"It seems like a frontier town, with all of the excitement, all of the energy," says Nisha Agrawal, the World Bank's country manager.
The notion of a Cambodian boom may seem incongruous, if not slightly absurd. This remote corner of
But after a generation spent slumbering in the shadows of its fast-rising neighbors,
Americans have fueled the boom with their purchases of Levi jeans, Gap (GPS) clothes and Nike (NKE) athletic shoes, all bearing made-in-Cambodia labels. Whether consumers will continue doing so, however, now depends on the complexities of
The government here is pinning its hopes on proposed
Factories here supply clothing to some of the USA's best-known brands, including Disney, (DIS) Sears (SHLD) and Wal-Mart. (WMT) They've been drawn to Cambodia, despite sky-high electricity costs, inadequate roads and pervasive corruption, because of an innovative program promoting good labor standards that began nine years ago with U.S. help.
The San Francisco-based clothing company, which plans to continue relying on local suppliers after the limits on Chinese products are lifted, supports the tariff-elimination bill.
Prospects for approval of the measure, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., are cloudy. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the
The stakes for
Scars remain from turmoil
Scars from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era remain vivid. Under radical leader Pol Pot, black-clad guerillas systematically murdered lawyers, doctors, teachers — sometimes even those wearing eyeglasses — in a demented bid to return
Only in 1999 did the country enjoy its first entirely peaceful year in three decades. Today, a surge in tourism is clear evidence of the turnaround. For the first 10 months of this year,
The stunning temples of Angkor Wat are the country's principal draw. On typical days, the extraordinary 12th-century monuments are packed shoulder to shoulder with hordes of South Korean, Japanese and American tourists.
Heart and soul of economy
While the country harbors long-term hopes of developing possible offshore oil deposits, the garments industry is the heart and soul of its economy. From virtually nothing in 1994, the industry has grown to an estimated $3 billion in exports and directly employs 355,000 workers. They in turn support an estimated 1.7 million people with regular payments to family members, who often live in poor rural villages with little economic activity, according to the International Finance Corp.
Sokla Sem, 29, came to the capital to find factory work 11 years ago after the death of her father. Working for a Chinese-owned shirt factory, she and her sister made a combined monthly salary of $150. Of that amount, they sent two-thirds to their mother to pay for the education of an older brother. Sem, like many young women here, has only a fourth-grade education.
After being fired in a dispute over pay, she became a labor activist. But she hasn't forgotten the economic imperative that drives the country's leading industry.
"It was very difficult for me when I started working in the factory," she says. "But I didn't care about the difficulty; I cared about making money that I could send home."