Shifting Idylls: Urban-Rural Dynamics in Cambodia

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Shifting Idylls: Urban-Rural Dynamics in Cambodia

A closer look at how the city and the countryside – and perceptions of them – are evolving.

Shifting Idylls: Urban-Rural Dynamics in Cambodia
Credit: Flickr/IFPRI

While researching an article I wrote in early 2015 about the emergence of a Cambodian working class, I spoke to dozens of garment-factory workers who live in the peripheries of Phnom Penh, often in multi-story dormitories surrounding the factories. The majority were recent migrants from the countryside. Most were women. And many said they were struggling to adapt to their new lives in the capital: the size of the city, the loss of social connections, and so on.

But what struck me was that almost every single interviewee said that they wanted to return to the countryside once they could afford to do so. In hindsight, this shouldn’t have been surprising: the dissatisfaction with urban life for migrants is understandable since many lack the funds to enjoy the fruits of city living while a good number move back and forth regularly between the city and countryside, making neither locale permanent.

However, for the majority of Cambodia’s migrants from the countryside, and for the established urban population, the task of creating an urbanite identity in a country whose culture and mores remain predominately rural while it undergoes profound social changes is not an easy one. Cambodia has had one of the fastest rates of urbanization in Asia in recent debates. Phnom Penh’s population doubled between 1998 and 2010 and the urban population now accounts for 21 percent of Cambodia’s 15 million inhabitants.

On a recent trip to Mondulkiri, the country’s most sparsely populated province, I journeyed to the Bousra waterfall, a popular site for Cambodian tourists. The car park was spilling over with SUVs and 4x4s, the vehicles of those who had left Phnom Penh during the busy Water Festival for the quieter climes of the rural northeast. As I sat at the water’s edge, nearby family after family posed for photographs dressed in the traditional clothes of the Pnong, an ethnic minority who live primarily in Mondulkiri province. A hut nearby was renting out the clothes: candy-colored skirts for women, while the children dressed in similarly colored tunics, bare-chested, clutching onto ill-made wooden pickaxes. For ten minutes, one mother shuffled clumsily back and forth in high-heeled shoes to the hut, changing her outfit several times.

Back in the provincial capital Sen Monorom, I spoke to a hotel owner, originally from Phnom Penh, who extolled the qualities one would expect from such a rural locale: the scenery, the tranquillity, and, specific to Mondulkiri, its relatively cold climate (jumpers are needed at night, a rare but welcomed necessity in Cambodia). She also told me that, compared to last year, the number of Cambodian tourists has almost doubled this year. The presence of high-end SUVs were a clear indication that many were from Cambodia’s swelling urban middle and upper classes. A Western tour guide in the town suggested as much as a threefold increase of tourists within the last year.

Back home in Phnom Penh, I found out an essay I had printed months before and left to collect dust. In 2013, Wantanee Suntikul wrote about the boom in domestic tourism in Thailand. Suntikul’s example was Amphawa, an 18th century floating market, 80 kilometres outside of Bangkok. Since 2004, it has become a popular weekend destination for tourists from the capital, where visitors can “glimpse of the traditional way of life of Thai people who live along the canals, as well as opportunities to sample traditional Thai food and desserts, souvenir shop in shop-houses, stay in a traditional Thai style home.”

While the desire to simply ‘get out of the city’ is a motivation, Suntikul saw a more profound meaning for visiting Anphawa, and perhaps for that matter, Mondulkiri for Cambodians. “For older visitors, Amphawa may evoke memories of the Thailand of their youth, while younger tourists may experience it more as a staged setting of a time and a way of life that they never personally experienced,” Suntikul wrote. He added:

In the Thai domestic tourism landscape, in which tourists seek out rural destinations as nostalgic idylls that provide antitheses to their hectic urban lives, Amphawa appeals to a sense of nostalgia for one’s own past, as well as providing an environment in which Thai people recognize symbols and manifestations of their shared national and cultural identity.

Suntikul was not the first to identify this idyll. “Nostalgia is growing in Thailand. Locals want to get in touch with their past, their history,” she quoted one academic as saying. What’s more, Thai authorities have also stressed this issue with the saytagit paw piang (Sufficiency Economy) and wathanatham chumchon (Community Culture) movements. The National Economic and Social Development Board defines the former as “an overriding principle for appropriate conduct by Thai people” and stresses that “a way of life based on patience, perseverance, diligence, wisdom and prudence is indispensable to create balance and be able to cope appropriately with critical challenges, arising from extensive and rapid socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural changes in the world.” The latter, according to one study, “emphasizes the harmony and independence of traditional rural societies and looks to the rural past for solutions to today’s problems”.

Cambodia has no such state-sponsored movements. Yet, is there the same sense of nostalgia for the rural idyll? Last year, Samuel Cook, published a paper called Rural-urban migration and social exclusion among Cambodian youth: Discourses and narratives from Phnom Penh. Cook discovered similar views of the rural idyll expressed by Cambodians as Thais. One interviewee expressed a “nostalgic narration” that was typical of how migrants remembered the countryside: “I liked it in the village because it was natural and easy. When I was younger, I used to bicycle to my school in the next village. It was beautiful and there was fresh air.” The interviewee described the villagers as “friendly people” and eulogized the sense of community. “Such gleaming narratives construct migrants’ place of origin as a rural idyll,” Cook wrote. “The dominance of this construction throughout the life histories suggests a commonly held nostalgia for the rural place.”

Of course, this is not specific to Cambodia or Thailand. Rather, it is a universal symptom of urbanization. In Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, the authors David L. Brown and Kai A. Schafft identified the “rural mystique” in the United States and the “rural idyll” in the United Kingdom. “It is an idealized form of community that stands in contrast to urban life. It is the antithesis of the modern urban world, somehow more moral, virtuous and simple,” they wrote.

Importantly, they went on: “The idyll ignores the misery of rural poverty and presents emotional and sometimes sentimental renderings of people and landscapes in harmonious unity.” Indeed, by presenting the rural as an idyll, it can mask the reality of the inequality between the city and the countryside. Take Thailand, for example. After a three-year study, the World Bank in 2012 revealed that three-quarters of public expenditure went on Bangkok and its surrounding provinces, despite this area only containing 17 percent of the population. What’s more, spending on education was almost five times higher in Bangkok than elsewhere, while expenditure on healthcare was 12 times higher.

Cambodia also experiences such inequality in investment and social services. According to a 2014 report by the Asian Development Bank, while Cambodia’s poverty rate fell from 47.8 percent in 2007 to 18.9 percent in 2012, more than 90 percent of those in poverty live in rural areas. “One of the most important determinants of income poverty is location. Poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas, and the gap appears to be growing. Whereas 89 percent of poor households lived in rural areas in 2004, this increased to 91 percent by 2011,” the report added.

And, rather than being a place of idyllic permanence, the Cambodian countryside is rapidly changing, often for the worse. Since 2001, for example, tree cover loss in Cambodia has accelerated faster than in any other country, according to one study. Deforestation, land evictions, illegal logging, and mining continue at a destructive pace. Often, though not always, profits from such destruction are reaped by those in the cities, who, while enjoying the fruits of investment, then eulogize those that have suffered for their own material benefit. Rather than guilt over such inequality, the urbanite instead inverses the relationship: rural life is far superior, idyllic and peaceful, while urban life is the slog that must be endured.

On another level, the very idyll that urbanites enjoy in the countryside is often commodified for their desires, particularly those who never knew rural life. Brown and Schafft noted that “since most Americans and Europeans do not experience rural communities on a daily basis, rural images are a cultural construction, not an experiential reality.” The same cannot be said of a country like Cambodia, which remains chiefly rural, or Thailand, which is roughly split between urban and rural. Yet, an important consideration is who does the cultural construction. Is the definition of rural life defined by the rural population or by expectations of the urban, or for that matter by the childhood memories of migrants?

Writing of Thailand, the anthropologist Mary Beth Mills opined that the “ideological constructions” of what it means to be rural “can convey a nostalgic reverence for rural simplicity, locating Thai identity in an idealized agricultural tradition. Yet, even such celebratory images work to justify rural residents’ exclusion from contemporary arenas of ‘development’ (kan phattana) and ‘progress/prosperity’ (khwam caroen) by linking villagers’ national worth to the simplified ways and limited aspirations of an imagined past.”

In 2015, Nick Kontogeorgopoulos, Anuwat Churyen, and Varaphorn Duangsaeng published a essay titled Homestay Tourism and the Commercialization of the Rural Home in Thailand. Writing that “Thais are increasingly participating in [community-based tourism] CBT for many of the same reasons motivating international tourists to engage in alternative tourism,” they focused on the issue of homestays, and explored the “commercialisation” of the host’s rural home and what they call the “dilemmas of success”, using as an example the village of Mae Kampong in the north of the country.

It might sound obvious, but as a homestay (or that matter, a locale that extols the rural idyll) becomes more financially successful, it threatens to undermine the very ‘authenticity’ that makes it so desirable to visitors. First, as the number of tourists increase, it becomes less desirable since the desire was first to get away from large crowds. Second, more importantly, financial success allows the host to satisfy their material desires: to purchase a television or modern appliances, for example, or to improve access to electricity and the internet. Yet, by doing so, it again undermines the authenticity, trapping hosts in a state of limbo. As a result, the authors opined that the villagers “may come to one day resent the pressure placed on them by tourists and urban elites to stay ‘primitive and poor’… homestay communities like Mae Kampong that depend on the careful cultivation of a rustic image have little choice but to curb material desires, the fulfillment of which is made possible by success itself.”