Despite the beautiful backdrop, life is no picnic for the average Cambodian. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia and it’s a tough existence for much of the population, as they battle it out against the whims of nature and, sometimes, of their politicians. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP; www.undp.org), Cambodia remains poorer than Mongolia and El Salvador, just scraping in ahead of Mauritania, while Transparency International (www.transparency.org), the anticorruption watchdog, rates the country a lowly 151 out of the 163 countries ranked. Income remains desperately low for many Khmers, with annual salaries in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands, and public servants such as teachers unable to eke out a living on their meagre wages.
Cambodia’s pristine environment may be a big draw, but much of it is currently under threat. Ancient forests are being razed to make way for plantations, rivers are being sized up for major hydroelectric power plants and the south coast is being explored by leading oil companies. All this helps add up to an ever-stronger economy, which is growing at an incredible 10% a year, but it’s unlikely to encourage the ecotourism that is just starting to develop.
Landmines are still a real danger in Cambodia, with up to six million live mines dotted around the countryside and near the border with Thailand.
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