World Economy

Reporter's notebook: Countries like Cambodia could see 'brain re-flow'

House tops in Cambodia
Andy Teo | Getty Images

This article is part of a "Reporter's Notebook" series, wherein CNBC journalists submit tales and observations from the field.

PHNOM PENH — Ray, my fellow-passenger on the Cambodia-bound flight from Singapore was fighting fatigue. His journey did start in New Zealand after all.

The Cambodian business student said he's happy to be going home for a well-deserved break. We talked about sports and Ray enthused about New Zealand and its lifestyle. Though single-minded about returning to his home country for good, Ray's a pragmatist first: "I need some international experience," he admitted.

Young Cambodians are rolling the dice and returning home. With growth rates in excess of 7 percent, Cambodia is rising. And it's a gamble that's paying off.

Vichet In, CEO and co-founder of Khmerload, the country's first tech start-up to win Silicon Valley seed capital, is betting on the country's young, internet-savvy population. His rationale for returning to Cambodia is simple: "We target the millennials," he said with a smile. "If you know your market, you can make money."

The thirty-something's career path could have been very different if he hadn't dropped out of an IMF-sponsored PhD program in the U.S. Perhaps a cushy job as a government bureaucrat back home, steady income and retirement package. But he's on to something with the local language web portal, just five years old, which has earned itself the title of the Buzzfeed of Cambodia. Now, Khmerload has expanded into Myanmar.

Speaking of which, it's not just Cambodia witnessing the return of top talent. Myanmar tycoon Serge Pun talks about the "brain re-flow" into the country over the last five years.

"You cannot force people to come back. The conditions have to be conducive for them to come back," the tycoon told me on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Phnom Penh.

"If the governments have the right policy of development, provide the right policies for these well-educated aspiring young people — then you don't have to do anything, they will come back."

Yes, it's about entrepreneurial zeal and the big idea, but policymakers have a part to play in securing the future brain trust.