Friday, January 7, 2011

Arrival in Cambodia

Caught a taxi from home at 0400, left Singapore at 0600 and arrived in Siem Reap at 0715. The airport had no customs, just letting you know. I guess the death penalty for smuggling is enough incentive to encourage people to behave. Despite a lovely taxi driver, I felt uncomfortable looking out at the streets on the way to our hotel. The dirt is almost red, and the drains are large, and the children squat to play with rubbish – identical features to those found in the quasi-residential areas of Africa. It instantly took me back to how upset I was on my first trip to a developing country. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps poverty looks the same in most countries. The only difference I can see between Cambodian poverty and, say, that of Kenya, is the people’s reaction and evolution to the different landscape and different materials available. In Kenya, natural materials were used much more predominantly, whereas here it seems that those in the lower socio-economic areas tend to recycle materials to make their homes. Rust prevails here in the place of Kenyan mud brick. 

Perhaps it was the image of the child squatting in the dirt outside his front door (or lack thereof) that slapped me with déjà vu. It is an iconic stance, surely one that many photographers have captured and sold, but its potency has just been jacked up for me. Now I have realised just how universal these problems are, and just how transcendent the reaction to the problem is. Humans adapt and make do with what they are given, which is why the houses look different and they wear different clothes. But if a bored, poor child in Cambodia amuses himself in the same, sad way as a child in Africa does, then obviously we are all not so different. 

I hope my experiences in Cambodia are more pleasant than the memories I have of East Africa. I feel less hostility in the people, for sure. In Kenya and Tanzania in particular, being white felt akin to a dirty crime – and how could it not when one considers what white skins have done to those countries throughout history (and continue to). It is certainly not an excuse for lingering prejudice, but it is a reason for it, and a reason we must be (to a certain degree) sensitive of. Cambodia, however, has much more of a gentle feel. The people have great strength which appears to be funneled into resilience and pride, as oppose to anger and pride. These combinations manifest into very different national agendas. Historical Cambodian conflict came from within, and so rather than be hostile towards outsiders, they have come together as a stronger, united conscience – something that appeals to people travelling, as well as being immensely beneficial to Cambodians.

Africa would not survive without its tourism, and that is saying a lot considering it is barely surviving now, and yet they have not fully realised that their standards of animal keeping, site maintenance and trustworthiness of staff and guides is no way near up to scratch. ‘Scratch’ in this case means ‘minimal international standards’. I travel to the main temples in Siem Reap over the next 2-3 days, and I will be interested to see how the government treats the massive influx of tourists and revenue to the Angkor area. I would be ecstatic to see happy tourists happily spending their money supporting happy Cambodians in a happy city. Seeing genuine happiness in Africa was incredibly rare. I hope the coming days in this new country renew my faith in the power of happiness. 

Siem Reap gifts me with genuine awe.


  1. Gorgeous photos of temple and children in village.
    Yes, it sometimes takes a trip or two, away from our own comfortable backyards, to see how so very lucky we are.
    Happiness . . . .YES, wishing you LOts.

  2. dude, that photo is amazing
    - rachel


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