I didn’t know much before I got here, to be honest. We’ve been in South-East Asia for six weeks now — a month in Thailand, and just two weeks in Cambodia, and the country has me totally flummoxed.
We started off in Siem Reap, the town famous for the extraordinary temple ruins of Angkor Wat, and infamous for its border-crossing scams, where nicely dressed men and women speaking good English will try to separate you from your dollars in a whole host of sneaky ways. You really can’t trust anyone — we thought we were being extremely clever buying bus tickets across the border from the State Railways of Thailand, and it was still a scam.
Siem Reap was completely flooded when we arrived (you can read the whole sorry tale of Our Most Hectic Day Yet here) but as a town it was actually quite pleasant. A lot more harassment from tuk-tuk drivers and food sellers than we were used to in Thailand, but bearable.
Then we arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital city, and quickly escaped north to Kratie, a small riverside town on the banks of the Mekong. Our logic was that when we cleared the city limits (by a good 6 hours) we would find the authentic, rural Cambodia — the beautiful country. We discovered the rural part, no problem, but we were really hard-pressed to find much beauty. And this is the troubling part.
I can’t decide if it’s because we were spoilt by Thailand, with its forests, mountains, beaches and tidy, clean villages, or if Cambodia is really filthy. The small town we stayed in had piles of rubbish on the side of every road. I saw a woman drinking a cooldrink and throwing the can across the road … to nowhere in particular. A guy bought some food from a shop and dropped the plastic bag in the river. Piles of decomposing rubbish piled up under fresh washing in otherwise fairly neat (although rundown) houses.
But the people are lovely.
It’s a strange dichotomy this — really warm and friendly people, who treat their surroundings despicably. We took an ordinary (ie not “tourist class”) bus back to Phnom Penh yesterday, and the woman in front of me spat her fruit pips into the communal bus aisle. Her husband gobbed repeatedly out of the window, and coughed up phlegm which he spat on the floor. When we stopped for a food break, all the passengers finished eating and dropped their refuse on the floor. But it doesn’t look like anyone ever picks it up.
We couldn’t figure it out. It didn’t seem to make sense. And then we went to the Killing Fields, and the Genocide Museum, and all of a sudden a murky logic is beginning to take shape in my head.
The Khmer Rouge was only toppled in 1979 — 30 years ago, still a blip in the timeline of these people, whose entire world was shaken upside down. Pol Pot and his regime destroyed education, schools, religion, money, commerce, books, artefacts, family structure and urban living. They brutally (so brutally) killed anyone with an education or conflicting views, and essentially reduced a country that had been running fairly smoothly to the Stone Ages. And a legacy like that doesn’t just disappear in a few decades, even though the country is by and large back on its feet again.
This paragraph, by researchers and writers Olivia Altaras and Sarah Jones Dickens, on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, summed it up for me: “In essence, although the Khmer Rouge regime officially ended … in 1979 … the Khmer Rouge’s policies of forced collectivisation and social reconstructivism left behind a legacy that lingered long after its formal demise. The Khmer Rouge left behind a vastly uneducated and unskilled society; a displaced, diasporic and traumatised nation; a population of 70% women, many widowed from the regime; and a country riddled with landmines … it is a legacy far from over and a legacy that will take generations to heal.”
In the face of this, is it petty to complain about dirt and filth and a general lack of beauty? Am I holding this distinctly un-Western country up to my Western ideals? Am I expecting too much too soon? Or is this the attitude you develop when life and order as you know it has been destroyed, and things take on a new perspective.
What do you think?
What do you know about Cambodia?