I mentioned in my last post that Cambodia is different than any other place Jared and I have traveled to. The lush jungle and the ruins were beautiful, but it was the Cambodian people who will remain in my memory.
Two friends had warned us that Cambodia is a poor country, but I was still not prepared for the level of poverty that I saw. I have experienced begging in other countries (the Gypsies in Spain terrified me), but nothing compares to our experiences in Cambodia. We were approached by young girls, probably ages 5-15, constantly. There were young boys and older women who sold things too, but the young girls were the most prevalent. They were usually trying to sell us some type of souvenir: a pack of postcards, a magnet, a flute. They would lower the price the longer we tried to ignore them, but if we engage in any conversation they would follow us for at least ten minutes. Often I would be looking around and happen to meet their eyes; they would immediately approach, “lady, one dollar, lady. One dollar for the postcards. 10 postcards, lady.” (By the way, the Cambodian riel is only used for change; the US dollar is used for most transactions.) Their voices were always a soft whine, and it completely broke my heart. Some even gave up trying to sell me something and would ask for money to go to school. I think they could tell that I was weak and wanted to help them; they approached me more often than they did Jared. Although, maybe they just approach women more in general because I saw the same thing happening to other tourists. It was easy for me to turn away the Gypsies in Spain; they were huge, haggard, rough looking women. However, I thought these Cambodian children were breathtakingly beautiful. They were often dressed in clothes that looked like that hadn’t be washed in weeks, and if they wore shoes, it was only flip flops. I desperately wanted to help all of them. However, there was one that really made me laugh. “Lady, you give me one dollar.” “No. I’m sorry.” “Lady, you give me 100 dollar.” That escalated quickly!
On our second day, we were driven to a temple that was fairly far away, about thirty minutes. The road we took went through the rural area and gave us a chance to see Cambodia away from the tourist zones. It seems that chickens rule the country as they are always wandering the streets, and at one point a large herd of cattle blocked our route. Our driver pointed at people who were riding 3-4 at a time on motorbikes, and he told us that they were heading to work in the rice patties. “Very hard work.” It seemed that most of the Cambodians truly understand hard work. The homes we drove past varied in styles. Many were stone and on stilts to protect from flooding; however, even more were mere shanties. I saw several that only had three walls, and a few where the walls were simple tarps. I mentioned in the last post that there had been flooding in the days prior to our visit. I saw several yards that were nothing but mud and puddles. One yard had a large puddle that a young girl was wading in; it came up to her waist and the water was a deep murky brown. I shuddered to think at how long that standing water had been there and what parasites and bacteria could latch on to the child. I know that my Western immune system probably couldn’t handle it. (I only survived the mosquitos by covering myself with DEET every few hours.) I have seen poverty before, but what I have experienced has only been isolated cases- a family or two, perhaps a street. It seemed that everyone in this area was poor, that it was the norm rather than the exception.
As Cambodia is such a poor country, Jared and I were able to travel very comfortably for much less than normal. We tend to travel on the cheap- stay in hostels, eat at the local places, and only have one really nice meal. For this vacation, we stayed at a very nice hotel, had a personal driver, and enjoyed multi-course meals. Why? Because the prices were ridiculously cheap! We decided that since it was such a short trip, and since the cost would not be too much, that we would live it up in style. We were picked up from the airport and immediately given cold, damp towels to cool ourselves. Our personal driver, Bootie, kept us supplied with cold water, towels, and fresh cut fruit. After a hot day exploring the temples, the hotel staff welcomed us back with a refreshing lime drink. We were very pampered. I actually started to doubt myself at one point. Is this who I am? Being chauffeured around and accepting towels to wipe my sweat from a man who fought the Khmer Rogue? I felt guilty that we are blessed with so much while we were surrounded by people who are grateful to earn a single dollar in a day. Though it was nice to spend one trip being pampered, I still prefer to carry my own backpack and eat street food.
For our last night in Cambodia, we took a tuk tuk (a motorbike with a carriage behind it) into Siem Reap. We explored the Old Market, which was interesting, but very similar to markets I have seen in Turkey and Korea. Scarves, spices, gems, and sweaty people. I enjoyed the shops outside of the market much more; we found two little art shops and bought some canvas paintings. We ate at a local restaurant, and we watched as the lights flickered for a few moments before the entire power grid shut down. We were plunged into darkness and could hear a storm raging outside. As the staff brought candles and we finished our Khmer curry, I knew that I was exactly where I wanted to be.