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Andy’s Travel Diary

Monday, 23 Oct 2006

Location: Siam Reap, Cambodia


Cambodia is so different to Thailand.

Dusty and rocky pavements, unmade roads and thousands upon thousands of 2 wheeled vehicles - wealth and development seems to breed four wheeled transport, so for now the roads here are choked with bikes, tuk tuks and mopeds. The latter usually have four or five people, sometimes whole families (granny and baby included) perched precariously on top - remarkable acrobatic feats worthy of a circus.

In contrast to these insights and comparisons ironically i found Camodia, well Siam Reap to have side streets full of very trendy, fashionable and modern bars and cafes. Not what i expected at all. Mostly i found the architecture less modern and more classic and favourable than the somewhat tacky and concrete inspired buildings of Thailand.

The cafe’s and restaurants would not have looked out of place in a trendy suburb of London - hence why i chose a nearby stall to eat at; soup with rice, chicken, onions, kidney and congealed blood, washed down with free cold chinese tea in a tin cup. Delicious.

There are stark differences in wealth and development within Cambodia. A few short steps away from these cosmopolitan streets lay the old wooden market where i stopped to peruse the goods on offer. Within half a minute i had been approached by a beggar. The number of those living far below the poverty line is depressingly high, a fact not altogether surprising. Cambodia is one of the least developed countries in the world and has witnessed a tumultuous recent history:

In the sixties the war in Vietnam finally spilled over to Cambodia when American forces began pursuing the Vietcong into Cambodian territory. In 1969, American B-52s launched the first of many secret bombing raids over Cambodia, the start of a long, blunt bombing campaign which resulted in untold destruction and an inestimable number of innocent deaths. Political turmoil and a coup in March 1970 followed. Later the invasion of American, South Vietnamese and Vietcong troops turned Cambodia into a stage upon which the battles, ambitions and machinations of stronger powers were played out.

Even the official end of the Vietnam war failed to bring any peace for the population. The Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communist movement) intensified their civil war against the government, finally taking power in 1975 (the ominous Year Zero). Wasting little time they undertook one of the bloodiest, most fanatical and thorough political, social, economic and cultural revolutions in modern history resulting in the estimated deaths of 1.7 million people (though some claim 3 million) from an estimated population of 7.1 million in 1972. Read that again! Execution, starvation, forced labour and a perpetual and paranoid system of purges became the chaotic, yet systematic norm.

The Khmer Rouge were finally toppled in 1979 by a Vietnamese invasion. But well into the nineties it continued as a low level resistance movement. Even with the end of hostilities Cambodia’s turbulent history is very much part of its present. As if to confirm this insight i passed numerous painted billboards urging citizens to hand in guns and other weapons.

It is in this historical context that Cambodia has to be approached when travelling here. The infrastructure is apallingly inadequate, institutions are corrupt to their very core (see my post on the trip from Bangkok to Siam Reap) and civil society is weak and in places non-existent. Cambodia was never going to be Thailand, but i found that refreshingly interesting. I liked it for that, though it was at times emotionally draining.

Women cradling children and holding an empty bottle approached me with pained expressions on their faces. Kids with two young babies slung on their shoulders did the same. Kids!! No older than 8 or 9. Amputees on crutches would work their way into my path, smile and hold out their cap hoping i would drop some dollar bills into it.

One evening as i was tucking into some fresh spring rolls a barely clothed and filthy cambodian boy approached me and kneeled down, bowing his head to the floor at my feet. It was awful. One feels perpetually guilty - which is of course not awful thing, the situations these people face, not what i felt like that was troubling. I gave in and bought him some fresh, unfried spring rolls. Nutricious and delicious. He point blank refused them!

Another night a group of us sat at a trendy bar and sipped cold beers whilst outside a mother and child begged from afar. Her face wore a heartbreaking _expression - pained yet confused, as if she had no idea why this was happening to her and why vastly wealthier westerners would not help. Other kids flocked around the outside of the bar. A few of the braver ones approached the table while the security guards back was turned. Every major restaraunt, bar, shop or cafe has a private security guard patrolling outside. The kids scurry off when they turn around, no doubt because they get kicked, or at least the one i saw did.

In spite of all this we shook our heads and mouthed the word “no” to the crowd that had now assembled outside, and carried on with whatever we were chatting about. Reminding myself i was giving to a charity did little to relieve my sense of guilt and shame. To my left a girl with a large heart but small brain bought a young malnourished boy a glass of coke - very good for a kid that lacks many daily nutritional requirements and decent dental care.

It was depressing to see, and i am sure, much more depressing for them.

But what to do? It is axiomatic now to take the stance that by giving to these people you perpetuate their plight and cycle of dependency. There is nothing sustainable about giving a dollar here and there. That night i joined Cameron and Dom (who i met on the bus journey from Bangkok) for a meal with a director of Trailblazers, an NGO out here that has recently bought a school. She informed me that many of the kids are beaten by their parents if they do not bring enough money home; relenting encourages and contributes to their plight. The trouble with these argumens are they tend to breed fatalism and people simply walk on by. I therefore resolved the tension between my conscience and the realities of giving to an outstretched hand by deciding to give to one of the charities which do such good work out here. They are in a much stronger position to help these people.

Throughout the days i spent in Siam Reap i was constantly approached on the street. If not by beggars then by children selling postcards and books.

“Where you from?” they would begin.
“England. Capital London. Part of the United Kingdom. UK, made up of Wales, capital Cardiff, Scotland, capital Edinburgh, Northern Ireland, capital Belfast, Prime Minister Tony Blair. Rains alot……” and so on and so on.

After congratualting the kid they would then ask:

“So you buy postcard? Can send one to your girlfriend”
“I don’t have one.”
“You know why? Cos you no buy my postcard!”
Cute - the first ten times.

If it’s not children, it’s guys on motorbikes offering a night out with a “nice lady” (Dame Judie Dench is here?!), some weed, or a ride. Or tuk tuk drivers asking if you want to see the temples. Lastly are the cafes, waiters and the massage parlours.

It is all so alien to a British person who can (forgetting those sly and remarkably strategic charity sellers) walk down a street relatively unhassled - a solitary affair with few interruptions. But there is little point in becoming irate or irritated by it. This is after all another country and part of the culture. I fail to understand people that moan constantly about the norms of another country when they have chosen to travel there. A smile and firm “no thankyou” will usually suffice.

In late afternoon the town changes hues. Everything adopts a slightly dusky orange tone, no doubt the result of the fading sun and the permanent dust and pollution thrown up by the traffic. Walking down the main street i saw a group of kids in tatty clothing and dirt smudged on their faces run barefoot after an advertising pick-up truck. They would jump on as it went past, giggle and help their friends up and then just as easily hop off. These children and many others like them in Cambodia have little or nothing, but (most of them) are always laughing and happy. It was a striking image and perhaps has much to teach us about wealth, happiness and society.

Siam Reap is well known for the temples of Angkor Wat. I knew Ruth would be joining me in a few weeks and did not want her to miss out on them so instead i sought out the less touristy sights.