Cambodia – Past and Present

Cambodia – Past and Present

“Why do you keep going back Cambodia?” I am confronted with this question many times from fellow travellers and friends. This is always a good question to ponder because it does get me thinking about the reasons for putting it on my list four times out of the nine that I have visited Southeast Asia.

Cambodia is a small country with a dark history which could still be witnessed right up until the late ’90’s.  Each time I return, I see changes with forward strides benefiting some but by no means all. There are still those struggling with the scars of their past and the present day changes being thrust upon them by this rapidly changing world.  The ‘those’ I speak of are the poor who are more than 20 per cent of the population.

Historically all the SE Asian countries have had their problems with outside invaders, save for Thailand which has never ceded control to anyone but themselves. Thailand has a long history of invasions from its neighbour Burma (now Myanmar) but has continuously managed to keep them at bay as they have of other invaders in the past wanting a piece of their empire. In spite of numerous internal problems such as trying to build a democracy that works and learning to live with some very restrictive military governments, Thailand has successfully avoided being under the thumb of any kind of foreign domination.

This certainly has not been the case for Cambodia, Laos, Viet Nam, Myanmar (formerly Burma) or any of the other SE Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Singapore. Many will note that for this reason Thailand has been recognised as one of the leading developing countries, except for Singapore. The very opposite is true for Cambodia which lags behind all of them.

A bit of the country’s history can help us to understand the problems she is facing today. The first recorded history for Cambodia can be traced back to southern China with the Hunan polity followed by the Chennai people.  The Khmer empire, the most notable and powerful period of Cambodia’s history, flourished from the 9th to the 15th century in what today is known as Angkor.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

After Angkor’s decline, the country lapsed into a period of hibernation resulting in being overtaken by the Siamese (Thai) and the Vietnamese who further eroded their culture. With the entrance of the Indochinese Union, it then became a French Protectorate. For a short time during WWII the Japanese occupied Cambodia and with their influence under the leadership of King Sihanouk, they were able to achieve their independence from France in 1953.

From then on, the ineptness or plain stupidity of the king, internal power struggles, outside influences, along with illiteracy and poverty all contributed to the country’s downward spiral.

Sihanouk’s first mistake was to abolish the romantic part of the Khmer language for the script which basically took their culture backwards. During the 50’s and 60’s he and his country tried to remain neutral towards the rise of communism and the cold war, but being surrounded by the heavy influence of Viet Nam and what was happening there, as well as the ultimate interference and fiddling of the US, a split between the rich and the poor began to occur. The middle class became more and more disenchanted. The seeds were being cultivated which would lead the country into its darkest hour…the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

This is just one of the theories for how and why the Rouge happened. Blame has also been levelled at China and their support of the Rouge. Who knows all the reasons for such madness, but to this day many  Cambodians cannot forget the horror of this genocide which nearly devastated this small, once very proud country.

The Rouge wanted to completely reform Cambodia’s society: their banking system, their religion, their beliefs, their lifestyles…everything. No one felt safe under this strict regime which resulted in neighbour fighting neighbour and in some cases family versus family. They were all struggling to survive and in doing so turned against each other. The whole country was collapsing. The murders began in Phnom Phen where most of the upper classes lived. The entire city was evacuated resulting in the loss of over 20,000 lives. Then began the purge of the eastern part of the country where records show that 250,000 lives were lost. When all was said and done, Cambodia faced the grim fact that their country now had an estimated two million people murdered…. almost all of the well educated…with 600,000 refugees displaced to other countries such as Thailand. Towards the end, many members of the Khmer Rouge fearing for their lives fled to Viet Nam. Hun Sen, the first and still reigning prime minister, was one of them. The Khmer escapees with help from the Vietnamese devised a plan to invade Cambodia to set up a new form of government which would eventually become the Cambodian People’s Party. Thus, began Viet Nam’s occupation of Cambodia beginning in ’79 and ending in ’93.

Any kind of lasting peace did not happen until 1991 following the Paris Conference when the United Nations was brought in to oversee the rebuilding of this devastated country. At first the country was ruled by a two-party system with Hun Sen…remember the man who was a member of the Khmer Rouge…. and Prince Ranariddh….a member of the Royal family…. as his second in command. Known for his strong-arm approach to ruling when “it’s needed” as the saying goes, Hun Sen maneuvered the situation so as to basically abolish any power the monarchy had to that which today gives them no authority other than to be figure heads for the country.

Cambodia’s figure head king.

As late as 2008, a tribunal was established to bring to justice those who were involved in positions of authority in the murder of the estimated 2 million citizens. Targeting only those who held senior government office and who had violated international law and carried out acts of genocide, a panel of foreign and local judges was formed to try them. By this time many of culprits had either died or disappeared including Pol Pot, the leader of the Rouge, who was hiding out for years in the north. After many trials and tribulations only three persons were convicted. Of those three, two have made restricted apologies to the Cambodian people with the third, the warden of the Tuol Sleng prison, called Duch, who was handed a life long sentence. To call this tribunal a success story is still up for much debate.

So what have I witnessed on this visit to Cambodia which could be seen as as a move forward to improve the lives of its people? The most obvious one is the vast improvement in its infrastructure. New roads connecting all the major towns and cities and streets in Phnom Penh all paved. This wasn’t the case on my first visit here in 2014.  A new train service has begun, linking Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and another linking Cambodia and Thailand is just about completed. Here in Kep, from where I write this post, Route 33 A is a first-class highway running by the Bacoma Bungalows my lovely home for this past week. Cambodia has China, of course, to thank for this. Improved roads means more tourists especially from China which in turn is creating the problem of being overrun by them even though it’s providing jobs galore for young Cambodians.

Hwy 33 A

The entrance to Bacoma Bungalows.

My bungalow.

This, along with the flourishing tourist business, has increased the earning power of many Cambodians so they can now own motor bikes or even late-model cars. There is also evidence of a rising middle class taking place. I noticed this at Kep Beach which three years ago was a beach in the making. Tons of sand from somewhere else was brought in to make this sandy beach which has proven to be a huge success for locals and visitors alike. It appears to be a big draw for Cambodians of all classes and on a Sunday is packed with picnickers.

This is not on a Sunday!

However, the downside to this is that many of those forming the middle class are government workers whom I am told gain their positions by literally buying them. They also get substantial bonuses throughout the year which allows them to buy their big vehicles. Here is an example of  “the big C” at work which puts the country right up at the top when it comes to corruption. For more on this problem you can check out my post: http://The Big “C” in Cambodia

Cambodia’s history has not done anything to help it with its problem in getting their literacy rate up so that it can deal more effectively with its issues regarding poverty. Although statistics are saying that there have been improvements and that learning English is now considered a must, it’s up for debate on whether the present government with its lack of concern for human rights and the layers of corruption that still exist, is responsible for this. Most likely it’s been with the help of the NGO’s and the locals themselves, as well as young volunteers visiting from developed countries who want to get involved. In any event, the young people I talk to are eager to learn, but not so eager as those I spoke to in Laos. I would guess that the young are still affected by what happened in their country not that long ago. The scars of the older generation and the continued repressive government from a Prime Minister and some of his ministers who had connections to the Khmer Rouge are still having their negative effects.

Eeven though the economy here is showing an increasing growth rate fuelled by Chinese investment, increased tourism, and the garment industry which provides cheap labour for many countries including our own, it still isn’t keeping up with the kind of growth it needs to be a recognised contender in the Asian economy. It continues to lag far behind as it struggles with overwhelming human rights issues under an extremely repressive political regime. Although there are signs from the government that the lack of any kind of national education system is an absolute must to improve the literacy level of its population to alleviate the extreme poverty that prevails, there has been no real action. How can there be any change so long as the old way of getting anything done is to buy it? This is the core of Cambodia’s inability to become a more effective competitor in the new world which is emerging.

Ignoring such problems is easier to do than this one: the mounting piles of garbage! Garbage can be seen everywhere in this country.  And, to make matters worse, there is apparent lack of interest or will to do anything about it.

On my way to Kampot on the bus from Phnom Penh, I happened to take a pause from an interesting conversation I was having with an English teacher visiting from Ho Che Minh City, when out of the corner of my eye I saw the side of the road littered with garbage piles for what seemed like a kilometer or more. In the midst of it all sat a young boy about 12 years of age… totally naked. I don’t think I can ever erase this image from my mind. I resolved right there and then that I would do my utmost to avoid plastic bottles in my travels. This isn’t an easy task especially here in Cambodia. Fortunately, the owner of Bacoma Bungalows is filling my metal water bottle free of charge so I don’t have to buy plastic bottles. In most of the places I’ve stayed, I’ve had to take the small bottles of water offered to me. They were free so I took them knowing I would have to buy the same thing elsewhere. Large bottles often are not available or if they are they come packed in large quantities. Since the water here is undrinkable even for the locals, can you imagine the amount of plastic that keeps piling up! To make matters worse, the garbage collection from what I can determine in the rural areas is almost non-existent! I spoke to a young Cambodian lady about it, and she agreed there was a problem. “The only way to solve it is by educating the kids. The parents are hopeless,”she said. They aren’t educated enough to understand. Moreover, they prefer to buy their water in bottles from the fridge so they can drink it cold as a kind of status symbol to the fact they can afford it. She also pointed out that pure water is also something that brings good luck to their family. In rural areas the water is so polluted that people are getting sick from it. I am sure this is happening in many countries around the world where more and more of our water resources are being contaminated by toxins so what on earth are we going to do to solve this?

Phnom Penh’s garbage collection shows some improvement but still has problems.

Garbage collectors in Kampot trying to keep this tourist town clean.

Oops, they missed this pile.

I saw a few of these, but would the locals put their garbage in them?

Yes, Cambodia’s problems are the same ones facing all developing countries. The question is what can I or any tourist do to help them? Where can we start with the problem of potable water and the rampant use of plastic bottles? Perhaps we can start by setting a good example. From my small act of carrying a refillable bottle, I find myself not only talking about the problem with those who listen but now writing about it. This creates good energy which will spread. We can no longer just ignore the problems we see when visiting other countries. We must talk about them, or write about them, or do something! The more awareness each one of us can create the better. I would like to hear from you, my dear readers, on what we can do to alleviate rather than to contribute to their problems.

In closing, I will leave you with this quotation by the American ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, who served here in 2005 which helps to explain why I and many others are lured back to Cambodia time and time again:

Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”

For my other personal reasons for returning to Cambodia, take a peek at my post from last year by clicking on the link A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

or this post Soaking Up Phnom Penh

or Phnom Penh Re-visited

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Luang Prabang – Still a Precious Jewel in SE Asia

Sometimes waking up in the wee hours of the morning can be a positive experience. Studies have shown that it is often the most creative time of day for many people. I don’t know what part creativity played in my waking up at this time a few days ago, but what I do know is that it led to witnessing an attraction that has become one of the prime reasons tourists are flocking to Luang Prabang in Laos.

After nine years since my first visit to Luang Prabang, I am back again to see what changes have taken place. I am anxious to discover if this charming UNESCO city has managed to weather the scourge of too many tourists descending upon it, or if by some miracle it has managed to escape that and still be the peaceful place it was back in 2009.

Perhaps several days isn’t enough time to give it a thumbs up for managing to maintain its equilibrium but so far so good. This little city of about 55,000 souls appears to have kept its charm and is still fairly laid back compared to many other SE Asian cities. How has it managed to achieve this when others are struggling to keep up with the onslaught? I would guess it’s mainly for these reasons:

  •  possessing 33 of the most beautiful wats anywhere in this part of the world, not only creating a learning centre for young Lao men and Buddhist scholars, but also a number one tourist attraction.

  •  featuring its original shop houses still in good condition dating back to the time when Luang Prabang was one of three kingdoms ruling this part of SE Asia, thus, enabling it to qualify as a UNESCO heritage site.

  • providing a tranquil environment created by the green forested mountains which surround it, numerous waterfalls, and two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham… which meet up in the middle of the city to form a perfect confluence.

    The Nam Kham River on its way to the Mekong.

In 2009 I was one of the few tourists who managed to drag myself out of bed to witness the daily monk walk for collecting alms. What was once an overlooked daily religious event carried out every day in the wee hours of the morning from 5:30 to 6:30  by the monks has these days morphed into one of Luang Prabang’s top tourist attractions. This is not surprising considering how our world in just nine years has changed. The growth of our social media and the technology that drives it has been the stimulus for increasing the number of tourists who have put this event high up on their list of ‘must sees’. This has, in turn, given the locals in need of income to entice their visitors to shell out money for food to fill the alms pots carried by the monks. The result has seen some nasty incidents of improper tourist activities like snapping ‘in your face’ pictures of the monks…many are just young boys. It’s no surprise that such shocking behavior creating such a circus-like atmosphere has not gone down well with some tourists and locals.

The picture at the top of this page is a close up of the monk walk taken by me in 2009. Unfortunately, my camera would not co-operate in taking pictures this year in the dark.

I don’t know if the unusually cold morning we had here a few days ago proved this observation made by so many others over the past few years to be erroneous or not, but I am pleased to report I did not see any of this. The mini-vans, which pulled up along the route where I happened to be standing to unload eager tourists, was done with a surprising silence. I actually found it all quite eerie to see everyone walking around in the dark. We all had our cameras ready for when the monks would pass and the offerings made, with everyone respectfully staying a good distance away from them. I also witnessed how those tourists wanting to take part in the ritual of offering alms…sticky rice… to the monks were being instructed to do so in the reverent manner that such an occasion calls for by some locals.  As for the problem of other foods going into their pots such as packaged goods with questionable nutritional value being sold by local vendors to visitors and locals alike, this is a problem still to be solved. I read in the local newspaper that there is a movement afoot to address this problem by encouraging vendors to make their own edible gifts with rice and natural ingredients to sell rather than peddling the junk food which will undoubtedly cause more harm than good. Many of the monks have been throwing it out or giving it back to the vendors for them to sell again. The proposal is a good one but could be difficult considering all the people involved. At least it’s a start in the right direction which hopefully will have an outcome that will continue to honour this age-old custom.

Physically the character of the city hasn’t changed a great deal. The wats I have seen so far haven’t been altered and are as beautiful as ever. 

The old shop houses lining the main street and the riverside streets are still there looking better than ever. Being a UNESCO city has forced this issue which the local authorities and property owners are adhering to. To accommodate the growing tourist trade, many of the buildings have been renovated into lovely boutique inns and more upscale restaurants. The Three Nagas where we enjoyed a gourmet meal in 2009 is still there but the prices have more than doubled. The cost of food has risen substantially every where, but good prices and good food can still be found beyond the centre and at the Night Market. An authentic Lao dish can be found on the street, especially side streets, for 15,000 kip which translates to about $2.50 Cdn. I can easily keep my daily food expenses under $20 which includes a delicious Lao coffee with a baked goodie at one of the many cool cafes. Also, Sysomphone Guest House where I am staying helps my budget by providing a decent breakfast as part of my accommodation costs. 

So far I have not discerned any tremendous changes to the environment in and around Luang Prabang. Having two rivers running through it is definitely a plus for this city. How fortunate that the mighty Mekong River and its smaller tributary, the Nam Kham, should meet right in the centre and that they have maintained their beauty with no over development. The streets running along side of each of them are lined with quaint hotels, oodles of restaurants, and numerous spas and massage parlours. Furthermore, it’s all kept relatively clean making them a joy for tourists to stroll along either night or day.

The mighty Mekong River

This type of boat is a common site on the Mekong used by tourists and locals.

With rivers there have to be some bridges. The one which has garnered the most tourist attention is the old Bamboo Bridge spanning the Nam Kham. Every year it has to be replaced after the high water levels produced by the wet season have washed it out. On the other hand, it does provide a safe walkway for the locals living on the other side and for the tourists who want to go over to observe how they live. Most of them are small farmers just eeking out a living who have no qualms to having visitors come over to see how simple their life is. For us it gives us a closer view of how the majority of people in this poor country still live. Only in Laos is it so common to see how the two can exist so closely together.

Bamboo Bridge for walking crossing the Nam Kham River.

I am not only impressed with how the city has maintained its true natural character but equally amazed at how the people have accepted all its visitors. They are generally friendly and try to be helpful. Furthermore, their English skills are pretty darn good for which we can thank the monks. Many young boys who would never have had the chance to learn English in the public schools have received their schooling with English as the main subject from the monks. Seizing the opportunity to better their circumstances, they are choosing to enter the thriving tourist sector. For now, this is a win-win situation for tourists and locals alike. I wonder and so does the guide I had for a tour to a Hmong village yesterday about what the future holds for them.

Waiting for a passenger – the Lao version of a ‘tuk tuk’.

One of the city’s lovely tree-shaded streets.