I thought I would write one final post on our trip to Cambodia. I’m sure you’re all tired of looking at photos of temples though so this last post is more of a commentary. A commentary based on the conversations I was fortunate enough to have had with ordinary Cambodians.
It was obvious from the very first conversation with a local that life was not easy in Cambodia; making enough money to take care of a family was a challenge; and all of it was dependent on your connections and/or who you were able to bribe.
The driver who picked us up from the airport talked about how the government sold out the Cambodian people by allowing foreign interest to develop and run the Siem Reap International Airport and Angkor Archaeological Park.
A conversation with our tuk tuk driver (who has four children to support) indicated that tourism, which is the main employer in Siem Reap, has been slow and there were days that he didn’t have any clients to take around. It was evident he was very grateful to have our business.
The waitress at the restaurant in our hotel told us about the wonderful French organization that gave her the opportunity to leave her hometown and come to Siem Reap and get trained in tourism and hospitality. She comes from an impoverished family where her parents farm land that belongs to someone else and there is still no power infrastructure in her town.
One of our tour guides spoke about how bribery and corruption is so much a part of Cambodian life that even school children bring bribes for their teachers in the public schools. For this reason, he wanted to send his son to a private school.
During our day trip out to Tonle Sap Lake, we were able to stop at one of the villages on the way. The lake provides the main source of income for the villagers. We stopped to chat with a group of women and girls who were slicing tiny fish about two inches big. They would each earn 2000 riel (50 cents US) for a whole morning of backbreaking work.
From these conversational snapshots, you might think that the people would be in a state of discontent and lay blame onto others or circumstances. This was not the case. In fact, we found Cambodians to be surprisingly optimistic and self-directed. I was curious as to how this could be given their recent tumultuous and violent history and current state of impoverishment. As far as I could tell, it seems to be linked to their practice of Theravada Buddhism (95% of the country are practitioners); which teaches letting go of frustrations and practicing the right way of behaving and living. Although millions come to see its temple ruins, I think Cambodia’s true treasure is the way the ordinary people of Cambodia think and live.