Siem Reap (Cambodia): After the horrendous ordeal of sending couriers back and forth over three weeks to get a South African visa recently, it was a pleasant surprise to apply for a Cambodian visa online and get it within 24 hours. Cambodia opened up again to the outside world just a decade and a half ago, but seems to have got this part of it right and now attracts two million visitors a year. Here in Nepal, we are still thinking of the magic number of one million, with Nepal Tourism Year just round the corner. If we are to ease our visitors' experiences at Immigration, it might be worth considering electronic visa systems like that of Cambodia.
You get nostalgic for the Nepal-India border while crossing over from Thailand to Cambodia. Those who think that Nepal and India should shut down the open border and implement a visa regime at the border should take a tour of this border point. Middlemen cash in by filling in Thai immigration forms and the customs folks don't complain as there is a lot of tea money to be made. Thai goods flow into Cambodia while people flow into Thailand in search of jobs. It is fascinating that there are nine casinos in the Cambodian border town of Poi Pet just for the Thais to come and gamble. Casinos are not permitted in Thailand and like in Nepal, Cambodian locals, as per law, cannot gamble. It would be interesting to see a similarly regulated border between Nepal and India. Would Nepalis line up to cross over and gamble away their savings in Indian casinos? The contrast between the ease of e-visas and the actual chaos at the 'regulated' border once more highlights the advantage of open borders.
In Cambodia, the US dollar is the preferred currency in use and the local currency, which stands at 4000 Riel to the dollar, is used only for change. With more transactions being based on plastic cards and mobile phones, what will be the future of paper money or the currency? If the Nepal-India currency peg is here to stay, maybe it is time for Nepal to consider making the Indian Rupee also legal tender here. Informal money exchanges will go out of business; informal money transfers will become formal. And if Indian tourists and investments are going to be dominant in Nepal, such an arrangement could be advantageous.
Cambodia has figured out the importance of English and, unlike its neighbour Thailand, believes that English is the language best suited to riding the wave of globalisation. Our tuk-tuk driver spoke good English and spent his evenings doing management courses. While he was waiting for us in between trips, he was reading a Kotler marketing book with a dictionary on the side. Thailand's beaches and sex industry may not be overly concerned about what's lost in translation, but there's no doubt the nation as a whole makes little effort to embrace English for the sake of non-Thais. Nepalis, like Cambodians, can't afford to neglect English, especially in the service sector. Not only does it service international clients better, but a world of global information and job markets open up.
The spectacular sights of Angkor, next to Siem Reap, draw people from round the world, and will continue to do so for years to come. We could do the same with Lumbini, which has the potential to attract millions of Buddhists. Such projects would be able to absorb the unemployed local population and open up avenues for public-private partnerships.
Cambodia also provides hope for the future of conflict-affected countries. A country battered by violence, little seen and understood in other parts of the world, has been able to rebuild quickly. Over a hundred hotels have been built in Siem Reap, which edges out Phnom Penh in terms of the pace of construction. They buy expensive electricity from Thailand, but as long as they can recover the cost from customers they are happy. Nepal has not gone through anything close to what Cambodia experienced in violence and class elimination. For all the doomsayers who see Nepal as a failed state, if a country that went through so much can be rebuilt, then there is surely a better future in store for Nepal.