Cambodia: A Land of Extreme Beauty and Perils

I really wanted to write about my chronicles while I pretended I was Tomb Raider in Cambodia, however there is a bigger issue I want to share. Travelling alone in Cambodia gave me ample opportunity to speak with Cambodian locals in temples, bars, schools, and in the streets. I was interested in how they lived day to day, and I was blessed that most individuals shared so much insight.

Cambodia is a country suffering from wide poverty. Once ravaged by a combination of post-colonial and civil violence under the devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge, today Cambodia is strained by its fast-growing population and lack of infrastructure investment. Recently, the World Bank has stated that Cambodia has made a remarkable improvement in cutting poverty rates by more than half, from a staggering 53% in 2004 to 20.5% in 2011. However, a closer look at this statistic reveals “the vast majority of families who escaped poverty were only able to do so by a small margin, thus the significant share of the near-poor.” The country’s GDP is growing by an impressive 7% (2015), but are the people noticing an improvement in their lives?

The many faces of the temple of Bayon

When you walk into any of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, you cannot miss the sight of young children near the entrances of each temple. Some are holding books, and others are carrying baskets of bracelets and postcards. The children’s English is limited to “hello sir,” “you buy,” and “please”. It’s difficult to pretend to not see and hear the yearning voices of these children, so I am repeatedly saying, “no, thank you.” Most guides and reference books repeatedly state that tourists should not purchase anything from these children. Buying goods from the children only encourage them and their parents that using child labor to sell goods is a viable option to sustaining themselves.

The children are not limited to just selling goods in Angkor Wat. Thousands of working children can also be seen in the nearby town of Siem Reap. Children not older than 10 are handling stores for their parents. The slightly older, but still underaged girls try to grab your arm to allure you with a $2 “massage”. The more sinister involvement of children can be seen through the desperate TukTuk drivers offering “young beautiful girls” upstairs.

Safe to say, alcohol was my smallest expense in Cambodia

I asked a local in a bar in Siem Reap why there were so many children working and not in school. From my rudimentary research of Cambodia, I knew that education was supposed to be free and enshrined in the constitution of this “communist” country. It startled me to hear that despite having free education on paper, the supplementary costs of uniforms, textbooks and transportation can cost a rural Cambodian family 50–75% of their income. The opportunity cost of education for children remains far too high and as there is a lack of investment in more and better educational facilities, access remains difficult. When parents have to contemplate feeding or educating their child as an ultimatum, you can see why so many children are out in the streets grabbing your hand to sell you anything.

But, Cambodia is performing well economically and experiencing increases in revenue from both agricultural production and tourism. Who is getting the money?

Cambodia’s history is marked by corruption. Whether it was the colonial French who encouraged corruption through unchecked power, or the Khmer Rouge that promised a utopian rural paradise at the expense of millions dying under genocide, corruption remains rampant even in today’s Cambodia. Sitting in power for over 30 years, the current prime minister, Hun Sen, has brutally removed political opposition and has amassed a fortune that he is not even afraid to admit. The massive income inequality in Cambodia is further supported by his policies favouring his cronies.

A prison for any resistors, covered in their own feces and urine.

A veteran who was a staff at the Cambodian War Remnants Museum shared a heartbreaking story to me as he gave me a 1 on 1 guided tour of the museum. In his adolescence, he had to witness the greatest sin of humanity. Dragged out by soldiers with his face painted by tears and mucus, the veteran was knelt by force and saw both of his parents executed with a pair of AK-47s. After years of living alone with no siblings or relatives, the veteran served 18 years with the Cambodian military to find food to eat. However, until this day the veteran receives no pension or recognition from the government. The veteran is now 69 years old and carries multiple prosthetic limbs. He is able to walk for short distances and can only use his stories to generate a source of income. He has been saving up to purchase a Tuk, and now I’m happy to say that he is on the road sharing his stories to a wider audience.

During the night, away from the drunken bustle of Pub Street, I also got the chance to sit in several open classrooms designed for underprivileged students. They were learning how to speak English, touching up on grammars and sentence structures. The classroom itself was just a storage container supported by steel pipes, but laughter and eager chanting made it a real learning environment.

One class, the teacher invited the peering tourists (including myself) to join in, and we got the chance to share our home countries. When I introduced myself as a Canadian, many were surprised to see a physical Asian talking about a “white man” country. I explained to them that at a very young age, I immigrated to Canada due to the education opportunities. Immigration itself is a foreign concept for many of these students that do not have the privilege of let alone travelling. The fact that I am able to spend a couple days in foreign countries is but a dream for many students who haven’t traveled outside Siem Reap. I fell into an immediate reflection of how lucky I was to be born in luxury.

The students in their happy and optimistic voices contrasted with the sense of hopeless I felt from many of the older locals. They were ready to learn and make best of their situation. It really made me ashamed of all the times I would complain about having too many finals or homework, as these students who cannot even afford their own supplies come during the peak of night to learn as much as they can.

Sorry for the extremely late blog as it’s already been several weeks since my trip, but I hope everyone gets a chance to visit Cambodia. Besides the historical wonders, the people of Cambodia are the nicest group of people I’ve ever met, never hesitating to engage in a conversation despite the linguistic challenges. Thanks for reading up to this point again, and I promise to be more diligent with my entries!

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