The view while flying over Cambodia from the mecca of the tourist hinterland of Siem Reap on the coast is staggering: the national forests that once housed Asian tigers, elephants, leopards, bears and other endangered species have been replaced by scarred industrial landscapes and deforested.
And where was the beach paradise I expected when I landed?
Cambodian coastal cities like Sihanoukville and Kampot may have done so The New York Times“List of 52 places to visit”, but for people who actually made the trip, it is a depressing destination littered with garbage and overrun with construction.
“It’s terrible,” Australian tourist Andrew Walker told me. He had visited Sihanoukville a decade ago and was so taken with him that he would bring his girlfriend back on vacation.
“But it’s all over now – just a bunch of casinos, whores and hotels.”
He had fled quickly to Kep, the former St Tropez of Southeast Asia, where historic art deco houses are demolished in favor of new style buildings – but he still has some sort of tranquility.
Much of the demolition comes through Chinese “investments”. Since 1994, China has injected $ 26.5 billion into Cambodia – many of which haven’t gone to Cambodians – and locals say the business-friendly term is an understatement for “China buying us,” he told me. a local taxi driver. Indeed, according to a CNN report, the “investment” was the cause of large displacements and evictions for the locals.
And it’s not just Cambodia. China’s “Belt and Road” global development strategy embraces Africa and Asia, and detractors say it lures poor countries into debt traps and contributes to environmental catastrophes by leaving the premises high and dry.
I went to Kampot just over a year ago to visit Bokor Hill station, a legendary ghost town in Preah Monivong National Park which was a French colonial luxury retreat in the first half of the 20th century. I was expecting a historic site in the middle of a lush jungle.
Instead, I found that much of the park had been demolished and that new cities arose from the forests razed to the ground. The landslides had occurred a week earlier, covering parts of the newly built road.
“It’s all for the Chinese,” said my local guide Kary, whose full name has been held back because he fears government wages.
Over the past two years, the Cambodian government has disbanded the opposition parties and severely repressed any press that does not support the country’s leader, Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge who has been in power for 31 years and insists he has been called Prime Minister Lord and supreme military commander. The situation is so serious that the European Union has announced that it is attracting the country’s commercial privileges due to human rights crimes.
Sen, 67, and his relatives live in ostentatious luxury while 70% of Cambodians live on about $ 4.50 a day, according to estimates from the Asian Development Bank. A 2016 report found that “the family holds shares or directly holds approximately 114 private domestic companies with a listed value of $ 300 million”, with many of those companies allegedly doing business with the nation’s largest foreign investor, China. .
Large areas of once pristine lands now house hundreds of neoclassical condominiums – with Chinese signage and a Chinese guard outside the entrance.
“If you are not Chinese, you are not allowed to enter,” said Kary. While shooting a video of the housing, a guard pulled us away.
At the entrance to Bokor Hill station is a huge building, “the Bokor Development Zone 1 & 2 Showroom development plan”, which showed a huge dusty model of what the forest needed to be transformed. The display showed six hills that were to be razed and covered in luxury homes in a country where the average salary is $ 1970 per year. The building was empty, except for seven Buddhist nuns asleep on the ground, taking a break from the journey.
“The Chinese have just arrived in the past two years,” said Kary. “They built the streets up here and the apartments. It is the Chinese economic zone – there are 2000 Chinese people living there. No one has found work locally: they have brought all their workers, eat all their food and take everything. (The locals) get nothing. “
This resentment has been confirmed by the inhabitants of other countries of the world who accept Chinese money. Last year, according to Bloomberg, “the new Sri Lankan government … wants to undo the move by the previous regime to lease the southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese company, citing national interest.”
But there is no way to try to hunt the Chinese in Cambodia. In Bokor, in addition to the condominiums and houses near the abandoned French church and a historic Buddhist monastery, there is a huge casino, a new hotel and a go-kart track. It has the feeling of a third world development – around 1982.
“The general plan for the development of the city of Bokor 2035 is to prepare and develop the mountain of Bokor as a smart city, with historical sites that tourists can visit, vegetation, nature and access to the sea and the mountain,” said the official of the Ly Reaksmey Capitol Cambodia government last year.
Oddly, the article also noted, “No investments have been agreed and no site development approvals have been granted.”
Just to the west of Bokor and Preah Monivong parks is Botum Sakor National Park, which was secretly sold to a Chinese developer in 2012.
“Once it was all forest,” Chut Wutty, director of the natural resources protection group, an environmental watchdog, told Reuters. “But then the government sold the land to the rich.”
The Chinese real estate company Tianjin Union Development Group is “transforming (340 sq km) of Botum Sakor into a city-level gaming resort for” extravagant banquets and spree, “says its website,” according to a Reuters report. “A highway (64 km), now almost complete, will cut a four-lane swath through the predominantly virgin forest.”
“Land grabbing, illegal logging and forced evictions have long been common in Cambodia,” Reuters reported, “but by granting land concessions, the government has effectively legalized these practices in the country’s last remaining wilderness region.” .
“Look around now,” Kary complained as he wandered around the old city of Bokor, “because in a few years all this will disappear. For everyone except the government and the Chinese. “
Paula Froelich is the founder and editor of the online travel magazine for women, A Broad Abroad. Follow her on Instagram @pfro
This article originally appeared in the New York Post and was reproduced with permission