Inspired Words

These are the experiences of our volunteers in Cambodia.

Exploring Cambodia from a different perspective

Posted in Cambodia on December 29, 2008

December 13th:
It was particularly hot today. My best guess is that during the height of the day it gets to about 28-30 degrees Celsius, but with the humidity it feels like about 35. We sweat all day and have to remind ourselves to drink more water than we would prefer. The air conditioning in our rooms is a welcome relief, if not to cool down but to dry off.

Today we played tourist. We went to explore Sianoukville which is a port city and caters to beach enthusiasts and partiers world wide. We splintered off into smaller groups and enjoyed the sand, surf and massages. Void of the garbage, the throngs of tourists and the beggars, I can imagine that sometime not so long ago the beach itself was a pristine natural wonder. Those days are gone. It was a novelty being here, but I only needed one day to experience it.

There is a visible and palpable seediness here. The sex trade was more in my face that I expected to be. A surprising number of older men are shamelessly accompanied by young women who are obviously paid. It's accepted and common and nobody seems to care. There is a plethora of beggars here, ranging from those without limbs to parents with sick, limp children and children alone. Some of the more entrepreneurial child beggars have learned the art of pulling the emotional heart strings, evident by those sporting t-shirts that read, “I could be your daughter”. I made a personal commitment not to give to the beggers for noble reasons. It may sound cruel, but giving to beggers, in the grander scheme, only perpetuates a vicious cycle of dependence, indignity and poverty. My resolve was tested to the limit when a blind man walked by, led by what I can only guess were his daughters. These girls were dirty and sad looking. The extent to which the sadness was real or an act I do not know. He was singing a heart-wrenching and melancholy version of my favourite song – Unchained Melody. He knew all the words in English. I was impressed, but I resisted. However, I must admit, nearing the end of the day, sun-drunk and emotionally worn down, I buckled. As I looked up into the sun, a young man approached me missing both hands. My best guess is that he was a landmine victim. I have seen many maimed people missing limbs. The worst case I saw was a man literally missing half his face, an eye and a hand. With this man, though blurred by the sun, I could see a level of dignity in this man's eyes that spoke to me: “I have no hands. I need your help, though I wish I didn't, for I am a man. But, here I am without a choice. The choice is yours to assist me because my government will not. There is no obligation here.” I felt blessed. I could be this man. I am not religious or superstitious but if ever there was a chance for good karma, this was it. This was not an enjoyable experience, nor was it painful. Reflecting on it now, I needed him as a reminder.... he gave me more resolve to be part of the process and to remind others that if you aren't part of the process, you are complicit in the problem.

Then you have the vendors hawking sh*t you don't need. Any undisciplined resolve I may have had not to buy went flying out the window. I am now the proud owner of three cheap pairs of sunglasses I don't need. God, I hate myself sometimes. Oh well, it makes for a good story and the process is fun because you have to make it fun. Actually, it's not rocket science. They say $10, you say $3 and then you meet in the middle. The more you buy, the more the discount. You have all the power really as you don't need the item and 100 other people are happy to sell you the same thing. On rare occasions someone will offer you a fair price right from the start and save you the hassle. In this case, I always tip as a gesture of appreciation. Just for fun, here are a few free bargaining tips: 1. Nothing is free. 'Free' means a giving a tip 2. When they won't give you a fair price, walk away. Suddenly, your price is doable. 3. Keep small change. 4. No means yes. Don't make eye contact or talk. It goes against our nature, but it works and it would appear that no offense it taken – business is business, I guess.

On the beach many if not most of the vendors are children. “Child labour” is very taboo in the western world, but one can see 'working children' (i.e.children who work with dignity and respect with a chance to support the family) as beneficial within a certain context. From those who approached me with dignity, I purchased several trinkets. No word of a lie, you can tell that some kids enjoy the challenge and interaction with the tourists. Indeed, some kids' level of English and social skill are quite impressive. The survivors are the intelligent ones who seem to have accepted the situation without accepting their plot; there appears to be an element of proactive choice made with a vision of a brighter future. These kids inspire. However, in Sianoukville, many child vendors don't have dignity. Rather, they approach aggressively and get angry when you don't readily fulfill your expected role as tourist and consumer. Many children don't easily disguise their resentment of working. These kids make me feel sad and indignant. A carefree childhood should never be taken for granted.

Many of us indulged in massages as well. At these prices, I have become somewhat of a massage enthusiast. For a couple of bucks one can even get their toe nails clipped and dead skin removed. I opted out of the nail clipping. In Cambodia, if you will pay for it, someone will do it for you. Half way in to my massage, I felt a sharp pain. I got more than I bargained for as, apparently, pimple popping and hair removal is included... for a cost. I will spare you more details.

From what I have gathered, in Sianoukville, it is the wealthy that are benefiting the most as those with the means and connections buy up stretches of beach where tourists flock. Apparently the Chinese, Russians and Koreans are 'investing' heavily. We know Cambodia to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Those with money and connections in government have basically stolen the best land. Capital investment and 'development' is often made on the backs of those who are intimidated and bullied and disposed of the land they need to subsist. This is infuriating! While lying on the beach enjoying the sun and cheap service, I was scared to open my eyes any more for fear of knowing to what extent I may be complicit to this injustice.

Kep, in contrast, has the right amenities less the negative influence of tourism. I fear Kep's originality and authenticity will be compromised if more people, interested only in the beach and food, discover this gem. On one hand, I can appreciate the economic benefit to the locals if tourism expands in Kep. Every Cambodian I have asked, the owners and workers alike, report welcoming tourists with open arms. Tourism = money. I suppose when one needs to feed their family, preserving the environment and culture are of secondary importance. No judgement. Leadership must come from the top as much, if not more, than from the bottom. I can't but be concerned: Who will benefit? At what cost? Will the development be sustainable? I hope the ugly face of tourism doesn't destroy this jewel.

That night many of us ended up at a really cool restaurant called the Snake Pit where there were snakes inside the glass tables. There were alligators, snakes, reptiles and fish in a large glass tank in the middle of the restaurant – not something you see everyday. Given that there were Russian ladies hanging around and the fact that the menu was also in Russian, our best guess was that this place was run by the Russians. The mob perhaps?. We left before the all-night dancing girls started dancing. Dodgy. That's Sianoukville for you.

I had lots of fun and collected a few more novel stories to tell around a campfire. But, I was also glad to go 'home' to Kep and I am sure I wasn't alone. The bus ride home was good times... more singing and laughter. As if this day couldn't be more novel, we stopped along the way to pick up some beverages for the ride home and enjoyed some impromptu Karaoke with the locals. What was a 2.5 hours bus ride in the day became a 4.5 hour ride home – Boonang was extra cautious. There was a full moon and many Cambodians drive with their headlights off because they think they are saving energy. A little public education here could go a long way.

Today's experience stands in stark contrast to the Developing World Connections experience in general and convinced me even more of the value of what we do. Traditional tourism, for better or for worse, is business. Relationships are based on money and power and authentic human interactions are more limited. On the beach, each party's base vested interest is getting more for less. One feels like an object. People become more aggressive. The volunteer work experience, in contrast, is infinitely more meaningful. People's vested interests are other people. You get to be part of something bigger than yourself: the people's process. There is equality, dignity and respect. The Cambodia I have grown to know and love is in Chamkar Bei and Kep, not Sianoukville.

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