Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Three Cambodian Tragedies, Part 1: Siem Reap the Soulgrater

            I’m a big fan of bubbles. That’s why I like raincoats. No, that’s not a non sequitur. A raincoat is your own personal, physical bubble. It shuts out the outside world well enough for you to take a casual walk even when the world is throwing its worst at you. Walking in the rain in Kampot, I felt the bubble I live in strengthening again and my happiness returning. Kampot is a wonderfully sleepy town, far away from the harsh realities of Siem Reap. In the pouring rain, I had time to appreciate my raincoat, and by extension the bubble I live in, where I can ignore the reality of where my steak comes from, or where my Macbook comes from... etc.
When you travel, you put yourself in one giant, beautiful bubble. You see all the nice places, you eat all the good food, and most of the people around you, the restaurant and hotel staffs, are there to make your life more convenient and pleasant. In Thailand, our bubble had expanded to enormous proportions. Nothing had managed to pierce the enchantment of hanging out with elephants, lounging about the Mekong and the charm of Bangkok (special thanks there to a friend and my cousin and his daughter for making our stay more enjoyable). That changed almost as soon as we entered Cambodia. We crossed the border in Poipet, and my bubble took a hit almost immediately.

 The Theft of Fraternity and the Tourism Wasteland
By many accounts, Cambodians are some of the friendliest and most genuine people you can come across. Unfortunately, these are not the people who greet you in at the border in Poipet. We had been warned about scams at the border, so we knew how to avoid them. Still, as a first impression of Cambodia, this wasn’t a great start. Then came… the children. In Poipet we walked past a group of children monkeying around on the trellis over the sidewalk. They were having a great time and it was nice, so we smiled at them and said hello. Immediately they jumped down and brought their hands to their mouths while repeating “miam miam”. One of them even grabbed at our lunch. It’s better not to encourage child beggars, and these children looked well fed, so we kept going, having lost another skip in our step. Strike two for first impressions. After that came the “friendly guide”, whose guidance was unasked for and unneeded. He did nothing more than point us in the direction that the signs were already pointing to, talking to us throughout, and at the end he asked for a tip. Strike three. Whereas in Thailand we had felt like welcomed guests, in Cambodia we felt like fat sheep in a forest full of wolves. This feeling was exacerbated by the tuk tuks waiting for us at the bus station to drive us to downtown Siem Reap. They pushed and shouted to get our business, and they tried to overcharge us. Things got worse in Angkor.

There, kids wandered around despondently trying to sell various trinkets from morning to night. It’s hard enough to refuse an adult without feeling a pang of guilt, but the children’s wretched voices grate on your heart. The adults are often either hawking other goods or asking you to ride in their tuk tuk. Tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap line the streets. They are everywhere and they are always idle. “Hello, tuk tuk?” becomes an unwavering litany. They might have just seen the guy in front of them be refused, but they will ask you anyway. In a certain respect you have to admire their determination and positive thinking. On the other hand, knowing how poor the country is, refusing them also weighs on the heart.
lines of tuk tuks on Pub Street

     Everything weighs on the heart. You start to shrink away from human contact. Every smile, every “hello” becomes suspicious. And that is the first tragedy: you’ve been robbed of your trust in people. Every human contact pokes and tears at your bubble, forcing you to confront the real, underlying tragedy. Cambodia is poor. While the country has made great progress in reducing poverty, many Cambodians remain poor or at risk of falling back into poverty. A pittance for a tourist is a day’s wage or more for a Cambodian, and that has a corrupting effect. Siem Reap is a tourism wasteland because people there see a lot of money in selling souvenirs or in pulling their kids out of school to sell postcards. The entire town has become centered on tourists, yet its people aren't any richer than those in most other towns on our trip through the country. If kids continue to get pulled out of school, it’s hard to see how that will change. There’s no raincoat against a feeling like that.

            I don’t want to discourage anyone from going to Angkor, 
and I especially don’t want to discourage anyone from going to Cambodia. Poipet and Siem Reap were bad, but the rest of the places we visited (Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kep) were much better. Even in Angkor, there are ways of making it better.
First, donate to charities. Don’t encourage child vendors or child guides. It gives extra incentive for them to stay out of the free schools that can give them a better future. While it’s unlikely that the charities you pick will help that specific child you turned down, they will do a lot more good for your buck. It’ll never be easy to turn down a needy child, but it will be easier if you know you’re doing something else to help. While you’re at it, donate to charities that work worldwide. There are people in every country that need help, so make that one child engaging you the benefactor of others in need worldwide.
- Cambodia Children’s Fund seems highly rated by everyone.
- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation not only seeks to reduce extreme poverty, it also works in America and provides otherwise hard to come by innovation to the field.
- This video is just to say maybe we should cut charities some slack.               If you can, volunteer. In Battambang we met two German dentist students who had just spent 6 weeks offering their services to locals. They had had an amazing time, and loved every minute of their summer in Cambodia. They also had pretty gruesome stories about dental health in the country; apparently the kids here are tough as nails.
            Second, don’t get angry at touts or tuk tuk drivers. They’re not doing this because they believe you are a fat sheep; they are doing this because they have to. If you need to refuse, smile and do so politely. You’ll often see their faces light up when you smile. Not only does that take the sting out of the refusal for everyone, that little bit of shared respect will also give you enough sustenance to face the next encounter. You won’t feel as guilty or helpless, and they won’t be made to feel bad for trying to work.
            Finally, get to know the true nature of Cambodians. Strike up conversations with your driver, your hotel manager, anyone. I’m not always very good at being a human, but most people can manage. From what I read on other blogs, and the few times I did manage, Cambodians are worth getting to know.
            It’s not a perfect solution, but it beats wearing a raincoat. 

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