Real Talk from Cambodia (the tangent of tangents)

I’ve been in Cambodia for three weeks now, and I’ve formed some opinions on this country. Opinions are, of course, like assholes, everyone as one, and therefore, I’d like to preface this post by saying three weeks in Cambodia probably isn’t enough to fully gage what it is I’m trying to talk about here, but I’d like to try nonetheless.
Cambodia is a beautiful country. This cannot be denied. It’s lush rainforests, breathtaking waterfalls, stunning ancient ruins, and smiling children (who are fond of waving from the front of their parents scooter as they whiz by) make for an aesthetically grand country, so close to the Equator you’ll no doubt sweat through all of your clothes in a matter of minutes. What isn’t so beautiful is what you find when you take your eyes off of the skies- off of the natural wonders, the ancient man made structures, the bright sparkling eyes of that child on the motorbike, and look down at the street. That’s when shit gets real. Because the amount of garbage, stray dogs, skinny, struggling children and staggering poverty of the people is enough to make anyone depressed for much longer than three weeks. We leave tomorrow for the green fields and tubing rivers of Laos, but what I have seen will stick with me.
Siem Reap is by far the nicest of the cities we have visited in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is, arguably, the country’s national treasure, and therefore a lot of money is flooded into this area, moreso it seems than Phnom Penh, the capital. Flooded, however, by foreign aide. India works to rehabilitate crumbling Ta Prohm, Japan works on Bayon, and the US floods money into various temple projects like the restoration of Angkor Wat. Where then, is the tourism money Cambodia makes from the thousands of people who visit these sites per day, going? Into the pockets of a corrupt government? Into flawed and cracked systems of healthcare of education? I don’t know, and neither, when asked, do the Cambodian people. They know their government is corrupt- there is really only one political party- and they don’t seem to care.
I chalk up their apathy from the hardships they have faced as a nation throughout the last century. They were bombed mercilessly in the World Wars, suffered in Vietnam and Korea, and lest we forget the most awful tragedy of our parent’s lifetimes, the tragedy so often swept under the rug and not taught in schools, the bloody “reign” of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian people are focused on their present with little regard toward their future. Their children beg or sell overpriced souvenirs in street stalls and on the roadsides, young men drive tuktuks for $2 a pop rather than work toward a higher education, and the human trafficking in Cambodia is on another level of horrifying. And yet, life rolls on for these people. And Angkor Wat is just another business venture- it’s no exception. It’s especially frustrating because as tourists we are told we must cover our shoulders and legs and show respect for the temples, yet the Cambodian people rush up to you while you walk about the temple grounds screaming at you to buy postcards or T shirts or sodas, blocking your pathway, grabbing your arm, asking you why you won’t help them, why you won’t buy 10 magnets for a dollar.
The answer to that question is, of course, that you don’t want to feed into the poverty levels. You don’t want to give money to these children who will just bring it back to their caregivers. You want to be the bigger person. But you’re not. Because the white guy behind you is going to buy that T shirt if you don’t and the cycle begins again. And it’s so. fucking. depressing. No one cares about their children’s futures, hell, the orphanages here are tourist attractions. No one cares about the quality of their craftsmanship or the authenticity of their goods or the honesty of their business. Everyone is just trying to rip everyone else off to make a buck, and as Westerners, we take the huge brunt of this practice. And it sucks. Of course it sucks, but at the end of the day, I make more in one shift at work than the average Cambodian does in a month, possibly a year. And yet I STILL have the audacity to complain about it. What the fuck is my problem, right?
Anyway, I digress. My issue with Cambodia is not with Angkor Wat or the quality of my visit or the searing heat or the amount of times I was so clearly ripped off. My problem is that there is no end in sight. No change to be made. No one is working toward a better Cambodia. Nobody. Not the king, or the government, or the people. Stray dogs with worms and fleas run around the streets. People stomp at them and chase them away when they beg for food or shelter because they’re, you know, SOCIAL ANIMALS WHO ARE STARVING IN THE STREETS. It makes me want to cry. I clearly have an issue with this stray dog problem and I won’t get into how Kate and I have made guerrilla efforts to fix it and failed miserably because on the off chance someone is reading this who doesn’t care about animals (what’s your deal, are you a serial killer or something?) we can just get back to the issue of children. And the elderly. And the fact that there are no elderly people to teach these children the way of the world because they were all killed in the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. I’m not kidding- I have seen maybe two people over the age of fifty. Everyone else is young. Really young. With no one to guide them. And so how can I blame them for the way their children beg and run around naked and have no regard for their futures? How can I be mad when their kids beg for money, just like they did, and still do, in a way, selling fruit on the side of the road? How can I shake my head and say “no” to the double amputee who lost an arm and a leg to the genocide, who now wheels a makeshift cart about the city selling books about the very genocide that maimed him, that traumatized and scarred him physically and emotionally, for just a few dollars to white people who feel guilty? I have no right to judge Cambodia; I have no right to be disappointed in its people. But I want to change it so badly.
There are so many things that are needed here. A garbage program for starters. Clean water. Sustainable resources. Medical Care (free is even better!). An education initiative. Shit, I swear Kate and I have had so many talks about the things we want to change about Cambodia. For the better. For them, not for us. Better business practices for one! Everyone is selling the same shit at the same prices so NO ONE MAKES ANY MONEY. I want to teach Cambodia about supply and demand. I want to tell that woman to put down that Tshirt she’s trying to sell me and take her daughter to school because she has a right to an education and a future and the government is taking care of that. I want to tell the man selling books about the genocide that he doesn’t have to do that anymore. That the King has set up a program for victims of the Khmer Rouge. But I can’t. Because there fucking isn’t one. So he has to keep guilting white people into buying these books. He’s just trying to make an honest living. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
When Kate and I were in Sihanoukville, a beach town, where one comes for the sand and surf, and I suppose stays for the garbage and stray dogs, we were accosted, and I mean accosted, truly harassed by Cambodian people trying to get us to buy sunglasses, hair braids, bracelets, even get our pubic hair threaded on a PUBLIC BEACH for just a few dollars. I am now wearing three bracelets from the beach in Sihanoukville because as one girl put it, I’m an “easy sell”. Because I feel bad. Because my heart breaks for these eight year old girls hocking shitty bracelets on a Tuesday when they should be in school learning about history and math and geography and how to get as far away from Sihanoukville as their legs or their father’s tuktuks will carry them. I would be laying down, eyes closed, trying to be inconspicuous, and all of a sudden in my ear, “Lady, lady, you want to buy bracelet? I give you good price. Cheap cheap.” And as much as I’d say no, God damnit they’d wear me down. Little by little, til i was wearing one of their bracelets. But if you give a mouse a cookie, she’ll tell her friends and they’ll want cookies too. After awhile I’d just make excuses to not go to the beach anymore and just read outside at the hostel instead. I simply couldn’t afford it.
So that’s Cambodia for you. It’s a beautiful country with a glorious history complete with jungle ruins, silly monkeys (which I can’t get enough of) and delicious banana smoothies. But It’s a land of smiling children, most of whom have no future. Of friendly people, who stop being friendly once you won’t buy their wares. And of breathtaking temples, that will cease to exist once no more money can be squeezed out of them. If this sounds pessimistic, that’s because it is. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Cambodia immensely (other than a three day bout with some horrendous food poisoning), it has not left me unscathed. I want to take this country in my arms and cradle and give it a future by nurturing it and cultivating it and helping it grow. But I can’t do that, so I’ll start by donating to aid programs (NOT run by the government). I’m talking grass roots, ex pat, international foreign aid shit. I’ve got to, or I’d never forgive myself. I took what I could from Cambodia, and while it wasn’t much, I already feel like it’s time to give back.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Real Talk from Cambodia (the tangent of tangents)

  1. Liza kraft

    Touching, funny, informative, disturbing. Great piece Erin. Will you be researching non-profit Aid programs when you get back? Maybe you can work for one?! Let me know what you find out. Xoxoxo

  2. Mom

    You really can never be the same…..nor should you be. I know you have learned to “give back” and make things better. One person CAN make a difference to one person at a time. So much more to tell us! Please be safe and remember we love you “easy sell”! XOXOXOXO

  3. Rachel Quigley

    I had the same impression of Cambodia–it’s so sad to get out of the tuktuk everywhere you go and be surrounded by begging children. The most important thing is to NOT give them money or buy souvenirs from them because if they are profitable to their parents, they’ll do that every day instead of going to school. So sad.

    I’m so glad you got to go there and that it made a difference in your life! If you need ideas for ways to get involved once you get back, my church runs a school there 🙂

    xoxo

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