Cambodia is a country of dirt streets and motorcycles and sandals and burning trash and dust-filled skies and houses made of wood and hammocks hung from Bamboo trees and chickens and leaves painted the rustic red-brown of volcanic clay. After decades of conquest – raided by Thailand and Vietnam, inhabited as a colony by the French, and bombed by the Americans in the Vietnam War – Cambodia is a nation of children, women, and men in the process of being reborn from the ashes of the garbage littering the smoking ruins of their past.
This past week I had the opportunity to take a break from the classy tropical metropolis of Singapore to traverse the Cambodian countryside, one of the poorest countries in the world. Read on to hear about this incredible experience, but be warned… the truth isn’t pretty and visiting Cambodia was no picnic. It’s also a bit long, but there was no way to explain this experience with anything less.
We arrived in Cambodia around 4 pm in the afternoon on a late flight in order to make it to our morning classes. As usual we made it to the airport at the last minute by the grace of an uber driver who championed our cause, and were the last to board the flight. Our plane descended from the whiteness of clouds to the dusty air of a dry country with green trees speckled amongst caked earth. We were unloaded directly onto the tarmac with scores of other tourists from around the world, speaking a variety of languages with the one common interest in seeing Siem Reap’s legendary temples. We were made to wait in an uncomfortably long line alongside the other camera-ready explorers to get our Cambodian visas, which cost $30 and required a completely arbitrary passport sized photo (the lack thereof of which resulted in a $2 fine). The only benefit of these fees was the reward of a nicely embossed tourist visa sticker that now occupies a whole page on our passports. We then proceeded outside to request a tuk tuk, the traditional motorcycle driven carriage used to traverse the city. We were blessed beyond measure to be paired with a young man named Brakkeo, who was not only incredibly helpful in our journey around Siem Reap, but also unwaveringly friendly. Brakkeo even offered to take us to Angkor Wat at 4:40am the following day, and loyally stayed at our bus station that next morning to make sure we were safely loaded before leaving to pick up his next client. We will forever be grateful for this unlikely friend in Cambodia who possessed the tragically uncommon but desperately important quality called kindness. From the airport we went directly to a ticket booth to buy entrance forms for the Angkor temples (as the central element of Cambodia’s thriving tourist industry, it is these fees that I suspect keep the economy from collapsing). A side note – all service workers wear light blue in Cambodia.
We then proceeded to a temple known as a Ta Promh, which in the local language of Khmer means “Grandfather Promh”. In the absence of human builders, the forest has reclaimed these once grand temples – green vines and moss now hug the walls weaving in and around the stone, roots have risen defiant to the manmade floors cracking through the rock itself to reach the sunlight, and mighty trees now extend their branches towards the sky, perching their roots precariously along the temple spires and wrapping their trunks along old doorframes as though attempting to erase the human footprint. Ta Promh is definitely best witnessed it all its glory at dusk, with the setting sun spilling pink and orange across a dusty sky through the foliage, casting dancing shadows on these lifeless walls that likely once saw people dancing through the halls. Walking the ruins in the evening also guarantees most tourists have gone for dinner; we were fortunate to enjoy this masterpiece with only a few scattered tourists, and were the last to leave, giving a final goodbye as the sky faded dark over the ruins. Outside Ta Promh, there are several markets that have sprung up under dusty tents and umbrellas, and immediately upon arrival tourists are hailed by adults and children alike holding up books and scarves and assorted statues for sale. Our tuk tuk drove back down the dusty road towards the city, following in the direction of the arms still outstretched holding trinkets, the chorus of pleas for sales whispering after us through the trees.
That night we went to three full hostels in a row before finding one called the Siem Reap Pub Hostel lodged on one of the back streets of a small night market. As the sky darkened we went out in search of food, eventually settling for a street vendor where we had noodle soup and kebobs and traditional beef loc-lak with rice. We then walked the streets while enjoying a freshly made coconut smoothie. Every road in Siem Reap seems built to attract outsiders – there are hanging lights in the shape of Angkor Wat over the roads, there are classy hotels with European names, and there are countless vendors and street markets selling paintings and knick-knacks and elephant printed clothing. Children follow their parents young in this industry – one face that has remained in my memory is that of a young girl about eight years old getting quotes in Khmer from her father then copying his tone in broken English to convince us to buy. A note about colors – many children in Cambodia wear soccer jersies. Siem Reap is also famous for another strange phenomen of foot care – there are dozens of foot massaging stations, and multiple places even offer foot cleansing via small fish that eat the dead skin off the feet. We did not have interest enough to put our feet in, but it was certainly interesting to watch.
The next morning, we awoke at 4:30 am to head to Angkor Wat for sunrise. The streets were oddly crowded as our tuk tuk rumbled down the dirt road leading to the temple so early in the morning. To our surprise, we were actually some of the last of the tourists to arrive at Angkor Wat that morning – the crowd forming on the lake overlooking the three legendary Angkor towers was already hundreds strong. Behind the lake, vendors wove in and around the crowd selling coffee and breakfast and calling out stall numbers, following each rejection with a hopeful “maybe later?” and tireless smile. Professionals and amateurs alike set up their cameras right on the banks and people packed together like sardines, each group whispering in their own language in the dark. As soon as the first fingertips of sunlight started to tickle the night sky, dozens of iphones shot into the air as though on symphonic que and would not be taken down until the sun was well into the sky.
The first suggestion of day was pale pink that watered the velvet sky into a periwinkle gray. Then small splashes of orange spilled out from the horizon as the night sky slowly turned to white then brilliant blue, all before the sun had even made its appearance. The most famous element of this view of course, is that the entire sunrise-bathed temple is reflected perfectly in the lake, creating a perfect duplicate on the glossy surface. More entertaining, however, is the view if you point your camera the other direction, where you will see a mob of tourists hundreds strong wearing all sorts of funny hats and outfits, pointing their cameras like in a cultish parade at the temple as the sun wakes them up – and all perfectly reflected in comical symmetry on the lake.
We explored the temple just before sunrise, walking up and down the narrow stairs and through abandoned hallways before heading back out to find our tuk tuk among the horde of drivers waiting for the crowd as the sun finally drove its rays high over the temple and flooded the valley with morning light. We then headed back to the travel agency at 7:30 am and boarded a crowded minivan for an 8 hour drive to the rural city of Banlung in the north. A side note – the bus company we drove with was owned by a Spanish-Uruguyan and his wife from Mexico, who were very amiable. Our bus carried passengers heading to all corners of northern cambodia, including some heading all the way to Laos.
Our bus stopped to divide up the travelers in a small town called Preah Vihear, which was where we began to see the real Cambodia of ramshackle buildings, unkept roads, and overcrowded markets of stained clothing and dirty children running amongst trash and flies emerge from the haze. It was clear we did not belong – a military man even came to take a picture of our odd group of tourists.
On the road from Siem Reap to Banlung we drove through hours of dusty fields and crippled wooden farmhouses with sunfaded banners and garbage littering the sides of the road. Our second bus was a transfer that took us to Banlug on another crowded minivan full of locals who, unable to speak English, dropped us in the middle of Banlung a few hours later without being able to give us a hint as to where we were headed. A note about minivans in Cambodia – they drive relatively fast on narrow undivided highways and dirt roads, both with substantial potholes and uneven divets – there are multiple times at which the van is headed full speed ahead on the opposite side of the road and pulls out just before collision and anytime it wants to pass a motorcycle (or pedestrian for that matter) by a narrow margin, the driver will honk continously and that will be their only warning. The honking is incessant. With the help of a friendly tuk tuk driver, we were able to make our way to the Banlung Balcony, a quaint local backpacker stop. On our way we made a wrong turn to a different hostel, where we met Odong, another soccer- jerseied child helping his parents run a business. Banlung is a city of dusty roads and broken buildings and faded markets and trash – like elsewhere in Cambodia, there are countless motorcycles driving through the city, most of which carry two to four people. It is not uncommon to see a parent holding a toddler between their legs on a motorbike, the little one just barely old enough to grab the handle bars. The Banlung balcony overlooks a beautiful lake, and we arrived just in time to see the sunset over the water while enjoying a delicious meal of traditional Khmer food.
We awoke early the next morning for a big breakfast before heading out with DutchCo. Trekking for a trip into the Ratanakiri wilderness to sse the Viriachey Forest. Our guides were two radically different, but similarly kind hearted men from Cambodia – one, a middle aged local named T with extensive knowledge of the trails and crucial camping survival skills who spoke only Khmer, and Dai Long, an eighteen year old billingual guide with a youthful knack for playing pranks and an interest in everything modern from American top 40 songs to FIFA to the app store. T was silent and methodical while Dai Long was loud and somewhat more impulsive, but both were a joy to get to know and were extraordinarily kind in introducing us to their homeland.
The first stretch of our journey was in a truck carrying backpacking gear along an unpaved road through fields colored brown with the red clay dust that clings to everything like glue. We passed numerous shacks and trash heaps and burning fields, recently torched to make way for the new crop. We then unboarded in Lemoi village, where we were met by a father and his ten year old son, who helped us into a long boat which we took down the O La Lai River into the heartland of Ratanakiri. The river is brown from usage and debris and oil, boarded on either side by forested hills and shacks built into the riverbank where women can be seem washing clothes against metal washboards. We disembarked about forty minutes later and started our journey out to Tra Village, where we would need to register with the local chief in order to pass on their lands. Walking through this simple village we saw people living in the most basic of circumstances – shoeless children ran about, a naked toddler cried on a table waiting for a mother to return carrying buckets of water slung over either shoulder on a broad pole, stray dogs wandered the streets, and people sat together on porches in front of houses consisting of little more that a few wood beams. And everything was covered in dust, so thick it settled on the tongue and clogged the nose.
We continued walking, eventually passing out of the village and into the forest, which is spectacular primarly due to the majestic bamboo foliage thick throughout. There are scores of tropical birds and curious bugs as well as ants about a centimeter in length that march unhindered through and around everything, including us. Along the journey, Dai Long told us stories about Cambodia, including political history about the conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the local legends about magicians, superstitions, and family traditions. One such story included a tradition involving Chinese New Year – apparently the Chinese animal of each year has a counteranimal, which for the year of the Monkey this year would be the Tiger. Since Dai Long was born the year of the Tiger, he believed it was necessary to cut the skin with a nail, wrap the his blood, some hair, and a fingernail with cloth, and throw it into the river to free him from bad luck. This tradition was passed on from his grandmother, and is apparently still practiced today. He also told us of his great grandfather, who according to local lore had seen a giant in his time; the villagers therefore decided to build all houses with a pointy roof to protect against being stepped on by a giant, which he claims explains the trend in arquitecture.
We arrived at first base camp in the afternoon, where we set up hammocks between bamboo poles and T made a fire for dinner and boiled water from the nearby stream. It was amazing how T and Dai Long could take rice, vegetables, and some meat and turn it into a delicious stirfry within an hour. They also began to make for us amazing bamboo art with only a machete, including a bamboo speaker for an iphone, a cup made out of bamboo with our name on it (which we used for river boiled coffee) and a whistle. After eating together, dishes were cleaned and we settled in the hammocks at the early hour of 6:30 pm as the sky went dark.
The next eleven hours of night would be much longer than anticipated. Once the fire went out, the temperature dropped much more quickly than anticipated. While it was lovely to listen to the sounds of the nocturnal jungle and watch the stars above the bamboo canopy, the cold was bitter and the hammock offered little protection. When T finally woke to light the fire again as the sun started opening the sky around 5:20 am, we gratefully sprang up from the hammocks to warm our frosty toes and fingers. That morning consisted of another delicious meal, this time a breakfast of eggs and vegetables with bread. We then packed up, and witnessed a rather tragic practice rampant throughout all of Cambodia. Before putting out the fire, the small bag fo trash we had accumulated throughout our journey was haphazardly thrown in and the plastic began to melt, giving off a nasty smell.
As it turns out, burning trash in Cambodia is commonplace. Everything is burned – fields are burned, trash is burned, unwanted brush is burned. This horribly poisonous smoke coupled with unfiltered exhaust from motorcycles and the oppressive dust is mainly responsible for the terrible air pollution in Cambodia. We would cover our mouths with cloth several times over the next few days to ward off the insidious dust and pollution that I’m convinced will remain caked in our lungs for many years to come.
The next day of hiking we travelled off the beaten trail literally through the jungle, cutting through bushes and brambles and spider webs (there were some spiders with yellow stripes about as wide as a human fist) before finally emerging with scraped up ankles and arms at another spot along the O La Lai river for lunch and some time along the shores watching locals make their way downstream on bamboo rafts and long tail boats. We continued our trek, passing multiple farmhouses with dogs and chickens and baby chicks running around. We passed through fields of long fluffy stalks that towered above our heads, bamboo canopies, freshly scorched fields, and red dirt trails. All the time, T led quietly from the front, while Dai Long brought up the rear, often hacking down bamboo as we went to whittle new creations as we walked. To get to our second campsite, we took of our shoes and wadded through the river to reach a small island in the middle, where we set up hammocks between trees and had dinner along the shores. That night by the fire, Dai Long taught us a game with sticks in the dirt, in which you rearrange some of the sticks to get a new formation. We then settled in for another long, cold night in the hammocks followed by a brisk dawn and breakfast.
By this point, we were starting to resemble the forest – dusty with quite a collection of leaves in our hair and clothes. This last day, we said goodbye to the forest and trekked back through Tra Village, where Dai Long introduced us to the local school children. Their primary school is only two rooms, and consists of only wood panels with colored drawings on the walls. Each child worked in a simple lined notebook used for practicing writing. Very few of the children wore shoes or carried backpacks, and one child had one sandaled and one bare foot. All were in various stages of dishevledness, a ragged and scrawny crowd of stained shirts and toothy smiles.
As we walked into their classroom, we felt instantly self conscious with our packs, paralyzed with our inability to communicate. Some stared at us, others smiled, some waved, and little ones laughed and ran, hiding beyond posts and peaking out cautiously. Eventually, however, someone suggested futbol, and an old deflated volleyball was offered up – the skin was peeling and there were several patches barely holding the tired air inside, but it was enough. The kids followed us outside and formed a ring around us in the dirt, smiling shyly and elbowing one another. We then started to play, passing the ball to one child who in turn would pass it back to one of us. The crowd of little voices laughed as the ragged ball was passed around. After a while we noticed that some of the more vocal, energetic boys were pushing the girls and littler ones out of the way in their excitement, so we began to point to the children in the shadows, calling them forward with beckoning arms and words they could not understand. At first they tried to hide, but eventually as their friends pushed them forwards they would scamper out of line and kick the ball back before hurrying back to the safety of the crowd. This game continued under the beating Cambodian sun, in a dusty schoolyward with barefoot children – it was here in the sweat and heat and dirt that friendships were made. It was beautiful to see these little ones begin to bloom like flowers, their smiles widening as we became not strangers but playmates. Eventually their class was excused for lunch and we all walked towards the village, where the children sat on dusty stools eating noodles out of plastic bags. A few knew how to say “hello” and we tried answering back “susdai” – it was an odd exchange, and yet somehow no words were needed to communicate the feeling of good intention.
There are many little faces I will never forget – the little girl missing her two front teeth wearing an eternal smile, the vibrant boy in soiled green who ran for the ball with a vengeance, the quiet girl with short hair who had a great kick and wore sunshine like a crown, the little boy who repeated hello back and forth with a giggle of gold – all precious beyond measure. The elders and more weathered youth were far more skeptical, however. They watched our profiles with hawk eyes, questioning, probing, uncertain and unhappy. There was no outward disdain for our presence, but evident discomfort in our unwelcomed interference in their world.
After waving goodbye to the children one last time, we descended towards the river for a lunch of noodles as we watched the villagers go about their daily life. Most startling was watching them ride their motorbikes through about a meter of water to cross the O La Lai river about 20 meters across. One after another crossed straight through the water before our eyes, filling the river with oil and exhaust. The most perennial image, however, was of a boy of about 6 who waded his blue rusted bicylcle all the way across all by himself, immerging with a few leeches on his feet fearlessly and continuing on his way.
We then boarded the same longtail boat and made our way back to the Lamoi village on a peaceful boatride. Seeing the same women out washing the same clothes by the same riverside ramshackle shacks was somehow more jarring the second time. One of the greatest blessings, in my opinion, is the luxury of change – momentum is a gift. While our days are constantly shifting as we enjoy trekking, traveling, exploring, studying, and growing up, these people live the same difficult, dusty life generation after generation. My life is being propelled always forward, constantly in motion, while these people are trapped in a world as stagnant as the dry riverbeds. It is heart rending to leave knowing the children we saw will inherit this wash bucket and will likely never know a world beyond their dry wooden village, much less the feel of a real, fully inflated soccer ball. I will always be moving forward, from school to adventures around the world, varying y my interests, my goals, my opportunities, and my surroundings. These people will lige the same impoverished day over and over again – the same house, the same food, the same river, and the same struggle for survival.
What we saw in Lemoi was far worse.
As we approached another dusty red earth village, we noticed huge plumes of black smoke emerging from beneath the bridge over a dry riverbed, marking the entrance to the village. The air smelled rancid as the smoke wafted across the village to the river. As we walked closer, we chanced a look down only to find the horrible mess of a massive dump on fire; enormous piles of melting plastic and rubber formed coagulated spires of ugly gray, angry embers peaked out between smoldering heaps of rotting food and human waste and wood and plants and charred rubbish. The air felt as thick as tar, the flames eliciting toxic fumes as they licked through the evidence of human refuse. The poison was settled on the town like an unpleasant ghost, permeating every nook and cranny with a nearly visible presence. Most ironically, the first store in this village next to this monstrosity was a pharmacy. I will never forget watching three small boys walking across the path, their young lungs inhaling pure smoke without knowing it was slowly killing them, peering into the unfenced pit with curiosity – innocent and unknowing victims. The life expectancy in Cambodia is one of the lowest in the world – I am grieved to admit I now understand why.
Our truck ride back to Banlung was not much better, as we drove through village after village burning large masses of trash and fields. The air of Cambodia is heavy under the burden of permanent smoke – it almost feels as though it is possible to see air browning before one’s eyes. Arriving in Banlung to the sunset across the lake at our hostel felt like a arriving at a small oasis after a draught, until shortly after our arrival they began to burn the trash and unwanted brush right across the street. We ate dinner watching trees go up in flames and fell asleep as glowing scraps of burning plastic were tossed into the smoldering night sky.
We awoke early the next morning at the bright sunny hour of 5:30 am to board another minivan packed with locals heading to Phnom Penh. It was estimated in our Lonely Planet Travel Guide that the trip from Banlung to Phnom Penh could take anywhere from between 6 and 8 hours, depending on the craziness of the driver. I would argue our driver was certifiably insane, since we made the trip in slightly less than 6 as a result of what I would consider reckless driving, whizzing through dusty towns at record speed and soaring over the many, many potholes as though they were only chinks and the rocks were only pebbles. As a passenger in the squishes back seat, I can justifiably say this very bumpy ride felt much longer than it was. The van stopped for breakfast at a small family style restaurant serving rice and soup out of big tin bowls. We were fortunate enough to find ourselves sitting across from the only English speaker on the trip, a middle aged Cambodian man who worked for a local non profit agency to help educate the impoverished youth. He was one of those perennially kind souls who smiles with his eyes. After talking with him for about 15 minutes, the van began to reload. To our surprise, this stranger turned friend named Nam paid for our meal without word before we had blinked, giving us a wink and a smile before waving us back inside. There is profound joy in sharing a meal with someone – and even greater joy in seeing kindness for the sake of kindness passed along in the most unlikely of ways. I doubt we will ever meet again, but I hope we will have the chance to pay Nam’s kindness forward each and every day to make this world a little brighter.
The rest of the bus ride was bumpy and rather uneventful, passing town after town of wood shacks, dust, faded signs, metal bowls of rice, barefoot children, tumbleweed and burning trash.
When our van stopped briefly at one of these little villages on our drive home, we were hailed by multiple men and women in hats carrying mangos and roasted corn and eggs and roasted chicken skewers who immediately filled the open doorway of the car with their petitions in Khmer. They had glued themselves to the van of potential customers before the vehicle had even come to a stop. As we neared the capitol, the roads gradually became smoother and the shacks progressively nicer, as the wood became bricks then the bricks became plaster and eventually skyscrapers appeared along the city skyline. The fully constructed, glossy skyscrapers were few and far between, however. Most buildings were still a mess of crumbling plaster, decaying wood, and piles of trash lofted amongst enormously tangles of hundreds of electrical wires knotted precariously on wooden posts that were sometimes even hidden in small trees. How the city has not burned down, purely from electrical shortages, is a miracle.
The streets were full of tuk tuk’s asking for rides, buzzing with people and tourists alike. The sky was solid brown, without a speck of blue to be seen and the river was the same – a line of what appeared be mud bordered by shores of trash. Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, reflects a city trying so very hard to move forward amidst a poor people in a very broken system. There are only a handful of nice buildings and fancy offices – all of which are owned by the banks or the government. The rest of the city feels fragile and dirty, covered in dust and barely able keeping its head above the dirty waters of economic collapse. There are sordid streets of markets where hundreds sit on floors caked with dirt and urine and oil, selling fish still flopping around in buckets of brown water that are sliced and left in the open to dry on slabs of wood dried with blood and grit under a constant haze of flies. There are huge slabs of red meat, large assortments of fruit, whole fried ducks with the beak and feathers and flippers still attached left out in the scalding sun while bugs take their feast. Even the parks are piled high with stacks of garbage, and scenes of skinny barefoot children picking through rancid scraps of food and wilted trash by overflowing trash bins is a common sight. There is a huge central market on filthy streets, boasting dozens of shops selling pirated labels – there is tired stall after stall with towers of fabricated shoes and shirts and bags of American and European label with desperate merchants bartering away the hours. Everywhere trash and dirt and grime – even walking around makes one feel dirty, coating the lungs with smoke and polluted air, and layering the skin with city filth. We had the luxury of enjoying a view of the city from above at a cheap, well kept hostel by the river called 11Happy, but we soon discovered this was an oasis amidst the chaos that is Phnom Penh. There are museums and temples and historic sites in this city; but to me those are scuffed gems in a rotting city. The reality is far more painful and no tourist site can hide it. The labyrinth of streets holds a plethora of nothing but more poverty and desperation and starving beggars against a soiled sky. Even seeing the grand Royal Palace and Ministry of Anti-Crime and Government Headquarters – the only polished buildings in the city – felt like witnessing a horrible scandal of injustice. The people just outside these massive gates are coughing with punctured lungs from pollution and are slowly being crushed with poverty, and yet the government boasts luxury. The city feels inescapably dirty – the streets are dirty, the buildings are dirty, and the air is putrid with heavy exhaust, pollution, and toxic smoke. And the many kind and smiling people, as a result, are dirty – soiled clothing, dusty feet, diseased skin, and malnutrition are rampant. This is the ugly face of poverty and it isn’t foreign; its the face of a fellow human being looking out from behind a mountain of dead maggoted fish asking “You buy?” because a few dollars is what it takes to get by. It is the fingers of the three-year-old boy in rags who grabbed onto our tuk tuk at a stop light, his desperation speaking louder than any words as he clenched my skirt and pointed longingly with starving eyes at the bag of almonds on my lap to feed his swollen belly. It is the unknowing smile of the little girl missing her two front teeth wearing an eternal smile, the vibrant boy in soiled green who ran for the ball with a vengeance, the quiet girl with short hair who had a great kick and wore sunshine like a crown, the little boy who repeated hello back and forth with a giggle of gold – the little ones who don’t know yet that they are trapped in an unchanging cycle of need and lack. Poverty is real, poverty, is ugly, and it is loud while suffering quietly – and Cambodia burns with it.
In Angkor Wat you will find the eighth archeological wonder of the world, which is pretty to look at and an interesting relic of the past. But in Cambodia as a whole you will find the most incredible wonder this world has to hold: humanity in its most raw and untempered state. What we found in Cambodia were some of the kindest and most beautiful people humanity has to offer within a country that is crumbling to pieces.
Cambodians are unknowingly burning their country – they are burning their sky with brown smoke that sits in the air long after the orange flames have been extinguished. The once clear skies are now muddy and the air is painfully heavy with the dusty embers of their mistake. They are burning the land with the remains of smoldering trash, heaped in piles alongside roads and schools and homes and hospitals where its poison contaminates all who ride through its consuming smoke. They are burning the lungs of their youth, filling these poor young ones with the melted remains of plastic bottles and plastic bottles and unwanted debris.
Cambodia is a country of dusty fire. There are kilometers of wooden houses lofted precariously on wooden beams. There are people packed on motorbikes like books on a shelf. There are stretches as far as the eye can see of dilapidated markets selling food out of big metal pans and fruit and fish from long bags on the ground swarming with flies. There are long dusty roads, bumpy and uneven with barefoot children walking along them for kilometers without water. There are also beautiful forests of bamboo and winding rivers and many green trees. Magnificent ruins are scattered throughout the land. Most amazingly, there are so many beautiful people – Dai Long, T, Brakkeo, Nom, the precious smiling children at the school, and so many others we did not chance to meet. I think that is what makes it all the harder to watch. We get to enjoy the best parts of Cambodia then go home to our comfortable apartment in Singapore, then eventually to our happy, clean homes in the States, where opportunities in education and career are readily available, where we always have access to a clean toilet and warm running water for a shower and clean food and as much clean drinking water as we desire. We get a home fo fresh air by the beach, a nice car, and a safe neighborhood. These people will likely never see such comfort. In every village we passed through, a formal bathroom was a rare commodity, shoes were uncommon, and the schools and homes were falling apart. It is impossible to paint accurately with words what desolation it is to traverse an entire country from west to east, south to north, and see nothing but shacks and trash and toxic waste and rubble and dust. I want so much more for the people we met, and know they deserve so much more that what life has doled out. I must admit, however, that I am at a loss, overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of just how much needs to be changed. Infrastructure, construction, and supplies are clearly needed, but education and cleanliness are even more vital. The years of burning trash must be untaught, there is a desperate need for public sanitation, and good hospitals, and good roads and good school rooms. There is heavy need for filters for motorcycle gas, and the rivers need to be completely decontaminated. Everywhere there is need, and a great deal of it. Need. Pure, raw need. Thirsting, unquenched need that burns the heart as strongly as sparks from the fire singe the lungs. It is my hope that someday Cambodia and the Khmer people will be rejuvenated from the ashes of this burning land, that someday change will come. Looking poverty in the face is a nasty experience. It is obvious, it is undeniable, and it is needy with a needing void I am unable to fill. One need look no farther than the child walking by the burning unfenced rubbish heap with dirty hands and tattered clothes and leeches on their feet with skin caked so thickly with dust they are several shades different in color to know that something has to change. People should never be forced to live this way, and no child should be raised to believe this is all there is. Where and how to heal Cambodia I have no answer for – but one thing is for certain – the fire must be put out so this nation can finally start to heal.
My closing words as I fly back to my life of blessing are merely these – Cambodia is not and never should be treated as a vacation. It is an experience, and an important one at that. It is profoundly important for us all to see the ugly truth, to taste the filthy air, to smell the rotten fish, to feel the dusty grime, and meet the broken big hearted people so that we may be motivated to make a change and pay forward kindness with fervency. If you go to Cambodia and see only temples and elephant printed skirts, you have missed the point and ignored the truth. And the longer we ignore the truth, the longer Cambodia will continue to suffer. Go to see reality, go to learn from it, and go to have your lungs burned and your heart broken. Only then, when we ache and bleed with Cambodia, will finally be inspired to actually do something about it.
In the meantime, check out ConCERT ( http://www.concertcambodia.org/) and the Cambodian Children’s Fund (https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/?gclid=CNPXl_nT8coCFQOVaAodZ0QEjw) Beatocello (http://www.beat-richner.ch/) and some of the other great Good-Cause Programs in Cambodia to see how you can help – things are getting better, one step at a time!
Here are some pictures showing Cambodia as it truly is:
Here are some pictures of the prettier parts of Cambodia:
And here are some more typical touristy pictures, just because:
Hope you’re all having a great week, I wish you all the best!Meet Madelina