The last time the official from the Netherlands Embassy touched down here, she walked out of the airplane and onto the tarmac. For last week’s meeting of international donor representatives, she went through Pochentong Airport’s new international terminal—proof, to her, that Cambodia is becoming more receptive to business travelers.
“You can see the place is changing very rapidly,” said the Bangkok-based official, who was last here in March. “You can see it in the buildings, nice hotels and lots of cars, though many are owned by NGOs.”
With two major conventions coming up in the next year—November’s Asean summit meeting and January’s Asean Tourism Forum—Phnom Penh is trying to make itself viable as a convention town. International travelers here for last week’s donor meeting said it is doing well, at least compared to most other developing nations.
“It’s quiet, and not so hectic here, so you can breathe,” said Finnish Ambassador Heikki Tuunanen, who is based in Bangkok. “It’s quite nice to come here, easy to work and to take care of business.”
Tuunanen said he enjoys the waterfront restaurants and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on his occasional visits here. The airport is easy to use, and his Thai mobile phone works here, he said.
Overall, however, travelers gave international phone service poor markings, saying the land lines were too expensive and that it was more practical to use a mobile phone.
And the Netherlands official complained about the lack of automatic bank tellers, or ATMs. “You can’t get money out of the wall here,” she said.
But with its wide boulevards and colonial buildings, the official said Phnom Penh reminded her of Hanoi, which she has watched develop over the past decade. “This place has the same potential,” she said.
The annual donor meeting was held in Cambodia for the first time last week, a fact that impressed some officials who usually work in poorer countries.
“Other countries I go to would not be able to host something like this,” said Maika Ostinkawa, a World Trade Organization official who focuses on the world’s 49 so-called less-developed countries. “They have more to offer than any other LDC I know.”
“Compared to most LDCs of its size, Cambodia is better equipped,” added Remi Lang, an official with the UN Conference on Trade and Development.
Like most donor officials, Lang was staying at the Hotel Le Royal, which he described as “the best hotel I’d been to in an LDC.” He complained, though, that the prices for office services—the hotel charges $24 an hour for Internet connection—were “outrageous.”
The fact that officials were paying $24 an hour for Internet service in a town where cafes charge $1 could be a gauge of how isolated they were from average Cambodians during their stay.
Black limousines whisked officials from their hotels to private conferences, private meetings and private dinners. The Netherlands group toured a prison on Wednesday with human rights group Licadho, but for the most part the officials appeared to be kept behind closed doors.
For officials accustomed to the best, it was sometimes difficult to hide a certain disdain even for the best Cambodia had to offer.
Asked what he thought of Cambodia as a convention host, a Canadian official said, “What do you think?” as he stepped onto a red carpet and into a dinner at the Hotel Cambodiana without giving his name.
“Cambodia is a developing country. It has developing services.”