We haven’t had much time in this curious country. Just 8 days. Cambodia is a fascinating place with a tragic history that is evident everywhere. Compared to Vietnam, Cambodia feels a bit broken. An entire generation was wiped out in the holocaust of Pol Pot, the internecine war with Khmer Rouge militants ended only recently, and the country remains under the administration of the UN. It’s a beautiful country with a noble history, but it will take some years to come to terms with the past.
Poverty here is endemic, and it’s especially noticeable among children, many of whom seem without families or adequate care of any kind. As a result, child exploitation is a huge problem. We have spent our time in Phnom Penh with a couple of people who live and work here. Claire works with an agency that tries to disrupt the trafficking of children and rescue them from the sex trade and other forms of exploitation. Children beg constantly here. If they are not trying to sell you bracelets, fans, postcards or travel books they are begging for money, or hounding you to give them your water bottle. Some will start crying or screaming if you don’t give them money. You feel awkward and embarrassed in the face of these displays and it makes you hand over money. But, their desperation has little to do with hunger and has more to do with the quota they are forced to meet. There will be a boss demanding they fork over the day’s take, and severe punishment for those with little to show for the hours they put in on the street. We’ve been told they are forced to work from 5:00am until 9pm or later at night. They see little if any of the money you give them. It all goes to the organized criminal gangs that run these begging cartels.
We learned a lot about Cambodia, but it’s likely not the story the country wants foreign visitors to know too much about. Our experience has coloured our view of things here. But it’s much better to know what you’re seeing than live in a happy tourist fantasy that hides real misery beneath it. We’ve liked it here very much, but despite having just touched the surface, we feel ready to leave. In Phnom Penh we felt strongly that a visit to Cambodia should honour the tragedy rather than hit the beach resorts and pretend none of it ever happened. So, along with visiting the Russian Market, royal palace and museums, we went to the site of the Killing Fields, Tol Sleung Prison, and the Genocide Museum. The trip out to the Killing Fields was disturbing, not just for the fact that so many thousands were murdered there, their boney fingers and skulls coming up through the sandy soil to this day. What was more disturbing is the treatment of the site as a tourist curiosity stop devoid of much meaning.
After an hour or so wandering in silence over the site, we climbed back in to our waiting tuk tuk feeling a little numb. We really have no context for this kind of horror. There were so many victims, women, children, men, that a monument has been built of their skulls that reaches a few stories high. This is striking in itself, but nothing compared to the almost casual way one walks on the skeletal remains of many thousands more who remain buried just beneath the surface of the surrounding site.
This bothered us more than anything we saw at the memorial. Our tuk tuk driver asked us enthusiastically if we’d like to next go to a firing range and play with an M60 machine gun or a rocket launcher. Huh!? The question seemed so tone deaf. But our driver was quite typical of Cambodians, he wasn’t unique in treating the genocide as a tourism opportunity divorced from the horrific reality. We were shocked that he’d think we’d want to shoot guns after visiting a genocide site where so many innocent people were systematically shot to death, their bodies piled into trenches. But every coin has two sides and foreign visitors are just as culpable in this. The demand for visiting a shooting range and killing cows with machine guns or grenade launchers is large enough that local tuk tuk drivers know to ask their passengers about it. We were fortunate to spend some time with people who lived in Phnom Penh and gave us context. But they also treated us to some great places to eat. Our favourite was a roadside restaurant that specialized in the local Cambodian noodle cuisine. They made the noodles there on the street and threw them in boiling broth. It was amazing.
The glory of Angkor Wat.
More than anything else, the point of coming to Cambodia was to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat. We spent four days there. And it was worth it. The place is stunning. We took a bus to Siem Reap, the small tourist town built up outside of the UNESCO site. It’s where the guest houses and restaurants are. The bus was more modern than any we took in Vietnam, more evidence of the gap in prosperity between Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam is a much more equal place. Cambodia has grinding poverty for the vast majority of Cambodians and a pretty fabulous standard of living for foreign tourists and rich people. Vietnam appears to have more broadly shared economic benefits. Rich and poor obviously still exist, but the gap is narrower. We’ll say this right off the top: Our hotel in Siem Reap is ridiculous. It’s an Irish pub with a hotel over it. A total cultural anachronism owned by an Irish woman and her very rude and grumpy Spanish partner. Its popular with the youthy foreign party set. So obviously we didn’t fit in. Ironically enough, we had booked our stay there for the WiFi – which never actually worked. And adding to our misery was the fact that we would be staying there over St. Patrick’s Day. Groan. Karen has a loud voice. And she had to use it on a group of young fellas who felt the need to start singing David Bowie’s ‘Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes’ at 4:00 am. This is pretty emblematic of Siem Reap. It’s a terrible place. Full to the brim with party-goers getting wasted on 75 cent beer and visiting brothels. We spent our days getting up at sunrise to visit the temples, two days by tuk tuk driver and one by bicycle. Then we returned to the hotel in the afternoon to escape the 50°C heat. In the evening we’d get fried noodles from a local vendor on the street outside. If Siem Reap is a tacky dump, Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring. The photos speak for themselves. After three days, we had seen all we wanted to and it was time to move on to Thailand. Months earlier, we had booked spaces in a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat in Prachinburi, Thailand. We were only a few days away from the start of our silent inner journey, so we hopped on a tiny plane out of Siem Reap and flew to Bangkok. You may not hear from us for some time, but we’ll reconnect when we’re back from Dhamma Kamala. Our plan is to get a 60-day visa, sit the Vipassana course then remain there and volunteer for a few weeks.