Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cambodia Exhale

I have to say that although we enjoyed the month that we spent in Cambodia, it has been one of the most difficult times on our journey thus far.

Cambodia has an amazing legacy left over from Angkor Wat and the mighty Khmer empire, but it’s more recent history is tragic and disheartening. From French colonialism to American imperialism to take over by the auto-genocidal Khmer Rouge, to occupation of the Vietnamese and finally to a peaceful new beginning in 1999, the Cambodian people sure have not had it easy over the years.
pagoda at the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in memory of those who were slain by the Khmer Rouge

It is impossible to ignore the problems that face Cambodians today when visiting this country. In a poverty stricken country littered with landmines, the signs of destitution are everywhere. For me, it was the worst in places frequented by foreigners. Places like Sihanoukville and Siem Reap are flush with money from the tourism industry, and, understandably so, everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie. In every tourism center, the streets are filled with children hawking post cards and bracelets, women and children begging outside of restaurants, and amputees selling books or playing music for their supper.

After several weeks of being constantly bombarded with pleas for my money, it became almost unbearable for me. Nick and I both reached a point a couple of days ago where we just wanted to get out of Cambodia as soon as possible. This of course was heightened by the fact that we spent so much time in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville – the two biggest tourist destinations in the country.

One image that has stayed with me over the weeks is of a middle aged man selling photo-copied books in the street. Probably due to a land mine explosion, he was missing both of his hands. I cannot get the vision of the smooth scar tissue on the stumps of his forearms out of my mind. But in a country as heavily land-mined as Cambodia, there is nothing special about this man. He is merely one of thousands.

For me, the children were the most difficult to deal with. Angkor Wat is filled with 100’s of children selling sets of 10 postcards for $1. They are small for their ages (most Cambodian children are) and while many are as old as 14 or 15 most don’t look much older than 10. They are terribly cute and innocent looking, so it is always tempting to chat with them and look at their wares. But as soon as you show the slightest interest in one of them, you are immediately accosted by a group of 7 – 10 others, all with the same pleas “It’s not fair. You buy one from her, buy one from me.” 
children playing jump rope at an orphanage we visited
Nick’s impromptu English class at the orphanage

It’s hard to see such young children working for a living. They should be in school and you know that they wish they were in school, but day in and day out, they are there; trying to make a buck for their family.
Nick talking to a young girl who “hates her job” selling books to tourists and hopes to be a tour guide one day

a little boy trying to sell postcards to nick

Cambodia left me with a great feeling that I should be doing something to help the people here. At the same time, there is so much that needs to be done for the Cambodian people, with little access to basic public services such as health care, education, and clean water, that I feel overwhelmingly helpless.

Cambodia is a beautiful country with smiling people and an amazing rich culture, but I have to say that as we leave Cambodia, I feel two very conflicting feelings: disheartened and relieved. I am relieved to escape to constant bombardment from people – who are only trying to survive - vying for my money and my business. Selfishly I’m just relieved that I don’t have to be daily confronted with the plight of the Cambodian people anymore. And that feeling of relief in and of itself makes me feel disheartened.

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