I left Cambodia four days ago and the flood of impressions I had and emotions I experienced are just beginning to settle. And of course, it is not so easy to find enough time to get things on paper as our busy vacation is continuing in Malaysia. Here are my first impressions of Cambodia and general introduction. (All images can be clicked to view full size).
Although Cambodia has begun to experience growth in tourism, primarily in Siem Reap, the tourist base for the famous Angkor Wat temples, and also in Phnom Penh, the country is still largely rural and extremely poor. Siem Reap
with all its restaurants, day spas, guest houses and hotels, many of them very nice, is still very much a chaotic, dusty and in many ways 3rd world place. The development of the tourism infrastructure and tourism based economy has begun to plant the seeds for a modest middle class but has not yet spread much beyond the city limits. It is only now beginning to reach into the indigenous urban population.
In the Siem Reap tourism sector
salaries may vary between $50 - $400 dollars a month. That lower range is for minimally skilled workers in restaurants or hotels. The licensed Khmer masseur in our hotel for example gets $75 a month having a marketable skill but little English language ability while an experienced reception worker with good English may earn $150 - $200 a month. And that salary is extremely good for an average Cambodian but can for the most part only be earned in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
For most Cambodians subsistence farming is still the norm with 75% of the population involved in agriculture and 40% living below the poverty level. Fifteen to twenty minutes outside of Siem Reap, a mere 5 - 8 km, you are driving on deeply pot-holed red dirt narrow paths through villages in the middle of the natural beauty of mostly rice fields. Your vehicle is the only one there; if people are lucky they may have a bicycle and in rare cases a motorbike. More than half of the homes you see nestled in the thick foliage are one room thatched shacks, a quarter may be lucky enough to have a corrugated metal roof on top of thatched walls and the very lucky few have a multiple room wooden house built on stilts.
In some of the villages there is no school close enough for children to go to and if there is one, many of the families can’t afford the $15 - $30 dollars a year per child required to purchase school supplies and the obligatory white shirt and dark trousers, skirt or shorts. 75% - 85% of Cambodians still have no electricity so many people will run a single light bulb and small ancient black & white TV on a car battery. In the village there will be one or more shops where with the aid of a generator batteries are recharged.
Amidst this rural poverty and struggling often still marginal city life there is a strange vibe. I don’t know how to explain it so I will only describe it. The Cambodians seem to be inherently happy and optimistic people with a thirst to improve their country and their lives. Their spirit feels indestructible and tireless especially when you realize that it is only 7 – 9 years since any semblance of peace and stability has returned after 30 years of terribly destructive wars. From the mid 1960’s to the late 1990’s the succession of American bombing, civil war, the horrors of the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime and then war with Vietnam destroyed and tore the country apart.
In 2000 when President Clinton released long secret military data it became clear for the first time just how extensive the American bombing of Cambodia actually was. Between 1965 and 1973 the USA dropped more tons of bombs on Cambodia than what the Allies expended in Europe, Africa and the Pacific during the course of WWII. America’s 231,000 bombing sorties against 114,000 sites almost totally destroyed what infrastructure there was, wiped out thousands of Cambodian villages and is believed to have killed up to several hundred thousand people.
Ironically enough, it was this American bombing campaign that catapulted the rag-tag unpopular Khmer Rouge socialist revolutionaries to sufficient support and strength to overthrow the US supported government of Lon Nol. That popular support of course was quickly betrayed by Pol Pot with a subsequent terror campaign that saw the deaths of an additional 1.7 million people and the near total destruction of the social fabric of the country.
Over a thirty year period perhaps up to 20% of the country’s population was killed, died of starvation or from slave labor while an equal number or more were displaced or made homeless. Since the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge were only rooted out in the mid 1990’s in the Siem Reap area that turbulent history is still fresh in the minds of anyone over the age of 20 - 25.
Everyone you talk to lost family in that period. The only variable is how many and under what conditions. Everyone you talk to who is old enough to have lived through that period has personal horror stories. The only variable again is how many and how horrible.
And since the return of some semblance of political stability and freedom, Cambodia has developed into one of the world’s most corrupt countries, robbing its citizens of further development opportunities. That there is such widespread persistent poverty is therefore no surprise. That the people of this beautiful country are so warm and open, determined, optimistic and of such resilient spirit is more than surprising. It is downright amazing and incredibly inspiring.
I have rarely been so moved or impacted by the people living in a country I have visited. I have never seen such poverty co-existing with this kind of richness of peoples’ spirits. In the weeks ahead I hope to share with you some more of my experiences and impressions of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, the Cambodian people I had the privilege of meeting and some of the great people I spent time with who are doing wonderful and innovative work there helping improve the future.