Cambodia really swept me of my feet. When I think of Cambodia, I get a big smile on my face. I think of the green landscapes, the pink water lilies and the old ruins of the Angkor. The crazy heat, the spicy curry and the motor tuktuks. The unusual small money (Riel), the dusty roads and the cycling kids. Not just one kid on a bike, but up to four. And that without falling off. Cambodia is a nice country. It’s a peaceful country. A country full with smiling faces, but also filled with a lot of tears.
A smile: kind and positive Khmer
Looking back on my trip through Cambodia I can say one thing, the Cambodian people are one of the most positive people in the world. Everywhere you go, you will see that well-known smile. And that all day long. There is so much happiness around you. Take for instance the receptionist at our hotel. A young girl, probably 16 or 17 years old, and so positive. A bubble of happiness. Every morning she greeted us with that same smile and asked us that same question she asked everyday: ‘What are your plans for today?‘. And she wasn’t the only one. Also the people on the street were so kind and friendly. I cannot remember a single moment I felt unsafe. Even when we got lost with our bikes on the outskirts of Siem Reap, asking for directions was no problem.
The Cambodian people are full of smiles, but they can also put a smile on your face. Not with their jokes, but with their clothing. At first you might not notice it, but if you pay attention to it, then you’ll see that the women wear something that looks a lot like a pyjama. A trouser with a buttoned shirt or even an onesie. And the brighter the better. Orange ones with penguins, yellow ones with Mickey Mouse and blue ones with bears. And when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Why wear pyjamas only in bed when you can also wear them all day long? They are a stylish outfit and at least this way you can get the most out of your money. They are light, breezy, comfy and covers up most parts of your body, which is convenient if you want to go to a temple. Still for westerners it’s a strange sight.
A tear: a cruel past and an unsure future
Cambodia is also a country with a cruel past. The one of the Khmer Rouge, the communist revolution and the leader Pol Pot. This mysterious smiling leader seized power in 1975 and set about transforming his country into an agrarian utopia. The year 1975 was changed into the year Zero en all cities were evacuated. Everyone had to work on the rice fields for 12 hours a day in a tense heat. In the vision of Pol Pot the hardworking farmers and workers were the basis of a new Cambodia. There was no room for intellectuals. Anyone believed to be an intellectual, such as someone who wore a pair of glasses or spoke a foreign language, was immediately to be killed. In less than 4 years nearly two million people were killed. That’s 1 out of 4 people. They died because of famine, malnutrition, sickness or (mass)execution. And the strange part is that most Cambodians did not have a clue who their new leader was. Names like ‘Pol Pot’ or ‘Khmer Rouge’ were completely unknown!
Nowadays Cambodia is a very young country. More than one third of the Cambodians are under the age of 14. Cambodia had to rebuilt itself from scratch. And the knowledge to do this was gone, as the intellectuals were killed during the revolution. The recovery is slow and there are still a lot of problems. For instance, there are more than 24.000 streetkids. And that’s something you will notice, also in Siem Reap. On the streets, in the shops, during diner and at the Angkor temples you will see begging kids. And sometimes these kids also speak quite a bit of English. They tell you about their school results and then ask you for money.
I wanted to know more about this problem and I decided to pay a visit to a local organization (The Green Gecko Project) that provided shelter and education to 70 streetkids. Here I heard the story of the parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and send their kids into the streets to beg for money. This money is spent on new drugs and alcohol. And so the circle continues. Be smart and don’t give money to these children. Instead give something to eat. A simple banana can mean a lot.
Cambodia, it’s an intriguing country but also scarred. On the one side you see the positive smiles and the weird pyjamas, on the other side you see a country that has a long way to go.
What was your experience in Cambodia?