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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.