In 2016 and 2019/2020 we have been traveling several months in Southeast Asia. Tourists have an easy life in this area: so much to see and do, good climate helpful people, good transport, the area is safe and affordable.
Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar are 2 of the most impressing sites worldwide. While The plain of Jars in Northern Laos still needs to be discovered. But it is not all about ancient history. The very recent history is very present. Landmines from the war in Vietnam (which is called the American War here) still injure and kill people every year. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have tried to eradicate all education from their country by killing their own people in our lifetime (visiting the killing fields leaves nobody untouched). And the future of Myanmar is anybody’s bet.
And there seems to be a fear in the air, something a lot of people talk about when you get to know them better. A fear about the future, that sounds very much the same in Southern Cambodia, Northern Myanmar, in Saigon and Hanoi: The Chinese are coming. And it is not about tourists. The Chinese tourists are already here. They can’t be overseen nor overheard. And they are not the most liked tourists. Mainly because of their behaviour specially in big groups. They disturb the monks’ morning walk by talking loudly and getting too close, they insist on smoking in hotels, they push and jump queues, they want breakfast “more quick”.
But, it’s not the people, it’s the Chinese investments that bother a lot of locals. A hotspot of these investments in Southeast Asia is Sihanoukville, a coastal town in Southern Cambodia. It is literally flooded by Chinese hotels and casinos. In January 2020 the Otres Beach, just a bit off the centre of town, is closed, the last shops and guest houses are taken down. On the train to Phnom Penh we meet a German couple who spent a night there, as the only and maybe last guests of the guesthouse: – It was like living in a ghost town. The whole town is one big construction site. Hotels and Casinos and all the streets are built at the same time. That means no street signs, no street lamps, mostly no paved road and big machines all-over. In 2019 the local authorities published some figures about business ownership: 90 per cent of hotels, casinos, restaurants and guesthouses are now owned by Chinese. According to an article in the Asean Post in July 2019, Thourn Sinan, president of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, was quoted as saying that the association had concerns over the large number of Chinese business owners and investors. He said no market should be more than half-invested-in by one single country. And with the investments come the people. Around 120’000 Chinese moving to Sihanoukville every year. So, one shopkeeper sighs: not much Cambodia left here.
Even our beloved island Koh Rong, just an hour boat ride off Sihanoukville, comes under Chinese investment pressure. The first little resorts have been taken over. With every piece of land that comes on the market, the fear that it will be bought by Chinese is widely discussed.
Myanmar has a long border with China. A logical place to invest, from a Chinese standpoint. And Myanmar has opened to investment from all over the world in the last years. Several people tell us that the Chinese just see the business opportunity and that the real friends in building up the country are the Japanese.
Also Laos has China as a direct neighbour. And the big neighbour is investing since years heavily in hydropower on the young Mekong. On the way also buying big amounts of real estate. The most demanding project is probably the new Northern Railway, linking Vientiane with China. No easy task in the hills and mountains. But China is offering to pay 70 per cent of the costs. Laos’ 30 per cent are covered by loans from (you guess right) Chinese banks. This approach is called dept diplomacy. Laos is a very poor country, it will never be able to pay back those loans– nor pay the interest. And it might be forced to a long-term lease of the whole infrastructure. Laotians should visit the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka to see what will happen. Sri Lanka wanted to push their port in Colombo by building a big new container harbour. China was willing to help. But the business stayed bad, Sri Lanka could not pay. Now the port belongs to Chinese investors for 99 years and is enlarged. And yes, a big casino is in the built.
What the economists call dept diplomacy one of our drivers in Myanmar calls “the camel’s head” when we ask him why he does not like the Chinese. A man has a tent to protect him from cold and snow. His camel asks him one evening: can I just have my head in your tent? The owner gives in and makes space. The next night, then camel wants also 2 legs in the tent and the next night … You get it.