Our Belt and Road

“So this is the growth of our country that we have seen. We will partner with other countries, but we also cannot lose our culture and values.”

My 16 year-old guide, Sovannou, provides an economic overview of Cambodia as we cross the Mekong River via ferry. It was midday, and we had the ferry virtually to ourselves. Sitting on the upper level gave us a much-needed breeze. It was the hottest part of the day in one of the hottest months of the year in Cambodia.

Marady on the ferry

I held the clear plastic cup with the remaining ice from my sugar cane drink. Sovannou’s guiding partner, Marady, had purchased the drinks at the market just before reaching the ferry. She had handed the drink to me with an apology. 

“I’m sorry, they did not have the coconut available.” The coconut with bamboo straw drink is not only a market specialty in Cambodia, but eco-friendly. “But I promise, we will recycle the plastic cups.”

Marady wasn’t paying me eco-lip service. She, Sovannou and fellow students at Liger Leadership Academy in Phnom Penh banned the use of single-use plastics at their school several years ago. It’s a practice they share whenever off-campus. So naturally, it’s incorporated in their student-launched and managed Journeys of Change bike tour.

Our guides pay a market vendor

The idea behind Journeys of Change is brilliant. The students learn what it’s like to run a real business—what to do when bikes break down, how to hire, schedule and pay vendors and employees, and what to do when your market seller runs out of coconuts. Senior students at Liger are the tour guides. They write the tour script, deliver it while weaving in their personal stories, and provide us a school tour and lunch at the tour’s end. An advisor and a tuk-tuk accompany the student guides, but remain fully in the background.

Because the guides are the stars of this show.

And they should be—they are this country’s future. Nearly 2/3 of Cambodians are under the age of 30. Sovannou and Marady are part of the largest generation of youth transitioning to adulthood in Cambodia’s history.

Following Sovannou on bike

Sovannou and Marady are proud of their Khmer history. They are versed in Cambodia’s late 1970’s Khmer Rouge genocide—not just from school and museums, but because it impacted many of their own families and communities. 

As tour guides, they love that tourists visit famed historical sites like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the genocide museum and memorial in Phnom Penh. But they are excited to share Cambodia’s present and future. 

I’m excited to hear from them. Because it’s a transitional time for Cambodia. And ultimately, they’re in charge.

“Have you heard of the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative?”

Sovannou explained the Chinese global development strategy which involves over a trillion U.S. dollars of infrastructure investment in countries across Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. 

Vattanac Capital Tower

More than its Southeast Asian neighbors, Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen has openly embraced Chinese investment. The visual impact is everywhere. The 39-story Chinese-financed Vattanac Capital Tower, with an architectural design said to resemble the back of a dragon, is now the tallest building in Phnom Penh. Road signs and advertisements are written in Khmer, English, and Chinese. 

Sihanoukville, a port city on the Gulf of Thailand, is the poster child for Chinese development. The once-sleepy beach town now boasts over 70 Macau-style casinos filled with Chinese patrons (gambling is illegal for Cambodians); a new China-Cambodia tax-free economic zone has brought in hundreds of Chinese-run factories.

“Belt and Road” is described as the 21st-century silk road; “belt” refers to overland routes and “road” refers to the sea routes.

But Sovannou explained it a bit differently—perhaps more accurately.

“‘Road’ refers to the infrastructure investment which China makes in our roads, rail, ports and buildings. And think of when you use a belt—like when you want to pull something tighter and have control of it.”

When she spoke, I could hear the impact of this initiative—on Cambodia and the world—was something she was still processing. Through debate and Model UN, Sovannou has learned the importance of playing “devil’s advocate.” She strives to think through issues from both sides. I could see her critical thinking skills at work.

Sovannou explains the economy

On one hand, China was a partner to Cambodia, propelling their growth and connection to the broader region and the globe. But what might be the longer-term costs—economic, culture, and values? 

It’s a delicate balance, and Sovannou recognizes this. She seems comfortable navigating shades of grey. I can see why she has interest in studying international relations.

I asked if there was a country she most admired or that Cambodia could best learn from in economic development. “Singapore.”

I expected that might be her answer. It’s one of the six Asian countries she’s visited through her initiatives, which range from robotics competitions to ultimate frisbee. We discussed how Singapore is a model for many countries—as far away and different as Rwanda.

Sovannou & Marady at Liger

Our ferry docked, and we biked another 10 kilometers to Liger Leadership Academy. Malady and Sovannou were handpicked for Liger’s inaugural cohort of 50 students. They graduate in June 2020. 

They proudly walked us through the campus. Liger is one big educational experiment, with the thesis that project-based learning produces the most impactful agents of change. The school even obtained an exemption for Liger students from taking the Cambodian national exam. “Why should we have to take a test that decides our life when it is not the way we learn?” Malady explained.

The school is like a project playground. “Did you know we have a sound studio?” Sovannou asked as we walked by a small stand-alone building. She shared how she’s recently produced a podcast. “Here we are growing vegetables in a hydroponic garden,” Marady explained, as we stood in front of a green wall. We saw signs reiterating the school’s no single-use plastic policy; Marady told how they speak at public schools to educate fellow students about the hazards of plastic waste.

Marady explains the hydroponic garden

We continued walking, reaching a building at the far end of campus. “And this is where we live!” 

Sovannou and Marady introduced us to two of their four roommates. As seniors, they live independently in a small, breezy apartment; they are responsible for cleaning, buying groceries, and cooking. As they prepared a lovely squid and rice lunch for us, I noticed a roommate responsibility grid on the refrigerator. “I think my husband and I need this,” I joked.

Over lunch, we talked about their families. Where they grew up. How they found their way to Liger. Marady said she came down with dengue fever the week of the Liger entrance exam. “My mother held the IV tube while I took the test!”

The four girls talked about their present and future—the value they’ve found in internships; whether they might attend university in the U.S., India or Cambodia.

Lunch with Marady, Sovannou & roommates

I thought back to Sovannou talking about the growth of Cambodia. Each girl was like a country—each seeking to invest in herself, connect with others, and lead change, all while remaining true to her culture and personal values. 

The implications of China’s “Belt and Road”—on economic growth, equality, human rights, and the environment—are an everyday navigation for young people in countries like Cambodia.

The implications are enormous and global. Yet many in the West are unaware of this growing influence.

But we should be.

Change starts with awareness and education. As the Liger students remind me, one empowered individual is capable of changing the world around them.

Let’s all be the leaders we wish to see.

Interested in learning more? Join me in upcoming Venture Travel. I also recommend reading What is China’s Belt & Road Initiative?

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Jodi Morris Written by:

Venture Guide to High-Achieving Seekers. Success Coach. Venture Travel Curator. Impact Investor. Traveler. Writer. Global Connector. When we connect to others' stories it changes our own. Let's Venture!