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Phnom Penh comes of age by succumbing to a USA fast food chain

Cambodian teen-agers are probably waiting impatiently to the opening of the first Burger King in the capital. Surely, this is a sign of ongoing globalisation in the Kingdom. But it also shows that changes in Cambodian society will definitely redefine its image for the tourists.

PHNOM PENH- Evocating Cambodia with tourists a decade ago was inevitably carrying some mysticism. Cambodia with the grand constructions of Angkor Wat and hundreds of temples lost in the midst of the rainforest, the crumbling colonial villas of Phnom Penh, the early morning walks of the Monks collecting alms in the streets of any urban settlement were all part of the special attraction to the country. Of course, they are still visible today but they are getting lost in the fever which seizes Cambodia today in its quest to embrace a globalised lifestyle. In Phnom Penh, the path of modernisation over the last five years have seen architectural gems such as the old School of Fine Arts and the National Circus training centre being destroyed to make ways for graceless condominiums built by China; Rising skyscrapers will soon dominate Phnom Penh’s city skyline as it will also in Vientiane, the Laotian capital. They will of course replace previous colonial structures but also the first buildings constructed in the years of the independence, which often represented the pride of a nation…

Most symbolic of this new age is the announcement of US Giant fast food chain Burger King to enter the Cambodian capital before the end of the year.  The first outlet will open its doors at Phnom Penh International Airport before moving into the city centre by early 2013. It will then be the third US franchise in Cambodia after KFC and Dairy Queen. Also present at the airport, they both expanded in town. KFC has ten outlets in Cambodia while Dairy Queen just opened an outlet along the Tonle Bassac River in the heart of the capital. In Vientiane, there is today the same quest for all these external signs of “civilisation”. Explaining why Vientiane was launching “Glory of Laos”, a massive project consisting of buildings and shopping malls along the Mekong River, officials highlighted that Laotians were craving to have their own McDonald’s and Starbucks outlet.

The arrival of globalized brands is of course part of a natural evolution for developing nations. It is most certainly a sign of their recognition status as sophisticated destinations and their full membership into our global world community. But is is sad to see that it is often done to the detriment of their local culture. Blending all cultures to create a strong identity is probably the way to survive in this globalised planet. Paris, London, New York, Tokyo or Shanghai have succeeded to build up their unique image as they deeply understood the benefits of merging influences from all over the world and retain their own identity. In Phnom Penh or Vientiane, destroying and then copying others is certainly easy to show that they are both coming of age. But at the same time, it definitely destroy the kind of charms which used to made these places so special in the heart of many travellers.

There is no way to blame countries looking to develop. But we can blame them for the mediocraty of the development.

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.