“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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