As I've been spending a bit of time reflecting on my time in Cambodia, I feel like I only told half the story in my last post. The highlights were many, but Cambodia is a country far from perfection.
The poverty and pain for much of the population is starkly evident immediately upon crossing the border. Only main roads are paved, and even those are rough and pot-holed. The rest is just red dirt and mud, with garbage scattered everywhere, and built up on the sides. The cars are old and run down, passengers riding anywhere they can keep hold. Entire families cluster in the back of pickup trucks, and young men ride atop huge commercial vehicles barrelling down the roads at full speed. Motorbikes and scooters hum and weave through the traffic like a swarm of wasps, honking at everything that might cross its path, or even come close.
Phnom Penh was by far the most shocking of the cities and towns I visited.
The sidewalks are cobbled together with broken tiles, garbage, and mud puddles. Gathered at various corners are worn and weathered moto-taxi drivers, who call out and raise an arm each time you pass by, "hellooo lady! Where you going? Tuk tuk?".
Hammocks are strung up between scraggly trees planted optimistically along the rideside, their residents swinging listlessy throughout the day. Others sprawl out on public benches, halfdressed in rags, an arm over their faces, obviously suffering the after-effects of too much cheap alcohol. Most heart-breaking of all are the mothers squatting on dirty bamboo mats on the side of busy roads, watching over their toddlers and babies sleeping naked beside them.
There are also many Cambodians who are disfigured and disabled due to landmines, torture during the Khmer Rouge, and sometimes the toxic Agent Orange chemical which was used by the USA during the Vietnam War. Many are missing arms and legs, or thier limbs are twisted and virtually useless. Its very hard not to feel like a total POS when they literally crawl up to you, begging for money. Its extremely sad, and there are so many...it feels like there is nothing you can do.
I visited Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) during the Khmer Rouge regime during the 70's. If you ever wish to be depressed, a visit to this place is a good way to go about it. This brief, yet bloody, period of Cambodian history leaves most of us asking how people can do something so horrific to each other, and most of all- why?
I declined the follow-up visit to the famous Killing Fields, one of the many sites with mass graves. Thousands of bodies have been found there, and the evidence is still visible. To be honest, I couldn't stomach it, and I didn't feel like the point needed to be driven home any further.
The Khmer Rouge killed over 1.7 million Cambodia people (a significant portion of the population) from 1975-1979, systematically murdering the wealthiest, and most educated first, in order to suppress any kind of rebellion that might arise. This has seriously impaired any sort of rebuilding of the culture and country. The younger generation must literally start from scratch, but they have been raised by an entire nation dealing with severe trauma. Its a dismal and desperate situation.
Bearing these difficulties in mind, its not hard to understand why many Cambodians may be unsmiling and come across as unfriendly or even aggressive in their pursuit of your tourist cash, though it doesn't make the experience more pleasant.
However, I have encountered a few individuals who really gave me perspective; one was the teacher I mentioned that I met on the bus to Kampong Cham. He stepped in to help me with a confusing transit situation, and then we chatted about the challenges facing Cambodia, and his optimism and pride for his country was quite inspiring.
My guide during my jungle trek in Sen Monorom was a young man from a local Indigenous village; cheerful, industrious, and ambitious. Only a couple years ago, he lived and worked on his family's farm. When he was given the opportunity to work as a driver for a local guesthouse, he began to pick up both the Cambodian and English languages. Soon he was invited to work at the guesthouse restraurant as a server, where his language skills improved. By the time he was guiding our tour, he had only been speaking English for a year, and guiding for only a month! I was so impressed by how much English he knew, and how he has so quickly begun to start a life for himself. He told me he wants to work for a year to save money and then go to the local English school to learn more, and eventually go to Phnom Penh to see the big city. He has never left the Mondulkiri province in his entire life, and he dreams of seeing Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for himself one day.
Another was a random chat with a girl working in a cafe I stopped in. She seemed anxious to talk, and her story was a sad one. I listened to her summarized life story, and answered her questions about my own life- we are about the same age, but our worlds seem so different. Despite her trials, she is working hard and hopes to improve her life. She told me in her simple English that our conversation made her feel happier and more optimistic...at first I had been a bit cautious, wondering if this was some kind of scam in which I would be asked for money or something, cynic that I am, but when it went no further I felt humbled. Maybe in a country where everyone has huge problems, people just need someone to listen to them.
These conversations with ordinary, everyday Cambodians stand out to me as bright spots in what might otherwise seem like a depressing and discouraging situation.
From what I have heard, Cambodia is a country that is changing fast- I sincerely hope that it goes the direction that these 3 would take it.