To Build a Road (or: ‘An Irishman Walked into a Bar…’)

A Japanese company comes to Cambodia to build a road. They do a professional job, get it done almost on schedule, pick up most of the tab, employ local workers at decent wages, donate maintenance equipment and send an expert back periodically to follow up. While in town, the execs spend freely on karaoke, Johnny Walker Blue and young girls. The road is still in excellent condition more than a decade later.

A Chinese company comes to Cambodia to build a road from the highway to some natural resource. They do a thin but serviceable job, get it done relatively quickly, clear cut miles of jungle on either side for the hardwoods, pay off officials, treat local workers like expendable slaves and dump broken equipment and old fuel oil in the river. While in town, the execs spend lots on karaoke, Johnny Walker Black and young girls. When the project is complete, they abandon dozens of Chinese workers in the country. High level government officials praise their fine work and strings-free generosity. The road disintegrates in 2 or 3 years.

An American government-funded contractor comes to Cambodia to rebuild some road they blew up back in the 70s. First they build a massive walled compound for the American workers to live. They fly all new state of the art construction equipment in from America. They begin a series of regular airlifts to bring in all food, water and Budweiser from America. They set up a church group. The US embassy in conjunction with MTV Exit produces a list of approved bars, restaurants and sights that the American workers are allowed to visit. They send in an advance team of security and engineering experts to survey and secure the area.

They announce start up of the project will depend on improvement in Cambodia’s human rights, anti-trafficking efforts and election reform. Cambodia promises. They begin work on the road using a combination of well paid American and local workers. They threaten to stop work and demand improvement in Cambodia’s human rights, anti-trafficking efforts and election reform. Cambodia promises.

They continue working. They stop work while a congressional committee headed by Dana Rohrabacher debates whether Cambodia is living up to its human rights, anti-trafficking efforts and election reform promises. Nobody cares. They resume work. Somebody gets mugged in Phnom Penh. They stop work and evacuate all American workers to Guam. Six months later a security team is sent in. The team deems it safe enough. The American workers return to Cambodia to find all the supplies, machinery and even the newly laid road have disappeared.

They fly in more supplies and equipment from America. They start work again. They finish the road – truly a first rate job, probably the best road in Cambodia. They adorn it with US flag emblazoned plaques and monuments.

They hold a dedication ceremony attended by the US ambassador and the second assistant secretary of the local sangkat. The American contractors leave. A US government official announces that further aid will depend on Cambodia’s record on human rights, anti-trafficking efforts and election reform. Two months later the Cambodians set up toll booths, paint oknha names over the flags and the road is used to haul illegal timber and traffic sex slaves.

A French company comes to Cambodia and doesn’t build a road.

A Vietnamese company comes to Cambodia to build a road from the Vietnam border to some nearby Cambodian village. They use mostly Vietnamese labor, do a thin but serviceable job, and get it done on time. While in town, the execs spend a modest amount on karaoke, Johnny Walker Red and young girls. The project complete, all the Vietnamese workers stay in Cambodia and eventually send for their families to join them.

A Russian company comes to Cambodia to build a road to a Russian financed pleasure palace development. On paper it costs 20 times more than any other road in Cambodia. They begin work. Work stops when the entire executive crew dies of alcohol poisoning. A year later a new group of executives arrives and work resumes. Work stops when two are arrested, one is shot, several disappear and the rest die of alcohol poisoning again. Two years later a new group of executives arrives and work resumes. Ultimately they build a good, serviceable road, using local labor at local wages. The pleasure palace is never completed, but (on paper) remains fully booked, year-round, at rack rates.

A Thai company owned by a consortium of Thai generals comes to Cambodia to build a road. And in fact they build dozens of roads from the border deep into the jungle, and don’t tell anybody about it.

A Malaysian furniture company comes to Cambodia to build a US$1,000,000 road if they can also build an entertainment complex. They build half an entertainment complex and put out the word that they are looking for investors.

One year later construction on the road has not yet begun and the Cambodian government asks what’s going on.

The Malaysians announce they are holding an Investors Gala Celebration with free flow of Angkor Beer. Tickets $35/pax. At the Gala they announce their intentions to build a US$10,000,000 road. They build half a hotel attached to the half-built entertainment complex.

Two years later construction on the road has not yet begun and the Cambodian government asks what’s going on. The Malaysians announce they are holding a 5-star Grand Investors Gala Celebration with live Filipino band and free flow of Angkor Beer. Tickets $65/pax. At the Gala they announce their intentions to build a US$100,000,000 road. A Chinese restaurant is added to the half-hotel.

Four years later construction on the road has not yet begun and the Cambodian government asks what’s going on. The Malaysians announce they are holding a Supreme 6-Star Investors Super Gala Celebration with live Filipino band, a grand drawing and free flow of Tiger Beer. Tickets $85/pax++. At the Gala they announce their intentions to build a US$1,000,000,000 road.

Two years later construction on the road has not yet begun and the Cambodian government asks what’s going on. The Malaysians say “Road?”

A Cambodian import-export company sets up to build a road using aid money donated by the EU. They retrieve the old Chinese equipment from the river, refurbish it using solder and bailing wire and filter the fuel oil from the water. They use the aid money to buy luxury cars and karaoke, Johnny Walker Blue and young girls. They gas up the old Chinese equipment with the recovered fuel oil and use it to flatten the ground into a basic but serviceable hardpack road. They call it “done.” The hardpack disintegrates the following rainy season. The Cambodians ask the EU for more aid to help rebuild the road. The EU sends money. A Cambodian import-export company sets to rebuild the road using the aid money. They retrieve the old Chinese equipment…

(All companies and projects appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real companies or projects, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

Casey Nelson

Casey Nelson is a long-time expatriate who’s been based in Phnom Penh for over twenty years. He runs the excellent LTO blog and is also on Twitter.

15 thoughts on “To Build a Road (or: ‘An Irishman Walked into a Bar…’)

  1. Siddo Reply

    This is the front page article of the year. Just snuck in for 2012.

    That is all.

  2. NK Reply

    One of the best commentaries on “business as usual” in Cambodia that I’ve ever read.

  3. Debra Harman Reply

    You were such a brilliant man. Your words are so good to read. Always treasured.

    –Deb

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