Just like its statues and temples, Cambodia is a broken.
Almost 2 decades of civil war and failure in the part of elected governments to create opportunities has broken 15 million dreams.
This post is based on my interactions with locals during a short stay of 4 days at Siem Reap, the home to famous Angkor Archeological Park.
After spending 2 months in Thailand with happy faces all around (in spite of the military rule), Cambodia suddenly seemed like a big change to me. I didn’t imagine the life to change so much at a distance of 1-hour by flight from glitzy Bangkok. I guess I was not prepared.
Interactions with Tuk-Tuk driver
I interacted extensively to my Tuk-Tuk driver over 3-days and got to know much more about the country than I did in weeks of research.
As you might know, Cambodia was under civil war between 1975 and 1993 under the infamous Khmer Rouge. After the end of the civil war, elections were held with UN backing to form a new democratic government with a hope of peace. Don’t get me wrong. Cambodia is currently peaceful but people are not content. I always believe that this sort of peace is dangerous because when people give up on life, they give in to any hope of a better life. And more often, the hope comes from radical elements. We have enough examples of this from across the world.
People are not happy with the current elected government as they feel that the government acts on behest of Vietnam, depriving locals of opportunities to have a better life. Elections are due in 2018 and many fear that if governments continue to remain corrupt, communism may start peeping up again, leading to another civil war in the worst case.
The boat ride
I took a boat to South East Asia’s largest lake, Tanle Sop. The almost 2-hour boat ride took me though a floating village inhabiting 6000 people. The site is beautiful. However, these people don’t live there because it’s beautiful. They do because they don’t have any other option. Most of these people do fishing to survive and sell the fish at a local market. However, during the rainy season, water levels rise, forcing these families flee to higher altitudes. Thus, for months, they don’t have any means to make living. A lot of people drawn in the lake every year. Especially those who stay back, hoping to avoid competition. While they avoid competition from people, they compete with the nature.
A lot of humanitarian work is happening in the floating village. There are floating schools and a clinic in the village. However, most people don’t study for too long as they need to start earning money. At 26, the boat rider is yet to complete his school. I saw kids working at the gas stations.
The NGO guy
I had a brief interaction with a guy who is running an NGO in Siem Reap for about 7 years. NGOs played a great role in trying to rebuild the country after the civil war. However, government shed away responsibilities seeing NGOs doing work. With limited resources, NGOs obviously couldn’t do all that government would have done, leaving huge infrastructure and social gap.
Almost all the locals I met said that the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer in the current times. A classic situation for communism to peep in again!
Khmers are really nice people with warm hearts. Almost everyone that I met had a good sense of humor. The temples, however broken they are, speak of the country’s glorious past. People are still not sure about it’s glorious future though.
I lived in Thailand for 15 years and have been in Cambodia for one. I think you need to spend more time before you make a judgement. Thai people always wear a fake smile but that is all it is. The Thai people are living in a declining economy and are very unhappy but they can be arrested if they complain, so they don their smile and walk out to try and make what money they can. They are extremely unhappy. The Khmer are living in a growing economy and see more future than they had hoped for. You talk of events of over 20 years ago as if people still think about that. Yes, the US destroyed the country and the Vietnamese took over but most people have to ask their parents about it. Most people see all the money arriving that used to go to Thailand and see growth. Yes, there is far too much corruption but certainly no more than in Thailand where the corruption is the only growth area. In Thailand a couple of years ago, if you were stopped by the police they would demand a 200 baht bribe if you had done something wrong, today they will demand a 1000 baht bribe even if you have not done anything wrong. I Cambodia you they still only have to pay a couple of dollars if they have done something wrong. For the actual people, Cambodia is a happier place but they do not wear the fake smile, they are happy to tell you what is wrong without fear of arrest.
Traveling is no big deal as it seems. We just have to reduce or delay some material aspirations to fulfil our nomadic dreams!