just a glint of a thin gold necklace. We’re deep into the Cambodian interior now and this is not poverty; this is now quite far from it and it’s very interesting as it’s not the pockets of tourism, like we saw in Vietnam, that’s driving the very obvious economic growth.
The road surface is smooth tarmac and is an easy ride under us; every 15km or so we take a road so new that’s not even on our map, most often a new bypass for a small town. Many houses have an ostentatious, and incongruous, steel balustrade; the towns that string out along the arterial NR6 are alternating with big factory complexes. The Polar Bear slushy factory one time, then a garment and clothing factory, steel mills and more. All these factories are new and near each one a small complex of street eateries and food stands. There’s some serious investment in Cambodia going on here. Chinese writing is common, as is the Vietnamese flag. We even saw a European flag today.
Yesterday we were due a stop and we pulled into what looked like a new large steel farm building with new steel machinery in the rear and a counter at the front under a large sign for a bakery.
All we wanted was a cold drink from one of their large fridges. It was busy and an affable Cambodian chap of about 35 years sold approached us and welcomed us in in very good English. Then he explained that the shop wasn’t open yet, this was the day before and the 30 or so people milling around were family here for the blessing. A small shrine in the middle of the sales area suggested that the blessing had already been done. I think we were seen as a good omen that rare Barang travellers had chosen to visit the day of the blessing. That made us VIPs and there was no way that we were getting away with just a cold drink.
The most expensive drink in the fridge was a Coca-Cola branded concoction of coke & coffee, so that’s what we were given. Along with a couple of baguettes. And water to go. And four more baguettes. We met the whole family with the patriarchal owner and then it was selfie time with everyone. At least four people told us that we weren’t paying for anything.
Departure was a 15 minute exercise and it was handshakes for everyone, it felt like a wedding reception line up as we went to go. A lovely experience topped off by the original English speaker who sent us off with the advice “Look after your bikes and watch out for those FUCKING Cambodians”
Our baker is a new generation of Khmer, optimistic and confident in the opportunities at home with no desire to leave.
I mentioned Barang earlier. We found out this morning that this means someone French to the Khmer. It’s not derogatory but it seems very close to the Thai word Farang that means foreigner and is said to derive from a word for “French”
Rico & Kunthy, our French and Cambodian hosts from last night expressed similar optimism to the baker and now they have a business far from the main tourist centres that will grow based on the economic growth around them. It’s on a small scale, but representative of smaller foreign entrepreneurs seeing something new here.
And now tonight we are 75km further up the road at the Svay Brak Restaurant and Guesthouse, both of which are debatable descriptions, but at least there’s no signs here about crystal meth. It’s a new build complex of a few buildings that are not designed for tourists but for a local and increasingly affluent population that travels internally. The date on the concrete is two days old.