Douglas Thompson's Blog: Cambodia's "World's Fair"
1 December 2006
What if they gave an "Expo" and nobody came?
When I was a kid--it must have been in 1965--my parents and two sisters and I made a summer driving trip from our home in Northern California to New York and Washington DC. It was quite an experience since we spent most nights in a small trailer that unfolded into a giant tent on wheels, cooking on a portable gas stove and showering in places that I have come to appreciate as intriguing only many years later.
One of our most important stops was the New York World's Fair. Corporate giants and many of the nations of the world--even the Soviet Union, which was quite a breakthrough in those days--were represented there with elaborate pavilions and exhibits, giving the fair a skyline of domes, minarets, pagodas, towers and an immense globe that still remains, and appeared in the first Men in Black film. The world was on the threshold of the space age and the fair gave us exciting glimpses of the future.
So I was excited to learn that a World Tourism Expo would be held in Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Cambodia in November and December. Since I spend almost half of my time there sleeping in a bar and teaching handsome Khmer lads how to make the perfect Cosmo, the whole thing sounded too exciting to be true. "Twenty-three countries will participate," our local manager told me repeatedly. How exciting!
An entire convention center was built in six months and the town was buzzing about opening ceremonies, a ribbon-cutting by the Prime Minister and the Korean president. (The Koreans put up all the money, someone else spent it, as is the custom in Cambodia.) Khmer people lined up to buy tickets for two dollars, which is quite a lot of money in a country where people who make $50 a month consider themselves lucky. Since our Bangkok office receives several tourism trade publications and I had not read a single word about this event, I smelled a rat.
By opening day the whole thing had been re-packaged as the World Cultural Expo. Sure enough, our local staff were among the first to attend. There were food booths, shopping booths, first aid stations, security booths and toilets, but not a single pavilion, exhibit or even minaret. Each of the 23 countries "participating" were represented by a flag. Part of the event is/was a fashion show featuring the work of a Korean designer. It's the kind of tacky stuff Darika would not even dare to wear. Tickets for one of the 1,000 seats sell for $1,000 each. Unbelievable, considering you can see Darika model trashy, tasteless "fashions" of her own for free at her bar.
If you find yourself in Siem Reap before mid-January, hire a tuk-tuk and go see for yourself. Don't waste the $20 foreigners pay to get inside to salute 23 flags. The real party is outside the gates, where local people flock to guzzle beer and palm wine, eat grilled chicken, see their friends, and attend the local version of a carnival.
The Expo is about to be outdone. "They" are putting the finishing touches on the Angkor National Museum. This impressive piece of architecture on the road to Angkor Wat will be full of shops and restaurants. However, since Angkor is a World Heritage Site--meaning nothing can be moved--there will not be a single genuine artifact in the museum. I can't wait to buy a ticket to see it for myself.