Thursday, January 29, 2015

Finding Hope in the Streets of Cambodia

Growing up, I never thought I'd visit Cambodia which was called "Kampuchea" back in the days when I still had to take Geography quizzes. Reports of horrible genocide dotted the news, and the award winning movie, The Killing Fields, loomed large in my formative years. Even after the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, they left the legacy of a decimated population and a maze of landmines throughout the country. It was the furthest place from a vacation spot that I could imagine.

438 anti-personnel mines and 809 unexploded ornances (UXOs) cleared from around Beng Mealea temple
The work is still ongoing.
Dogs are trained to detect them... and stop before triggering an explosion. 

Gradually though, the country has begun to heal itself. Instead of death and destruction, people come expecting to experience the wonders of the ancient Angkor temples. The Kingdom of Cambodia, as it's now officially called, has seen tourism grow by roughly 20% each year. I definitely feel that if I go back, visiting the temples will be a different, more crowded, experience. Comparing my trip to photos I saw in other blogs' posts, the temples are in the process of being superficially altered to handle bigger crowds — like adding boardwalk paths to keep visitors out of the mud and also control where they wander. It's getting harder to feel like Indiana Jones.

Sokha Angkor hotel pool area and surrounding rooms

Cambodia surprised me by how nice its facilities are. The toilets at the Angkor temples are up to Western standards of cleanliness, and the Siem Reap airport is modern and well kept. I expected rustic accommodations since it's a developing country and was pleased to discover that there were a number of luxury hotels available catering to the tourist trade. The Pub Street area is a great place to hang out with everything from a Mexican restaurant to The Blue Pumpkin bakery and cafe which has fantastic ice cream.

However, there is a divide between the tourists and the locals in this country where poverty seems rampant, and the middle class is only beginning to emerge. All this niceness? It seems to exist just for the tourists. Surprisingly, the Angkor temples are not run by the government but by a private company which keeps about 15% of the ticket revenue. From what I gathered from our guide, this arrangement does not sit well with most Cambodians.

Typical houses on stilts along the road. Many had "Cambodia People's Party" signs.

Our guide told us that the area we were passing through had only recently been connected to electricity via power lines. Cambodia buys most of its electricity from neighboring Thailand, and the demand exceeds the supply. Blackouts occur often, and we experienced one while we were there. While the hotel had generators which quickly restored electricity to the property, the rest of Siem Reap's city center remained shrouded in darkness. Riding through the streets at night, we passed one dark restaurant after another with the diners lit up solely by candlelight. Sure it seemed romantic, but the candles were used out of necessity, not purely for ambience.

When I told our guide about Earth Hour, a worldwide event that encourages people to turn off their lights for an hour to demonstrate their commitment to the planet, I think he thought we were all a tad mad. We have so much electricity that we make a big deal of voluntarily giving it up for one hour a year. Cambodians experience that weekly.

Remorks (two-wheeled carriages pulled by motorcycles) are a primary mode of transportation for tourists.

Remorks buzz back and forth around Siem Reap and Angkor carrying tourists on their sightseeing excursions. I made the mistake of calling it a Tuk-Tuk, but our guide corrected me. "A tuk-tuk is Thailand. This is Cambodia. It is a remork." The remork drivers don't seem to much care if they are going with the car traffic or against it along the side of the road. As we approached a busy intersection, the driver stuck out his hand and waved to indicate his turn. No one slowed down, but we all seemed to flow around each other without colliding.

Fancy schmancy Petrol Station

Refueling at the petrol station was definitely different than what I've seen anywhere else. The station above is one of the nicer ones I saw. Most others were simply roadside stands with racks holding bottles of petrol. Our guide jokingly called it "Cambodian whiskey." This one had a modern fuel pump as well as a hand-cranked pump tapped into a barrel of petrol.

Hand-cranked fuel pump tapped into a petrol barrel.

As the man spun the crank around and around, bubbles rapidly floated up through the green fuel in the clear canister. Then, he put the hose in a liter bottle and opened the valve. Motorcycles pulled up, loaded the bottles into baskets on back and then drove off, presumably to restock the racks at smaller roadside stands. Later, we saw a large tour bus on the side of the road with the driver emptying the contents of a liter bottle into the tank. "That's going to take a while," my husband commented.

Schoolchildren outside the schoolyard

This is going to sound a little ridiculous, but I was surprised to see so many schools and schoolchildren in Siem Reap. It gave me hope that education is a priority now, unlike during the Khmer Rouge's rule.

As my own daughter and her Girl Scout friends get ready to start standing outside stores and going door-to-door to sell cookies for their fundraiser, I keep having flashbacks to Cambodia and other places where child beggars are sent out into the streets. They're kept out of school and tasked with selling postcards and trinkets to tourists. There's even a baby formula scam. Many times, these kids don't get to keep the money. As I train my Girl Scouts on good selling techniques at the booth, I can't help thinking of those Cambodian kids who are looking to earn enough for one meal a day. My girls, on the other hand, are aiming to fund a GaGa ball pit at their primary school.

Before we traveled to Cambodia, I decided that, no matter what sorry condition those child beggars may be in, I was not going to contribute to the cycle of poverty by giving them money. It was a hard discussion to have with my own kids — to explain to them that we were being helpful, not mean. As a mom, it was so difficult to know that I would be intentionally depriving the street child standing in front of me in order to aid the unseen greater good. Instead, we would make a nice donation to Love Cambodia which was founded by Emma, a former Penang international school teacher with whom I share many friends. This organization focuses on helping poverty stricken children receive food and an education while, if possible, keeping families together.

My heart ached when I saw this tiny child gripping his mama on the back of a bicycle.

There are other ways to help the children in Cambodia. As we drove back into town from Angkor Wat, I noticed a gathering of mothers and kids. They were waiting outside the hospital founded by Swiss pediatrician, Dr. Beat Richner, that provides Cambodian children and expectant mothers with high quality, free healthcare.

A few months before this trip, my own doctor said I may have contracted Haemorrhagic Dengue Fever. It turned out to have been Chikugunya, but I remember how scared I was hearing the word "haemorrhagic." I really felt for these mothers.

Dr. Richner, a.k.a. Beatocello, performs free cello concerts at the hospital on Thursday and Saturday nights during the tourist high season. It gets good reviews on TripAdvisor, partly because of the music, but mostly because of the education the audience receives about the state of healthcare in Cambodia. Some feel the call to donate money, some donate blood, and some donate both.

Riding through the streets of Siem Reap, it's clear that Cambodia is on the road to recovery. It's future is bright and no longer as bleak. The Killing Fields are relegated to museums so we won't forget instead of being a part of everyday life that can't be escaped. When I read the news about the horrors in Syria and Nigeria, I react with despair. Then, I think of Cambodia, and it gives me hope.

This post is part of the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. It's great to hear your positive account of progress in Cambodia. I visisted in 1994 when climbing around the temples around Angkor really was like being in an Indiana Jones movie and the person I hooked up with and I were usually the only people there. I saw Angkor Wat itself with only a handful of monks for company. There were no real hotels in the area and only basic guest houses and the airport was very rustic. Tourism had barely started, and landmines were plentiful. I'd love to go back but I fear I could be disappointed with all the crowds. So it's good to hear that although there is the inevitable rich-poor divide, education is a priority and health too.

  2. This is such a well written, thoughtful post. It's funny how travel changes us and how we carry the images of places and people we've encountered abroad back home with us and draw on those memories in our daily lives. It's good to know that people like Dr. Richner are doing whatever they can to help alleviate the situation there. And it's always heartbreaking to encounter begging children, but good for you for donating in a responsible way instead.

  3. I found Cambodia to be really interesting and the people amazed me with what they have survived and rebounded from. But it was definitely one of the toughest places I've visited on an emotional level. I didn't have a single good night's sleep in Phnom Penh (but I'm not sorry I visited).

  4. I've been to Cambodia twice, and both visits were before the time of luxury hotels in Siem Reap. That has all happened in the last 8 years or so. I have never heard the motor cycle taxis called remorks (definitely a newer term). I loved the temples and would like to go back again, and I am sure I would be amazed at the changes. I also made the decision not to give to the child beggars (you may noticed quite often that there is an expensive car parked just out of sight waiting for the kids). Someone is getting rich, but it isn't the kids. However, on both visits I did find a good cause to donate to. One I remember was run by two women from the States who provided money for kids to be able to go to school. It is heartwarming to see Cambodia rise up and hopefully things will continue to improve. Thanks for linking up this week :) #TPThursday

  5. It's amazing to see what goes on in Cambodia. I've been searching for ways to get back to see more (just need the right job). I heard some of the most amazing stories when I visited the Landmine Museum--they've been improving education in the area while also de-mining the countryside. As Nancie mentioned, you shouldn't give to child beggars because it reinforces that they don't need an education to make money, which leads to more problems when they're older and not "cute enough" to beg anymore.

  6. Michele, I agree with you. Cambodia was an eye-opener. In some ways, I think that Angkor Wat and the tourist industry are really helping the situation with the influx of money. However, it's also bad for the temples...

    1. Also Michele, Thanks a million for being such a great supporter of #wkendtravelinspiration. This post is very inspirational!

  7. We visited Siem Reap in early 2013, and my experience and thoughts echo yours. The contrast between the luxurious hotel accomodation, and the rural housing we saw on a long drive out to one of the temples was particularly striking. We also experienced power blackouts during our stay. And yes, we also made a conscious decision not to hand over cash to those very cute and insistent kids at the temples. They were such clever kids - they'd strike up a conversation as you walked into the temple area, asking us where we were from and what our names were, then...about an hour later as we left, they'd come up to us, "Mrs Fairlie, Mrs Fairlie! a bracelet? One dollar?". Such intelligent and motivated kids deserve to be in school getting an education, not out on the temples all day. Donating to an organisation that has that aim is a much more effective way of helping them.

  8. Decided, not to contribute to the cycle of poverty must have been super hard. But I just LOVE that you donated to Love Cambodia instead, that makes me smile. What a great role model you are!!

  9. I had no idea that the Angkor temples are managed by a private company, I'm not surprised that that causes controversy amongst the locals. It must be a hard conversation explaining to your kids why you were trying to avoid giving money to break the cycle of poverty. I remember being a child in India and seeing children begging and being so upset with my Dad for not giving money and it was only as I got a bit older and he started to explain his rationale behind it that it started to make sense and like you say, there are other ways like the Love Cambodia organisation you've quoted that can help us all help in a more responsible way.

  10. Oh my gosh I'm so glad you didn't have Haemorrhagic Dengue Fever, Michele. That is wonderful that those folks are getting better health care afforded to them now. I so vividly remember the movie, The Killing Fields. That petrol station is crazy! Oh my match...and yikes :)

  11. It's these worthwhile causes on site that really do deserve support. Siem Reap is growing by leaps and bounds with no control, it is a little scary. So different when I visited 15 years ago when it was just getting started

  12. Oh my gosh, that hotel pool might be the prettiest one I've ever seen!

    Growing up, I think all I new about Cambodia was the news about horrible things happening. I'd love to see more.

  13. An extremely well written post - I am glad that you help to teach your children about donating to the right causes. It must have been hard to turn down the children that were begging but it is for the greater good. It is also interesting that many sites are owned privately and the governments don't see any money from it. That's too bad really, as you'd like to see a nation profiting from all of its popularity. I'd love to visit Cambodia someday. Thanks for joining us at #WeekendWanderlust.

  14. What a beautiful essay to Cambodia. I studied the country in high school and learned of all the atrocities in the country. It's amazing how they have recovered. I ended up visiting in 2005 and while there were some tourists, I think it has definitely grown in the 10 years since. I would love to revisit this country at some point in my life.

  15. The poverty of Cambodia is really difficult to see, isn't it. I think on the whole tourism is a positive thing for the country but I just hope the divide between rich and poor doesn't get too big. Cambodian have been through enough.
    I'm glad also to see you mention about the landmines - did you get to the Cambodia Landmine Museum near Banteay Srei? I have a post on it that you might enjoy reading.

  16. Too often enough all we read of Cambodia on travel blog posts is Angkor Wat. I'm so glad you delved into the other side of the country. It's great to know that it has modern amenities even if for the tourists. It's always hard to travel to underdeveloped countries and see children selling things. Great to know about the schools too. I love what you have taught your children.It's amazing how much this country has endured and so happy they are slowly recovering. I really hope that Angkor Wat doesn't start looking too developed by the time we visit :)

  17. Interesting perspective on Cambodia. Did you get to interact with the locals much?

  18. Cambodia is one of my favorite countries I've visited...everyone was so nice, and, while there's clearly a lot of ground to cover in terms of addressing poverty, it's clear tourism is on the up and up and I would hope this will help the country to continue to grow.

    This was a really beautiful article, thanks for sharing your experience.

  19. wow this is really an eye opener. It's great to know that it has modern amenities even if for the tourists.
    This was a really beautiful article, thanks for sharing your experience.
    Steve Cole

  20. I loved this post where you look beneath the blanket of tourism at how the locals live. Fancy Angkor Wat not being run by the Government. I guess they thought they did not have the expertise or workpower to do so themselves. Bravo.

  21. I think I can visit the Cambodia anytime. It has lovely places to visit.


I read each and every comment. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Comment moderation is on, so your comment may not appear immediately.

Web Analytics