Bridget McNulty
Bridget McNulty

Last impressions of Cambodia…

Yesterday morning we left Cambodia, after a month trying to unravel the perplexing knot of emotions we felt about the country.

We found the natural beauty we’d been searching for, down south. Gorgeous, untouched beaches and islands near Sihanoukville (not in Sihanoukville, which was like a scene from a Spring Break movie, with cheap bars on every available strip of sand) and a charming riverside town called Kampot, with old French colonial architecture, clean shady streets, and an unpolluted river. Really lovely.

More than that, though, we found some understanding of the way Cambodian culture works, and how Cambodians think. We spoke to a lot of people about what we found so troubling about the country — locals and expats — and read a fascinating book called Experiencing Cambodia by Ray Zepp, who lived in Cambodia from 1995 to 2004. And I have to say, many of the things that I just couldn’t wrap my head around started to make sense.

The disregard for keeping houses and streets presentable is exacerbated by a government that takes a lenient view of the word “ownership”. It’s worse near the beaches and on islands, but apparently you can “buy” a piece of land, only to have someone higher up (working for the government itself or some local municipality or just claiming to have power over land ownership) swoop in and tell you that you didn’t actually buy it and have to pay for it all over again. Or that the land is going to be used for something else, so you have to leave. Immediately. Not really the kind of behaviour that inspires trust, or property upkeep.

Corruption at all levels is a huge issue in Cambodia, similar to South Africa, I suppose, except that it perhaps dates back further, to colonial days when the only way things would happen is if they were accompanied by what the French called a “bonjour” (a small bribe). These days nepotism is more of a problem, as those in power only hire those they are related to in some way, or who have done them favours in the past.

What’s unusual about Cambodia, I think, is that there’s an emotional reason behind this. The genocide was one of the few in the world (the only one I can think of, but I’m no historian) where there was no distinction between the people on either side — it was a people turned on itself. The Holocaust pitted “Aryans” against Jews, apartheid had blacks and whites, the Rwandan genocide was Hutu against Tutsi, but the situation in Cambodia came entirely from within. And this meant that brothers could be fighting sisters, children could turn in parents, cousins could find themselves on either side of a barrier of power. It eroded any sense of trust, especially because the rewards for ratting out family or friends could mean the difference between starvation and surviving another day. This lack of trust has continued into every aspect of modern-day Cambodia.

It has also presented itself in an even more interesting way. There is a tendency among Cambodians not to plan for the future — not to trust that there is a future to plan for. We spoke to the owner of a local scuba-diving company who said she finds it so frustrating to find and train skilled staff because when she explains the concept of a long-term training programme with less pay, which will lead to a future of significantly higher pay (essentially an internship programme for unskilled workers), most people aren’t interested. They want the money now — there’s no concept of working towards a better future. I found this on a much smaller scale when I went for a local massage. They asked how long I wanted the massage for, and I said an hour. It was an incredible massage, and I was already planning when I would be able to come back in the days to come, but then, all of a sudden, it ended. After only half an hour. I asked the woman if that was an hour, and she said, “Yes, yes, one hour,” even though I had looked at my watch just as we began. The idea of giving it your all so that customers return for the good service isn’t naturally ingrained, it’s more of a “let’s see what I can get out of today, never mind tomorrow” mentality.

But what’s so interesting is that you can see why. I can totally understand why, having seen everyone I knew who was successful or prominent in any way killed, I would not necessarily feel the urge to strive for success. If your future, and the future of all your family members, had been ripped away overnight, wouldn’t you be wary to trust in the future turning out well?

But at the same time, isn’t this crippling the country, and dooming it to always be on the receiving end of international aid, never able to rise above its past?

I don’t know. And I keep wondering why it is that I find it so much more simple to look at a foreign country’s past with relatively clear eyes, yet when I turn those eyes on South Africa, I can’t see the story in such a lucid way.

What do you think?