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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phnom Penh Re-visited

Phnom Penh Re-visited

After a hair-raising but eye opening ride from the Phnom Penh airport to my hotel, I have since been questioning just how this city, the capital and pulse of Cambodia, ever earned the reputation for being SE Asia’s “Pearl of the East”. This was my second visit having been here last year with my husband. Admittedly, I experienced some culture shock on my first day last year which I wrote about in a previous post entitled “Soaking up Phnom Penh”. However, I quickly banished any reservations I had about the disparity between the rich and poor, the heaps of garbage piled on every street corner, and the chaotic traffic when I fell under the spell of the smiling and very hospitable people. Was this year any easier? Surprisingly it was not since the three offenses that assaulted my senses last year had an even greater impact on them this year.

The traffic is always the first thing that has to be dealt with if you arrive by plane at the airport as I did. You have the choice of using a taxi or a moto-car or tuk tuk as it’s commonly called. Since I try to travel on a budget, I again chose to hire a tuk tuk driver. Last year I was awed by the dexterity of my driver who managed to weave in and out of the chaotic traffic with such ease. This year was somehow different. Many of the moto- car and motor bike drivers were not so serene and were showing some obvious signs of distress. They were all taking risks that literally took my breath away and caused my driver to actually swear. My mind flashed back to the New Delhi drivers who had to fight for every inch of space to keep moving forward. Now I realized this was happening in Phnom Penh. When I looked around me, I was dismayed to see that we were surrounded by monstrous vehicles taking up so much space that they were literally forcing all the other vehicles up onto the sidewalks. To make matters worse some were coming at us going in the wrong direction. I must have witnessed at least a hundred near misses on that ride to my hotel. After a few more days of walking the streets, I realized just how these vehicles were making the pedestrians’ lives miserable by taking up their sidewalk space as their parking lot. There was hardly a small car to be seen anywhere! A journalist friend explained why there are now so many. Apparently every year government workers are rewarded with big bonuses and the huge monster vehicle has become the unanimous choice for everyone. Naturally, they bring them to the centre of the city for business and pleasure to show off and gloat in the fact they never have to walk anywhere.

Monster vehicle parking lot.

Monster vehicle parking lot.

Traffic jam.

Traffic jam.

I had to laugh after reading a brochure published by the city’s tourism department claiming that it was a wonderful city for ‘leisurely strolls’! Like many tourists I love to walk around a city to get a proper feel for it and to take photos which are often the impetus for my blog posts. I would guess that it is now one of SE Asia’s worst cities for walking. Not only are pedestrians having to contend with the traffic, but also the seemingly endless construction, destruction, and reconstruction projects going on at this time. The sidewalks are littered with piles of earth, bricks, building materials, and whatever else it takes to build yet another huge hotel, luxury condo, or office tower adding another challenge to any kind of safe walking. The People’s Party of Cambodia is committed to reviving this city’s former status as the “Pearl of the East” at any cost by allowing such extreme over development.

One of many sidewalk hazards.

One of many sidewalk hazards.

Another luxury condo under construction.

Another luxury condo under construction.

The Nago casino under construction.

The Naga Casino under construction with moto-bikes (tuk tuks) in foreground.

The third problem facing visitors and residents, is the proliferation of garbage. Last year the problem was blamed on the garbage collectors strike, but this year it’s even worse and there is no strike. I read in the Phnom Penh Post that the company the government has contracted to do the job isn’t fulfilling their end of the deal so they will be looking into it. They are concerned that it will offend the tourists but no mention of how the residents are being affected! I’ll have to come back again next year to see if they have carried out their promise. Unless by some miracle the ‘powers that be’ wake up to the corruption that has taken over this country the garbage heaps will still be there

A typical garbage-ridden street.

A typical garbage-ridden street.

Along the Tonle Sap River.

Along the Tonle Sap River.

I remember last year on my first day here, I was appalled by the stark difference between the rich and the poor. There was little evidence of any kind of middle class. The divide is still very much in evidence. The rich, who are mostly Cambodians who work for the government and some of the NGO’s who work here, are driving all those big cars, living in the opulent mansions, and eating in the upscale restaurants. The poor are having to live on the streets or in inadequate buildings where their rents are increased every time they get a meager increase in wages. They are by no means doing any better and from what I have seen or heard are doing worse. Land in the city which has now become valuable real estate is being bought up at ridiculously low prices by the developers. This results in a huge problem for those former land owners as they cannot afford anything in the city so hence could easily end up on the streets. As I walked along the riverfront boulevard or Sisowath Quay, one of the main tourist attractions lined with chic shops, restaurants and bars, I noticed more obviously poor families trying to eke out a living by selling drinks or flowers with what looked like their few family possessions and children surrounding them. One doesn’t have to look far to see such extreme poverty in Phnom Penh and to have it so close to this touted tourist area and not far from another huge project being build on Diamond Island for those with the money is upsetting to witness.

Sisowath Quay along the riverside.

Sisowath Quay along the riverside.

Huge hall where lavish weddings are held.

Huge hall where lavish weddings are held on Diamond Island.

Wedding party after the ceremony.

Wedding party after the ceremony.

Once you adjust to the social conditions of a good portion of the over 2,000,000 people who live in Phnom Penh, you begin to appreciate what the city has to offer. Since I am one of those who thoroughly enjoys their excellent coffee and food, not to mention all the places I have stayed in which are just as good if not better value as in Thailand or elsewhere in this part of the world, I need to give some credit to those countries i.e. Japan, Thailand, Viet Nam, China and some European countries, who have played a significant part in bringing Phnom Penh into a destination to be seriously considered by a growing number of tourists. For a long time the tourists who ventured to Cambodia came to see Ankor Wat in the north and then headed south for Sihanoukville to cool off after clamouring over the ruins of Ankor. Very few would stop for any length of time in Phnom Penh. It’s truly surprising when you take the time to remember that the city’s infrastructure still lay in ruins and life here was pretty rough as late as the 1990’s after the Viet Nam war and the rise of the Khymer Rouge. For three years at the height of the Rouge tyranny, it lay practically deserted after most of the residents were led astray and herded out of their homes en mass with nothing save the clothes on their backs. Most of them were executed never to return. A memorial to this horrific event has been erected in the Killing Fields where the bodies were buried. This site, as well as a former school which became infamous as the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum where people were held until executed, have become popular tourist sites for visitors who want to learn more about the madness that overran this country in the ’60’s and ’70’s.

My favourite drink from a popular cafe near my hotel- the Golden Gate.

My favourite drink from a popular cafe near my hotel.

Lunch at the Tea Garden - a little hidden gem on tiny congested street.

Lunch at the Tea Garden – a little hidden gem on a tiny congested street.

If visitors to Phnom Penh find the remembrance of the havoc brought by Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge to this city as a bit too heavy to take in, there are other sites of more uplifting historical periods to see. Even though this city is fairly young dating back to 1858 when it was declared the capitol of Cambodia, and thanks to their then King, Norodom, it quite quickly grew from village status to that of a glamorous city influenced by the King’s passion for anything French. The city saw a building boom of structures heavily influenced by French architecture mixed with some Khymer. It was during his reign that the Royal Palace with its Silver Pagoda and the National Museum were built. My husband and I visited both of these attractions last year and learned much about the greatness of the Khymer civilization and the more prosperous times in the past. This year it was time to visit another talked about building with unique features dating back to the the king who succeeded Norodom – King Sihanouk- who unlike his father had a passion for all things Art Deco. As a result, Phonm Penh has probably the most interesting building in Asia devoted to a huge market housing thousands of vendors. Goods from gold jewellery, gems of all kinds, beautiful fabrics, souvenirs, flowers and hardware can be found here. The Central Market as its commonly called or Phsar Themi in Cambodian was built 1935 in the shape of a dome with four wings jutting out from each side. Its gold painted dome is visible from all parts of the city as it sits right in the middle. Although getting there was not easy (I actually broke down and took a tuk tuk) once inside I found one of the cleanest and most well-organized markets I have ever seen. I can say this because not once did I get lost. I also did not find the vendors to be too ‘pushy’ and the prices to be fairly reasonable. I had no intention of buying anything until I ran across some very lovely silk scarves which I simply couldn’t resist. Cambodia is known for its quality silk and these certainly are good examples of that claim.

Entrance to the National Museum.

Entrance to the National Museum.

The Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

The Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace.

Approaching the Central Market.

Approaching the Central Market (Phsar Themi).

One of the four entrances.

One of the four entrances.

Inside the dome.

Inside the dome.

Doing a brisk business for Valentine's Day.

Doing a brisk business for Valentine’s Day.

As I reflect upon my four days in Phnom Penh, I realize that it’s not an easy city to visit if you are on your own and on a budget. It does take some adjusting due to its problematic social concerns as a result of its power-hungry political leaders and just a few too many non-government agencies who do good things but take away the responsibility of the government to do more. Aside from poorly executed social services and politics, which have caused many of the present day problems facing this city, the pulse of the city which draws people like me back are the people. In spite of their past and their present, the majority of them that I have met are still smiling and they are still honest. I do not get the impression that they are out to service the influx of us tourists simply for the money. They are genuine and want to help. I hope whatever happens to them in the future doesn’t change them. One thing they have going for them which I think helps to sustain them is that they have had a peaceful country now for over 20 years. After what they went through in the Pol Pot years, it’s easier for me to understand why they can endure so much.

A rare quiet street in the city.

A rare quiet street in the city.

Celebrating Chinese New Year.

Celebrating Chinese New Year.