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John Stanmeyer/Saba for TIME.
The Road to Riches
After three decades of turmoil, Cambodia is trying to repave its way back to peace and prosperity

To describe a stroke of good fortune or a sudden solution to a problem, Cambodians commonly use the idiom mien plou—literally, "I have a road." Looking at the tiny village of Taheng, 80 km southeast of Phnom Penh, it's easy to see why. Since a new provincial road was built through the village, life in Taheng has been transformed. A small roadside stand has blossomed into a two-story concrete general store, selling not only staples but such luxuries as canned soda and toys. Shop owner Chhoeun El, 42, says that before the road was completed 18 months ago, reaching the nearest town took three hours. Today, the trip is only about 30 minutes and the change has allowed him to increase his stock and drop prices. Onions used to cost about 60 per kg in the store. Now, they are only 50, a substantial difference for farmers whose average income is less than $50 a month. At the same time, villagers find themselves with a little more money to spend. Many have taken advantage of the road to bring their vegetables to Phnom Penh, where they can get higher prices. "In Cambodia, we say that if you have a road, you can have everything," Chhoeun El observes.

While much of Asia is busy wiring up to the information superhighway, impoverished Cambodia is still working to connect its rural residents in more basic ways. Isolated for decades by its long civil war, Cambodia can seem frozen in time. Only about 15% of the country is fully "wired"—to electricity, that is. Of Cambodia's 11.4 million citizens, 90% still use firewood for cooking, and fewer than 15% of homes have indoor plumbing. Now that the fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge is over, Cambodia is looking to pull itself into, at least, the 20th century. Much of the effort is going into improving roads.

It's a huge task. Less than 20% of Cambodia's national highway network is even paved, and about 160,000 km of provincial and rural roads are little more than dirt tracks. Repairing highways is expensive, so Cambodia relies heavily on foreign aid. This year, donors led by the Asian Development Bank are funding 13 major road and bridge renovations totaling nearly $300 million. But the outsiders, interested in stimulating commerce nationwide, concentrate almost exclusively on the dilapidated highway network. The majority of the population lives on the deep-rutted dirt paths that constitute the provincial and rural road system. Poor transportation leaves many farmers isolated, able to trade only with their closest neighbors or to eat what they grow themselves. The nearest school is often too far, on a difficult road, to make the trip possible each day.

The job of renovating provincial roads is being undertaken not by Cambodia's cash-strapped government, but by private businessmen and political parties. The new road in Taheng, for example, was built by the ruling Cambodian People's Party and is one of many in the nation named after Prime Minister Hun Sen. Few ask where the money comes from. The cpp-funded road projects help explain how the formerly communist party gains popularity in rural areas and maintains its stranglehold on power. "When we have a road, it means we have hope," Hun Sen said at a recent road dedication ceremony. He might as well have been speaking about his own party as of the populace in general.

One of the remarkable things about Cambodia's roads is not how bad they are, but how good they once were. The bone-jarring trip down a pockmarked clay stretch to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin also includes short strips of blacktop dating back to the 1960s, the last time Cambodia saw a semblance of peace and prosperity. Uk Chan was a young civil engineer at that time, and he remembers when the drive from Phnom Penh to Bangkok could be made on smooth highways. But after the 1970 ouster of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia suffered paroxysms of violence that battered the entire populace and the country's infrastructure, including its roads. "It will take us at least 20 years to have roads like Thailand has now," says 60-year-old Uk Chan. "I hope I can see that before I die."

In the meantime, rural Cambodians are moving forward any way they can. Many scratch out a living the same way their grandparents did, but hope for a more prosperous future. In Taheng, fisherman Sun Sokhom drives a wooden oxcart piled high with bamboo fishtraps and a wooden canoe. It used to take two hours to get from the lake to the market. Fish would die en route. Now, it's only an hour, meaning more fresh fish, and his income has doubled as a result. "I'm saving up money to have a wedding," he says. "This road could be the one to take me to my new wife." If so, maybe his children will see Cambodia catch up with the rest of Asia.

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