For three days, regional elites in business and government gathered at the five-star Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel, which stands almost alone on the tip of the Chroy Changva peninsula, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, with the Royal Palace across the water.
“Go out of our hotel to the river and turn right, and you run on an immaculate modern highway all the way to the new bridge,” said Mark Billington, Southeast Asia regional director of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, and one of the participants in the World Economic Forum on Asean, after the event closed on Friday.
“Turn left and head towards the other river bank and you soon run past stray dogs, naked children, skinny cattle and tin sheds,” he said.
The hotel and its location exemplified the duality of development in Cambodia—rapid growth in the national economy, but with a long tail of poverty still lagging behind, and the two sides existing virtually on top of each other.
Across the Tonle Sap from the hotel is Phnom Penh’s tourist-heavy riverside, filled with restaurants, vendors, crowds and, beyond it, the lives of ordinary Phnom Penh residents. The Sokha Hotel, in contrast, stands apart.
The World Economic Forum filled every room in the exclusive hotel, according to general manager Benoit Jancloes, with 700 influencers exchanging views across more than 40 formal sessions and connecting more informally throughout the three day event.
Though isolated from the daily lives of Cambodians, the gathering, held in Cambodia for the first time, will nevertheless affect the country’s trajectory for some time, organizers and participants said.
“They shape the perceptions of policymakers and private sector leaders,” said Chris McCarthy, the CEO of marketing firm Mango Tango Asia and one of the organizers of Cambodia Vibe, a party arranged as a side event for the forum’s opening night that showcased the country’s fashion, arts and entrepreneurship, mostly by young Cambodians.
“They may shape them in the wrong direction, or in the right direction—depending on the facts and your point-of- view—but certainly these events do help shape policy,” he said.
The forum’s first day opened with sessions themed around “The Asean Dream,” in which human rights activists, government officials and entrepreneurs discussed diversity and democracy in front of more than 2,000 young Cambodians.
Sarath Uch, a tech entrepreneur who participated in the event, said he had come away inspired.
“I mostly enjoyed listening to Tony Fernandes from AirAsia,” he recalled. “He shared a lot of good ideas about disruptive innovation, artificial intelligence and the new culture of rapid change.”
The forum moved on to talks about infrastructure and sustainable planning, and discussed how Asean should maintain a balance between the influences of the East and West amid globalization.
Four heads of state—Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith—shared the stage for a session on Asean’s 50th anniversary. Other gatherings discussed the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” or the fusing of technology with biology and other cutting-edge research.
“It’s the opportunity for the Cambodian elite to connect with regional elites,” said Frederic Spohr, a business reporter from Germany covering Southeast Asia and India.
Though the forum is unlikely to bring immediate wealth to the country, “maybe some top managers have a little more interest in Cambodia now,” Mr. Spohr added.
It was good branding for the country even if the topics being discussed were broad, he said.
For many, the event served as visual evidence of the well-documented statistics of the change Cambodia has undergone over recent years.
“I last came here several years ago and the transformation is amazing,” said Arup Raha, group chief economist at CIMB, a Malaysia-based bank. “The growth and development aside, the true wealth of any country lies in its people and Cambodians are just terrific—as warm and helpful as ever.”
“Cambodia should be at the top of every tourist’s bucket list,” he added.
International media also descended on the event from around the world. They were in for a surprise, however, when Mr. Hun Sen used a news conference on Thursday to lecture local journalists asking policy questions—including a reporter for The Cambodia Daily—telling them that if they don’t quote him properly they would be viewed as “servants of foreigners” who were “opposing me all the time.”
Attendees largely praised the running of the event as well as the Phnom Penh milieu, and said they had gained new knowledge and forged new connections at the forum. But the episode of the news conference stood out as an awkward moment for some.
“I think Hun Sen disgraced himself when attacking the local press,” said Mr. Spohr, the business reporter from Germany. “A German colleague told me right afterward: I am so happy that I don’t have to work as a journalist in this country.”
Meanwhile, for Mr. Billington, of the accountants’ institute, the image of Cambodia presented at the Sokha Hotel was only a partial picture.
“Exciting times for Cambodia, but look at what’s below the surface,” he said. “Significant strides have successfully been made to move many above the poverty line, [but] there is still a strong sense of disconnect to the elite in Phnom Penh, let alone the rest of Cambodia—just hop over to the palace side of the river and ask the street vendors.”
The country’s leadership still needs to put quality of life for all higher on its agenda, Mr. Billington said. Otherwise, he added, people’s lives will remain “a lottery based on whether you turn left or right out of a door.”