The New York Times published a travel piece about a week or so ago called “Why is everyone going to Cambodia?” (or similar…) I wound up reading it out here and found myself enormously pissed after doing so. It basically is a piece about how all of these luxury resorts are springing up in these far-flung destinations, and how people are going to these places and having a Mercedes-Benz driven, 5-star restaurant meal eating, in-house tour-desk-planned “vacation” in these countries. And, glorified that.
Now, I’m 100% all about the 5-star, as we all are aware. Hell, I’ve stayed in about 5 of the “resorts” in Asia the piece mentions. But, it’s such a shame that people aren’t at those hotels SLEEPING only. They need to be out IN the country, experiencing everything it has to offer, outside of the 5-star to really get a sense of it. And, I felt the writer didn’t get a remote sense of the situation in Cambodia. It’s dire, it’s devastating and it affected me like no other place I’ve been yet. I have the utmost respect for people like Angelina Jolie and the light she’s trying to shed on places like Cambodia, for how she’s spending her time and her money, after seeing this (I’m dead serious…). Cambodia will never leave me, what I saw there, smelled there, experienced there, is probably indescribable in words. I’m still reeling from the 5 days I spent there. I traveled with a friend from Toronto, Nick. And, if I didn’t have him to share some of these experiences with, some of these moments, some of these emotions, I don’t know that I’d still be in SEAsia. Cambodia rocked my world, I’m not sure if it did so in a good or bad way, even. I’m still processing. I think I’ll be digesting Cambodia for a long time.
Part of the difference, for me, of this trip compared with South America, is how much I’ve seen in the last month. I feel like I need a vacation from my travels, just to sit and think about, remember, recapture all the things that are floating around in my head about each distinctly different country. South America shares language and culture, it was semi-easy to navigate that continent and process continually. Here, every country here has their own language, their own culture, their own rules, SO MUCH painful history, and to keep going, to keep seeing, and keep experiencing has been a challenge everyday. And, Cambodia just added to that feeling of exhaustion trying to keep up.
Cambodia is an INTENSE country, especially after the slow-paced, peaceful Laos. There's been so much atrocity and war here from the Khmer Rouge regime of the 70's that they're JUST starting to straighten their country out (one of the poorest in the world with the most illiteracy and crime, not to mention 60% of the country is under age 20 b/c many of their parents were slaughtered during the Khmer Rouge's genocide). Cambodia is still corrupt. They’re just starting to see the tourist dollar and they exploit that to no end. The cops, the kids, the tourist attractions all suck you dry. You turn around and you’ve spent $25 in five minutes. And, you can’t help but do so, b/c the alternative to NOT doing so is sketchy. You really don’t know where you’ll wind up if you don’t do what they say, what they ask. I spent more in Cambodia in 5 days, than I did in almost 20 in Vietnam. Because I’m a tourist and, in Cambodia, tourists pay for that luxury.
The streets of Siem Reap are chaos. There construction everywhere, streets half open, open sewers line the streets that, by night, are sanded over with café tables and chairs on which you eat your dinner (!!). The SAME place that 5 hours earlier was an open undrained sewer with floating feces and debris in plain sight. Kids are ALL over the streets (only 20% actually GO to school), beautiful (and I mean, BEAUTIFUL), smiling filthy children wearing shirts that they probably haven’t taken off in months. And those are the lucky kids. Half of the children on the streets of Cambodia don’t HAVE shirts, or pants. They beg in a way that I haven’t seen yet. They beg in a way I’ve only seen in National Geographic magazines and Discovery Channel specials. They just stare, stand and sear through you with their eyes as they put out their hands and say how hungry they are. Children of 4 carry newborns of 4 months in slings under their arms for sympathy. Girls of 14 are pregnant, mothers of 7 sit idly on the sidewalk watching their brood surround you. You want to give money to all of them, but you can’t give to any, there’s just TOO many eyes watching you open that wallet and then, you’re pounced upon. And, if you don’t give them money, they turn nasty, giving you the finger or shouting “Fuck you!” and spitting at your feet.
On the first night, my friend Nick and I were sitting in a streetside café. We saw the most adorable girl and boy, probably about 5 years old each. As we passed, the boy just started holding Nick’s hand as we were harassed by a tuk-tuk driver that I didn’t re-use for a ride I took earlier in the day (blah blah…). It was the sweetest thing, this little guy, just holding Nick’s big hand. Not asking for money, not talking, just holding onto him. So…we brought the boy and girl back to our table with us at the café, and after taking many pictures (THEY took them – they love seeing themselves on the digital cameras), we ordered them French fries. The duo are just hanging on us and clinging to us, hugging and kissing us, and then, the french fries come and like, literally ALL of Cambodia came out to eat them, kids ages 2-12, clawing at the plates, hitting each other, yelling for the fries. It was just anarchy and sensory overload. I took pix, but they look like cute kids eating French fries. But it was not as simple as that, those pix CANNOT convey the absolute scene that we created.
As if that wasn’t enough, watching nearby was this PREGNANT mother nursing a blind, 1 year old, with no pants on. After begging another woman for a milk box that she squeezed into a bottle, dripping half on herself and the baby, she started trying to talk to us, sitting on the ground by our table. While she’s talking, the baby starts urinating all over here, while she was just watching us feed the kids and begging us for money, talking to me. SHE DIDN’T FLINCH. Then, when we wouldn’t give her money, she got up, dress SOAKED in urine and walked away. Meanwhile, we saw her the next two days in the same dress, same baby, same scenario. As I said, VERY intense. Nick and I were speechless.
I felt that I had to see more than just the temples in Siem Reap after experiencing so much on the streets, so I took a ride to the Tonle Sap Lake, the biggest in SEAsia, on the outskirts of Siem Reap. There are floating villages there, the rural life of the Cambodians that make up most of the population of the country. The definition of hut changed drastically the closer I got to the lake. The Cambodians living in one-floor bamboo thatched houses, as big as a bathroom in a Manhattan apartment. 7-8-9 people under each roof, caving in, reeking of defecation and urine. Unclothed, unfed children and adults wandering the streets, navigating barefoot on sharp rocks and waste. The huts, if you can even call them that, went on for miles, bordered on both sides by canals of muddy, garbage-filled water that people were bathing in, couples delousing each other’s heads in the shadows of the sunset. Some Japanese and Korean tourists shoving cameras in their faces as they laugh and gleefully smile – HOW? How do they smile in their plight and how do the fucking tourists feel they have a right to take photos of this, THIS? I watched the sunset on the lake, miles away from the poverty – beautiful, sure. But, in my tuk-tuk back into town, under the cover of darkness, I cried my way home. I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t handle how this country, so wonderful in so many ways, survives.
I know this blog is a lot…. Angkor Wat was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen, a manmade wonder of the world, and I’ll write about it next, but the real Cambodia, not the tourist trimmings, just overwhelmed me in a way I didn’t expect. I don’t think anyone would expect. And, if the New York Times writer REALLY got out there, he would’ve expected either.