My observations in this landlocked country.
02.12.2008 - 07.12.2008
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The Khmer Empire used to rule most of Thailand, Laos and what is now Cambodia during the Angkor Period. It was a large Empire, mighty and prosperous.
In 1975, the group known as the Khmer Rouge imprisoned, tortured and executed up to 2 million Cambodians, injured millions of others, and put the clocks back to the year zero. Cambodians saw 30 years of war, bloodshed, political instability and severe poverty. When they were driven out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese in 1979, they had left 2 landmines for every single Cambodian.
Today Cambodia is one othe poorest countries in its region, but opening up more and more every day to tourists. Tourism brings in dollars for the economy, creates more jobs, and I guess creates a sense of pride for the Cambodian people who some (still alive) have known only hardship. But there's always the ugly side - child exploitation, foreigners creating a sex tourism industry, the creation of a casino culture, and a reliance on tourists for income.
The encouraging thing is that Cambodia is still (slowly but surely) recovering. With such a young history of genocide along with other regions as Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, it's easy to understand how it remains poorer than El Salvador and Mongolia, and ranking lowly on the corruption ranking.
I visited Siem Reap at the beginning of December for 5 days, and what an experience it was.
The original purpose of the trip was to go over for a couple of days for the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon, but it ended up being a little bit of a holiday.
I liked Siem Reap because it is small. I'm sure Phnom Penh is rather different. But because it's so small there are tourists basically everywhere.
Upon first arrival I did what every tourist does - compare to their home country/city. But I didn't compare to Melbourne, I compared to Hanoi. It is in many ways similar to Hanoi:
- the quality of the roads are similar, except most of Hanoi's roads are well sealed and maintained.
- lots of rubbish on the streets and no footpaths.
- many many hotels and guesthouses everywhere, lots of tourists around.
- people stare!
- offerings to buy things such as postcards etc. and offerings for services such as taxi's and motorbikes.
- big divide between local shops (street food for example) and tourist shops and restaurants.
- traffic chaos
But upon closer observation, I found many differences between the two countries:
- many many children. Not with families, but many children alone, barefeet, scavenging for food. I guess you can relate this to the many killings during the Khmer Rouge only 30 years ago, many of the older generations were literally "wiped out".
- bigger divide between rich (foreigners) and poor (locals). An example of this would be while tourists eat an "expensive" $4 lunch, a boy of no older than ten in a wheelchair with no legs approaches and offers to sell a postcard. This is no exaggeration.
- the locals tended to be friendlier in that they liked to talk and have a chat. Also, most of them smiled at you first.
- the amount of English in Siem Reap absolutely astounded me! Both children and adults spoke English very well, not just in the tourist centre but a litle bit further out and there was still English signs and English speaking staff. This is great for the Cambodian people in terms of development.
- it's not illegal to not wear a helmet while on a motorbike.
Ok, so you're probably wondering why I'm drawing comparisons between 'nam and Cambodia. Well, my reason is simple - before I went to Cambodia I thought that it would be basically the same as Vietnam, just with different history. It's a fairly ignorant mindset, but it's what I thought. Some of you may not have been to either countries, but I think it's interesting to read other people's observations about their travels.
The two countries have had a very important relationship throughout history; back to the First Indochina War when they both allied against the French, up until the final Vietnamese Invasion of Phnom Penh before the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
I'll make reference to Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge:
"Although it was indigenous, Pol Pot's revolution would not have won power without U.S. economic and military destabilization of Cambodia, which began in 1966 after the American escalation in next-door Vietnam and peak in 1969-1973 with the carpet bombing of Cambodia's countryside by American B-52s. This was probably the most important single factor to Pol Pot's rise." (Ben Kiernan, "The Pol Pot Regime", 2002).
Enter the U.S.A. (Where would we be without them?).
The U.S.A. used Cambodian territory to fight the Vietnamese communists. The Khmer Rouge vowed never to be likethe Viet Cong and aimed to develop a different type of communism modelled moreso the policies of the People's Republic of China. The Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces fought for a long time over territory, and the Khmer Rouge killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in Cambodia. The Vietnamese, without Soviet support, could not hold troops in Cambodia after the end of the Cold War.
Like so many countries with shocking histories such as Cambodia, the affects of war are still seen today. I've only visited one city there for only 5 days, but you can still see the brutality created. Seeing adults with no legs, children with no clothing, food, sores and deformities on their face forces you to confront the harsh reality that the people once had to face.
So, after the 5 days I was armed with five books on the history of Cambodia. I've only read half of one, but I'm only 21, I have more than enough time.
My "holiday" took me to many places. I paid my motorbike driver an extremely high price, plus paid for all his meals, and he took me wherever I wanted to go or needed. On day 1, I got to meet his family (nieces and nephews).......
The Siem Reap version of the killing fields was not as dramatic I'm sure as the one near Phnom Penh, but an area full of skulls and bones is still rather "freaky". It was the war museum that really got my attention. It wasn't a museum like in a building with pictures and artefacts, but outdoors, splayed with old weapons, trucks and objects used during Cambodia's wars. The majority, if not all, old Russian weaponry.
This was the most interesting day - my tour guide was very friendly and knew a lot about everything really, and you could tell that he's said these things many times to tourists. The good thing was that I was the only one there. So he showed me around the place, looking at different landmines, guns, tanks etc. But the most interesting part was his story:
His family were all executed by the Khmer Rouge including his brothers and sisters. He was ten at the time. I asked him how he survived, and he said his job was to look after the cows, "so they kept me". I guess that was a bit of luck, or God was on his side. He was forced into the army at age fourteen, since then has suffered five landmine injuries, been shot three times. This then resulted inthe removal in one of his organs (sorry can't remember) and complete loss of vision in his right eye and only 60% left in his left. He has a piece of shrapnel in his right knee and three nails in his right leg - all of which I could see with the naked eye. He said he was saving up for an eye operation costing $115 and that he runs the risk of tetanus all the time due to heavy metal in his body. Plus, if he ever did afford to leave the country, he couldn't get out because of the metal detectors at the airport.
So I will let you develop your own thoughts about this, because you don't need me to preach to you about how unfortunate him and so many other people around the world, are.
On my trip I had the opportunity to visit Savong's School, a school providing free education and assistance to over 400 students in the local area. It's not in the city but 40 minutes motorbike out of Siem Reap. The youngest children are around seven, and the oldest 21 or 22 who never finished high school. Savong also now looks after seven orphans, who were "referred" to him by other people. They have never been to school, the oldest is I think eighteen. I will put more information about Savong's School in my next post, as I would like to give more information about it and also opportunities about sponshorship of the orphan boys. As like many other schools like this in many countries, they need lots of help with funding.
I taught a couple of classes to a bunch of enthusiastic teenagers. I visited their class at 4pm with no prior knowledge of having to teach that day, and one of the student's announced "Ok, you teach verbs". Ok, simple, I taught verbs (!!!!). And it was actually rather successful and lots of fun. They had MANY questions. The girls giggled embarrasingly at the questions about boyfriends, and the boys were "macho" about it.
The sunset's that I saw daily in Siem Reap were magnificent. This one I witnessed sitting on the top of Savong's school.......
The main reason for my trip was to participate in the Angkor Wat Half Marathon Event, supporting Village Focus International. I raised around $1000 US for VFI, so thank you so much to all sponsors and donators! The day was beautiful, lots of fantastic sights to see (I had already visited four temples the previous day), and many many people. Mostly expats from Cambodia and surrounding countries like myself, some travellers, and also Khmer people. I did the 10km run, and did a good job (well so I thought) until I saw locals with one arm or two artificial legs run ten times faster and with ten times more determination. I was motivated to do well, but I think a lot of the local people were running for a reason a lot closer to their heart, to their family.
I did a couple of fun things, like quad biking through the countryside and seeing more sunsets.....
I arrived back in Hanoi after a short two hour flight. However I didn't get the same views that I got when touching down in Siem Reap..........
Back to work the next morning! It didn't really feel like a holiday persay, as I was by myself, and it was short, but now I'm a lot more clued in on Cambodia's incredibly history, and so fortunate to have visited such a beautiful country and such a horrific history.
But just think - if you had been in Cambodia during the years of genocide, this horrific history would be your story.
Oh and the food! Thai food is my favourite, and the food in Cambodia I found very similar. Loved the curry I had the first night, and the next, and the next, and the next.......