Reflections on Cambodia

On my way out of Cambodia the first time around I exited by land, crammed in a bus with ten others out of Battambang. We slowly jolted our way through another unpaved path of potholes, following a caravan of other unfortunate driving souls, past ramshackle houses and half-naked children. I breezed across the border to Poipet, Thailand but our next van did not show up, so we were left waiting in 95-degree heat literally next to a pile of garbage for over an hour.

Once in Thailand, however, a weight lifted from my soul, as we were moving at a reasonable pace! I never thought how much I would appreciate paved roads! Moreover, instead of passing a series of depressing subsistence plots, I got to witness Thailand the agricultural powerhouse, with varied crops grown at large scale, including rubber, sugarcane and Eucalyptus-type trees used for making paper. The road was busy busy with trucks toting the crops and I could observe in-progress construction work on expanding this highway (though doubted it would get finished in a timely manner in the event of a coup). Soon enough we were on giant mega-highways in Bangkok passing by white high rises. The first thing I did after the nine-hour journey was pop into a random garage and order noodle soup. I enjoyed that there was no romanization on the menu (because they don’t give a fuck about foreigners in Thonburi, Thailand) and the flavors were so complex, so much better than Cambodia! I concluded quickly that Thailand was going to be awesome. If post-Khmer Indochina has been a story of Thailand and Vietnam (and to a lesser extent the Burmese), with Cambodia and Laos mere nothings, saved only by the French and Americans, then I could certainly see why.

I spent over two weeks in Cambodia, the longest I spent in any nation during my nine-week Southeast Asia tour. To be honest I regret spending so much time there when I could have spent more time in Vietnam and Thailand. I had most of my negative experiences in Cambodia: unpleasant bus and boat rides, cheating dishonest drivers, annoying tuk tuk guys and peddlers, frosty people, gross sex tourists and mostly lame food. Despite my pretty pictures, I will not be going back and I will not be recommending it to anyone.

The thing is, I agree with my sister that Cambodia is a culturally weak country. The people there seem deeply unhappy in their poverty, unlike the optimistic, happy Burmese (who are poorer), unlike the villagers I’ve seen in many other dusty corners of the world. In Cambodia, children were always begging with long faces, the whole country was rife with unhappy kids, some of them even brought out on working nights with prostitute mothers. Also, out of twenty countries I’ve visited, Cambodia had one of the worst food cultures. All the good Khmer food was actually a pale imitation of Thai or Vietnamese dishes. Whereas life in other Asian countries pretty much centers eating with family and friends, it seems the Khmers barely know the meaning of love spread through food.

Of course I don’t mean to say their sadness is unfounded, and that I am somehow offended by a lack of cheeriness in a poverty-stricken nation. But I think part of the misery stems from the disturbing combination of poverty and dependence on tourism, and I felt uncomfortable being a part of that tourism. Imagine having to wake up every morning either toiling at subsistence agriculture or practically begging foreigners for money, foreigners on a vacation that you can never have! At the waterfall by the Cardamoms, we had some leftover grains of rice from our lunch. We found amusement in a school of small fish who would dart fiercely, mouths open, at any single grain of rice thrown into the water, some even flipping painfully out of the water in their cutthroat race for the food. Basically, a microcosm of life for the common man in Cambodia, especially one in the tourism industry. I couldn’t walk down any block in Phnom Penh without being hounded by ten tuk-tuk drivers! This situation breeds bad blood on the side of both visitors and locals, creating interactions that are false, difficult, pathetic, depressing.

Meanwhile, the government does nothing. In fact, Cambodia’s leaders have done nothing for the entire history of Khmer culture*, as I learned reading David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia throughout my trip. The country has always been a place of lowly peasants who never expected anything from their leaders and rulers except “protection”, this once resulting in an episode where the people were murdered in mass instead of protected. And today it seems to me the women are not being protected from foreign sexual predators, unscrupulous sex traffickers and a culture that seems to see them as servant-dirt (see previous post on Sihanoukville). Essentially, in Cambodia there has never been a precedent for rulers who bring progress and happiness to their society.

Meanwhile, the unforgiving climate translates to “farm rice or die”, so Cambodia has never had much of a history of technological experimentation or valuing education (long ago, the Vietnamese thought the Khmers barbarians because they did not know how to store rice or irrigate crops). As a result, the country has still not developed much productive agriculture, manufacturing or professional services. With a do-nothing government, no social safety net and an undeveloped economy, the people have no choice but to subsist or face starvation.

So… Cambodia was not the most interesting or enriching place (bus rides through all tropical/subsistence farming land are not very interesting), just a stagnant jungle of poverty without pride, without much to share besides temples from 900 years ago.

I’m not so cold-hearted to think that an impoverished country should be ignored because it is culturally weak. Still, why did I spend so much time there rather than just making a quick stop?

I guess I just didn’t know; people never say “you’re better off spending more time in Vietnam.” I’d heard good things from my parents and others, and never heard any bad reports or even tales of Angkor annoyance. Lonely Planet really talked it up, obviously overrating just about everything and not talking frankly enough about its uglier aspects. Since the country is small, it seemed easy to cover a lot of different ground (and I did!) without sitting on the bus for toooo long. Plus, I was enticed by the cheap prices. I was excited to check out the beaches at Sihanoukville, stay at a bungalow resort for just $10/night, see the wonders of Angkor, see what is the fuss about the old “Pearl of Asia.”

Looking back, I enjoyed many things about my time in Cambodia: wandering around mysterious Bayon and Ta Prohm, exploring the graceful and whimsical architecture of Vann Molyvann, discovering hidden bars in Tonle Bassac, eating Blue Pumpkin ice cream, hiking in jungles, swimming by a refreshing waterfall in the remote, deserted Cardamoms, watching Beyoncé on the bus, watching movies and TV at night with loved ones, windy but calm mornings at Oasis Bungalow Resort, hearing old-school Cambodian rock n roll music, a cold Anchor draft beer, white-sand beaches on perfectly sunny days (no rain or clouds ever!), finding serenity in a neon Ferris wheel after ingesting “happy” spring rolls, the light shimmering on the water in the late afternoon, bright orange sunsets. I had tons of fun.

But I’m still not going back and if you’re going to Southeast Asia you are better off spending your precious time and money in Thailand and Vietnam.

*Flippancy and uselessness includes Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled 1953-1970 and left a lasting legacy despite very low expectations for the young king. While Sihanouk is beloved by his country and lauded for the lovely-fication of Phnom Penh, in my economist opinion he spent too much time hobnobbing with celebrities, personally designing dining rooms and making short films (seriously) and not enough time actually guiding and bringing about real economic development and poverty reduction. While limited progress was made in encouraging education and building some fixed capital during the Sihanouk era, the fact is Cambodia never even came close to modernization. One decent road does not a modern infrastructure make. Many would point to Sihanouk’s role in the renaissance in building that occurred during this time, but construction alone does not necessarily raise worker productivity. Projects like copious sports arenas are not transformative infrastructure; in fact you could argue that they are a waste of public money which could have been spent on other development needs. Sihanouk did not set a precedence of poverty reduction or build viable export industries. He never addressed the reality that most Khmers continued to generate their livelihood through back-breaking subsistence farming, and so they remain in a society of poverty and corruption today.

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