Published: July 2nd 2012May 25th 2012
The next destination on this incredible journey was a place that Rae and I were both incredibly excited about visiting. Our next stop was Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place where Rae spent significant time during her travels and developed a keen fondness for. If you find her blog (http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Raelan/
) you will see that she spent almost three months there volunteering for a NGO supporting local, impoverished children (insert here my EXTREME pride in her BTW).
Naturally, as a result of Rae’s time spent in PP and the extent of our communications and connection during that time period, I was very excited to see this intriguing place. She spent some quality time with me explaining that at first glance, PP does not find its way into the hearts of many without some time invested there to discover the local treasures. Although I was fairly confident that I would love it as much as she did I held off on making that determination for sure until I saw it for myself. I have to admit, within the first hour of being on the ground I absolutely loved it The Cambodian people are some of the kindest people I have every
met. My first bit of time in PP was spent stuck in traffic as we crawled navigating to our hotel, along back roads, flooded streets and mixing among thousands of locals making their way home. Without a doubt it was absolute chaos, but somehow this flowing madness made perfect sense. Although I had already proudly driven myself around India and SE Asia, this level of intensity seemed a bit out of my league. Rae of course squashed that anxiety the next day as we rented bikes and I took the madness on myself (my law enforcement friends back home will need to give me some leeway, as I don’t think I’ll ever drive the same again).
I truly believe that a smile will get you much farther then any dollar, social status or possession ever could and here in Cambodia this proved itself to be true time and time again. I found in many of the places I have been that a simple smile can create a link between folks that otherwise due to potential language and cultural barriers might find communication difficult. However, in the regions that are highly sought after by western tourists, the locals
appear to tolerate foreigners for the dollars that they bring in. That said I found Cambodia to be the opposite, with the vast majority of the people reacting to a simple smile, with sincere conviction and genuine interest usually sparking in them a flurry of questions about the who, what, where, when and how’s of my time there. Cambodia seems to be on the cusp of becoming the next Thailand, opening the doors to tourism and western thinking, however the people appear to still hold onto the traditional values of Cambodian life.
Cambodia was never on my list of places to visit, it seemed to be one of those countries that you occasionally hear of in the news and only gets mentioned in passing. Its population is half that of Canada and it makes a relatively small geographical footprint. Cambodia seems to be overlooked by Vietnam and Thailand potentially because both countries have global significance from current and past events.
The capitol city of Phnom Penh has such a variety of life to it. It possesses a city heartbeat that lacks the Ko San Road (Bangkok) feel, and is full of local life. Most
Khmer Rouge killing tool
Plant stem that has razor sharp edges used to slit throats at the killing fields.
days in PP you can find many people in the mornings and evenings exercising in groups along the river areas, or enjoying one of the many festivals or activities that line the streets. There is Permanent cardio equipment bolted to the river sidewalk, used by hundreds each day. Ad hoc dance routines are performed by locals to a variety of music pumped out by stereos powered by generators. Life here is wonderfully meshed together. I felt an immediate connection here, enjoyed wonderful food, wonderful people and enough of a western flare to satisfy that small part in me that misses home.
Poverty, despair, violence, discrimination and many levels of human rights violations have clearly plagued many of the places that I have been. Cambodia is no exception, however for whatever reason it stands out these injustices are especially highlighted here. Not that it is blatantly obvious as you walk down the streets, but the various levels of social stratification that exist are clear just below the surface. Rae spent much time working in this area and as a result of her sharing her experiences with me I could not help but think about what many of these
folks have endured and continue to endure. I spent some time at the killing fields from the Khmer Rouge atrocities. It was very hard for me to imagine that where I was standing, millions of Cambodians suffered at the hands of there own people during a coup in the late seventies. Walking the paths along the various shallow graves, seeing the many pieces of human bone, clothing and fragments of this time standing out so clearly and speaking so loudly, my heart stood out and my mind flooded with questions of how and why this could happen. Considering that this atrocity happened in my lifetime, this seared me with the reality of what human greed, anger and blind following can do. Rae explained as we where enjoying a beer at one of the local scenes that many if not almost all of the locals working there where ‘for sale’. In fact, most women in the local bars, clubs and restaurants were apparently involved in prostitution. The sex industry here is thriving (as it is in many places), however in Cambodia the main cliental are the local men, and not the foreigners. I learned that it is considered life giving if
a local man buys the virginity of a young Cambodian woman and then keeps her for a month to pay off the debt owed. Once released, these women are considered dirty, used and will find many troubles in life as a result. I was very surprised to hear that the majority of the wives prefer if the husbands take a prostitute instead of a mistress, as then they now it’s not permanent. These mentalities are apparently engrained in daily life, acceptable and at times proudly talked about between locals. To accept that something so disturbing could be ingrained in the minds of many local men is a tough thing to swallow. As much as I fell in love with Cambodians and this country, the topic of female exploitation is a conversation I will need to dodge in order to avoid creating conflict and potentially insulting the locals with my views on the subject.
I very quickly realized that I could live in PP. Rae made some local expat friends on her last trip here and we spent some time with them, asking far too many questions, and poking and prodding for hints as to how they landed
here. The expat community here is quite large, many of which work with local NGOs helping to better and change Cambodia.
I hope to make it back t this wonderful country, and to anyone out there looking to visit I encourage you to seek out the treasures and hopefully see what we have seen here.
There are more photos below