I leave Cambodia feeling sad. I don’t feel sad to leave, but rather I am infused with a profound sadness from what I saw over the past ten days. I have much the same feeling as I did after living in Guatemala: the scars of recent history’s horrors are still bleeding through this country. And how could they not be?
Here are eight elements that will likely strike a tourist to Cambodia.
1. The intense and persistent begging. From dust-caked children hawking bracelets to wrinkled, stooped grandmothers, to landmine victims who pull the stumps of their bodies along the ground with their one arm, wherever you sit they will find you: on the beach, inside a restaurant, walking around the street, waiting for a bus… Their eyes are haunting, and even when you shake your head four, five, six times, they will stay there, pushing their wares or hands further in front of your plate of food. The kids and younger women will sometimes sass you, for example, the lady who insulted my scruffy leg hair to get me to buy her threading pluck service. The older beggars and landmine victims will just stay there and moan. It is painful.
2. An emotional barrier between tourists and Cambodians that takes real work to surmount. Because of the gaping socioeconomic disparity and of the contrasting histories, there are layers of mistrust between tourists and Cambodians. The tourist, perhaps, thinks that anyone who talks with him is trying to sell something or beg for money, and often fears being mistaken for a “sex-pat”. The Cambodian, perhaps, sees the tourist as taking advantage of his country’s resources and services, and cruelly flaunting first world wealth. Because of the lack of a strong upper-middle class in Cambodia, I found this tourist-local divide worlds more acute than I ever saw in Latin America.
The first Cambodian I connected with was Sopheak, the tuk-tuk driver I hired to take me around Angkor Wat for three days. We were kind and caring to each other and had some nice talks. However, despite my desire to engage him in discussions about what he experienced in the last forty years, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There was something in his face that suggested he was trying very hard to forget, and you have to honor that.
Connections can happen, though. Camilo, a traveler from Colombia, spent a week living in the rural hut of a Cambodian boy he met on the street, and both he and the village had a wonderful exchange. Other foreigners who spend large chunks of time working or studying in Cambodia also form good bonds, but many do report that the intercultural fence remains high and strong.
3. Painful visuals. In Phnom Penh, especially, soot and grime coat the surfaces. The colors of the tattered awnings are faded and dull. The air is thick with exhaust, and human misery lurks behind every corner. Everywhere in Cambodia, tuk-tuk and moto drivers will chase you, pushing a ride. Many travelers remarked they felt bombarded by these sensory stimulations and demands. Ultimately, however, it’s far easier to be the rich tourist constantly saying “no” than the tuk-tuk driver who has to fight for his one dollar fare day in and day out, isn’t it.
4. The whole family on one moped, with four giant bags. One of the most difficult visuals for me to accept was the tiny babies perched on top of speeding mopeds. This is so dangerous, it is unbelievable. My bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh actually hit a moped, and didn’t even stop to see if the driver survived. A friend’s bus passed three road accidents, one with a casualty.
And yet, when I pitched a fit and refused to ride a moped six kilometers to the bus station, all the Cambodians around me started uproariously laughing. They don’t have the luxury to make such a demand! Cars cost.
On a side note, there is a creepy handful of giant black Lexus SUVs ($100,000 cars) prowling Phnom Penh’s streets. Word is that they’re paid for through government corruption…
5. Love of Angkor Wat. The temple’s face and name graces the beer, the hotels, the restaurant names, the t-shirts– everything. What a grand history! And yet, how many countries have one sole symbol?
6. A growing tourist industry. Though not as packed as Thailand by far, Cambodia boasts its growing share of tourists from around the world. The tourist infrastructure in the major locations (Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville) is quite good, boasting numerous economical and quality bus, hotel, and tour options. That said, we still spotted a sewage drain running into the sea we were all swimming in…
7. The music videos played on long distances buses are– wow. Apparently the hot sexy look for men is a chubby face with long, wispy bangs combed to the side, and a mini-mullet of long hair in back. Apparently the plot of every single music video is: Show field of grass; show man walking after beautiful woman in field of grass and watch her reject him; show either: a) man winning woman and embracing in field of grass, or, b) man getting beaten up by woman’s other lover in field of grass, then getting rained on. I kept thinking of Beyonce’s “Big Ego” video in contrast and cracking up.
8. And now for some positives! Perhaps you can tell, my experience in Cambodia was excellent but also… intense. On some happy notes, Cambodian smiles positively glow, Cambodian food is mm mm yum, Cambodian entreprenerial spirit evident in the street is energizing, and Cambodia has come so, so, so far in re-building after the horror it lived through. It’s an ever-evolving country, and it will be fascinating to see what the next few years will bring.