To quote the opening line of Dante’s timeless literary masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, I am currently “midway upon the journey of our life” under life’s biblical definition of “three score and ten” (70 years).
In those 35 years of life, I have had many fortunate opportunities available to me by living in several prosperous free-market economies—such as the United States and Australia—to be able to save up enough capital to visit dozens of countries across the world.
As a younger man of 23 in the year 2006, one of those countries was the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Cambodia—Now And Then
In the mid-2000s, Cambodia was a nation slowly recovering from the devastation of the far-left and Marxist-inspired Khmer Rouge government, The Khmer Rouge's policies were responsible for killing between 21 and 24 percent of the Cambodian population. which completely ruled (or, rather, destroyed) the nation between 1975-79, and then by far less devastating degrees in absentia until 1993.
The preceding hyperlink provides more in-depth information, but the Khmer Rouge wanted to turn Cambodia into a socialist agrarian "republic," and their policies were responsible for killing between 21 and 24 percent of Cambodia's 1975 population via mass executions, forced labor, horrendous physical torture, and preventable malnutrition.
During my visit in 2006, only a brisk 13 years had passed since the monarchy was restored, and the rekindled “Kingdom of Cambodia” was slowly getting back to being open for business (and thoroughly closed off from genocide).
Nonetheless, to this date, I have never encountered such a pervasive level of abject poverty compared to what I witnessed in the countryside, Phnom Penh, and the seaside town of Sihanoukville that year.
The Long Road to Recovery in Communism's Wake
Beyond a relatively short stretch of paved road around Siem Reap (the city within very close proximity to the world famous Angkor Wat temples), there were bumpy and anything-but-comfortable dirt roads nearly everywhere I went.
Distances gained in an average hour could be as little as 20 kilometers, and even less with shuttle van breakdowns.
Water ferries were necessary to cross some bodies of water, as there were no bridges, even though I saw that they were (slowly) under construction in some fashion.
Trash was strewn everywhere and the poverty and malnutrition of so many people were heartbreaking to witness.
Hardly anything seemed to be going in the right direction for Cambodia.
“Beg Boxes” with extremely bad English translations were positioned in many different places. They enticed tourists to donate to some benevolent cause like "saving the AIDS in Cambodia," where you could be certain that zero percent of the proceeds would actually go to where they were intended.
Desperate young women in Sihanoukville were offering X-rated services for single-digit dollar amounts, and this was obviously attracting less-than-stellar international visitors.
All in all, beyond the Angkor Wat tourism and some semblance of hustle-and-bustle in Phnom Penh, hardly anything seemed to be going in the right direction for Cambodia.
Revisiting a Decade Later—a Wonderful Improvement
Fast forward to 2016, when I witnessed a thoroughly changed country.
Sihanoukville had literally transformed from a sleepy (and seedy) seaside town to a bustling resort full of commerce and residential development.
Angkor Wat was more popular than ever (you can decide whether that's good or bad!), tarmac roads were far more commonplace, cities and towns were making big strides to keep streets clean, there were many completed bridges open to road traffic, and I swear that the number of truly desperate looking people I encountered was cut by two-thirds.
Sihanoukville had literally transformed from a sleepy (and seedy) seaside town to a bustling resort full of commerce and residential development. Phnom Penh had far more banks, upscale coffee shops, and other signs of wealth that were absent ten years earlier.
Foreign investment was pouring in from everywhere, from China to Europe. People were confident that with Cambodia's geographic location, climate, newfound reputation for political stability, low rates of crime/banditry (especially when compared to Africa or Latin America), and free-market economics, it was a country worth putting money into.
Lessons for Today
Is there still rampant poverty in Cambodia? Of course. And are there still people "missing out" on the fruits of the country’s continuing development and success? Without question.
However, Cambodia serves as living proof that an embrace of free-market principles, entrepreneurship without crippling regulations, and personal responsibility (translation: not relying on government to save you) has vastly improved the living standards of many nationals in its larger towns and cities. The developments occurring in Phnom Penh are particularly astounding, and a genuine Cambodian middle class is slowly emerging in what was once one of the least-developed countries in the world.
Now compare this situation to Venezuela of 2019.
Venezuela has become the new poster child for failed socialist policies.
Back in 2011, the socialist country was one of the inspirations for like-minded US politicians such as Bernie Sanders, who claimed that “the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina.”
However, leftist governments all over Latin America have been economically faltering in recent years, and Venezuela, in particular, has become the new poster child for failed socialist policies.
Short of genocide and torture, that oil-rich nation has been plunged into the kind of desperate poverty and civil chaos that Cambodia once knew all too well in the latter 20th century.
Thankfully, Cambodia has turned its situation around 180 degrees over the years by shunning the socialist economics that former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and his successor (Nicolás Maduro) wholeheartedly embraced.
Keep It Up, Cambodia
Cambodia has experienced major, widespread development between 2006 and 2016. Whether it was road infrastructure, building infrastructure, standards of cleanliness, the perception of civil servant corruption, the expansion of business, or the sense of desperate poverty among the general populace, things became astoundingly better across the whole spectrum.
I look forward to another visit in 2026 and hope to overhear plenty of conversations in English (which young Cambodians are getting very good at, by the way) about how much their young Khmer families enjoyed their recent holidays in neighboring Thailand and Vietnam while they dig into a nice cut of beef.
Long live the free market, and keep Cambodia communist-free.