If you asked my travelling partner who joined me to Cambodia how to describe this small Indochina country, I’m most certainly she’d say: Cambodia is not what you’d expect. It’s bizarre. Different. But really, really good. (I know this because I asked her!) I can’t think of one thing that was even remotely close to what we expected it to be like. But Cambodia is now one of my favourite countries – second only to New Zealand, I’d say. With such wonderful people, amazing food, and a strong cultural identity, I cannot wait to go back.
A Dark History of Corruption
The Cambodian people feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick, and I can’t say that I blame them. Cambodia used to be a much larger country, encompassing part of the areas that are now Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. However, for various reasons which I won’t get into here, those lands have been taken away from them. The saddest fact is that some of the amazing temples that so obviously are of Cambodian architecture have been ceded to other countries. That’s the true loss.
However, the corruption and troubles didn’t end in the past -they are ongoing today. Everyone knows about the terrible things that happened under Pol Pot’s regime of Khmer Rouge – but did you know that many of the Khmer Rouge leaders are in power today? It is a wonder any of the Cambodians vote when every year, the same party gets elected, and those same leaders don’t actually live in Cambodia! Yes, most of the ruling party spend their time in China or elsewhere. It doesn’t exactly provide inspiration, doesn’t it?
While in Phnom Phen, we met in person one of the three living survivors of the genocide and one of the witnesses in the current Khmer Rouge trial. Now that was an inspiration; via a translator, he told us about life in the cells and his daily activities. Looking deep into his eyes, I did not see revenge or regret or sadness. I saw a fire – a burning fire, of someone who didn’t succumb to evil but instead triumphed and wanted to tell everyone about it. That’s the spirit of the Cambodian people, alive and well despite all that has happened.
If you do nothing else from reading this post, please do me one favour – read up on your history of this small country. Then go pay a visit. While many of your tourist dollars will be filtered into the hands of greedy conglomerates (who run most of the hotels and control the government authorities that run the temples even), some of them will trickle down into the locals, and they need the money.
Cities of Contrast – Phnom Phen and Siem Reap
While visiting the two major cities in Cambodia, I couldn’t help but notice how the poor and rich live literally side-by-side. A middle class does not exist in Cambodia, either you are a have or a have not. So next to expansive five start resorts you have shanty towns and children who should be in school but instead are hawking counterfeit guidebooks on the street. It’s an interesting display.
The contrast is strong in Phnom Phen, the capital. It’s a less-visited destination, so the city has a very rough feel. You’ll find prostitutes just around the corner from one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, and along the waterfront where the city’s tourists gather for food and nightlife, locals beg and plead for tourists to take a ride in their tuk-tuk or buy whatever they’re selling.
You don’t notice it as much in Siem Reap (at least in the city centre), which has benefited from the Angkor Wat complex and other neighbouring temples. But you can’t help but wonder how bad things are by the pleading of the little children who follow you around almost everywhere and try to sell you something. We were amazing at the level of English some of them spoke – although they do teach everyone English in schools now, these children speak multiple languages and do a pretty good sales pitch. It’s just a shame the manner in which they’re learning it.
That’s only a taste of Cambodia. I’ll be doing some further deep dives into our adventures there in future posts, including more information about the temples, travelling with a guide, Cambodian food, and much more!
Have you been to Cambodia? What’s your view?