Cambodia – Siem Reap

The breeze was on my face as we tooled down the road on our motorcycle taxi, called a moto, Kellen wedged nicely between myself and our driver, who was taking calls on his mobile phone while we weaved our way through traffic on the way to the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. In Cambodia there seems to be an official side of the road on which to drive, but sometimes it’s hard to tell for sure. There are tuk-tuks, cars, bicycles, and motos coming at you from the left and the right. Surprisingly it wasn’t even the slightest bit unnerving and traffic generally seemed to move pretty fluidly, if chaotically. Every country seems to have unique characteristics regarding driving habits. In Cambodia it’s that people just drive on whatever side of the road they want to, or drive on the sidewalk, and there are precious few traffic signals. At one of these signals a little girl in a tuk-tuk looks over at me and blows me a kiss. She is probably only three. I smiled, waved at her, and her family, noticing her flirtatious behavior, laugh as they see her and then tousle her hair before glancing at me as my tuk-tuk drove away. Just then a scooter drove by with two police officers on it, the one on the back on his walkie talkie with one hand, and excitedly pointing the directions to the driver with his other hand. I had to chuckle at the sight of this… two police riding double on a 125 cc scooter, in hot pursuit. I had thought of renting a scooter but heard several stories, which all the tellers said was very much the norm, that if a police sees a foreigner on a scooter he’ll be pulled over and fined $30 on the spot. One solution was simply not to stop and this, indeed, seems to be the police’s solution as well. On the tuk-tuk one day I saw cars pulled over because of an accident and people were waving excitedly to someone behind me. About 200 feet later someone else was waving to this same person. I turned around just in time to see a police officer, on a scooter, behind us and swerving out of the way so he would not have to stop and assist with the accident.

Mostly though, the Cambodian people are very friendly, the street food is not so good, the country is very poor, and the USD is the de facto currency. This is Cambodia in a nutshell and the people suffer from a tragic history.

When we first arrived in Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, I was pleasantly surprised by how small the airport was. It’s a town of only about 70,000 and there were no crowds. As I lined up to go through passport control the officer waved me off into another line. I was not sure why because he had no one in his line and the other lines had three of four people each. Then two American guys, late 20’s, came to the line and the guy called them by name and waved them over, chatted with them amiably for a few minutes and one or two other customs officers came to say hello, and after this people were allowed to enter this line. These guys must have been Peace Corps workers or something. It was clear that they knew the customs officers and they were all happy to see these two Americans, but I realized that this must simply be how Cambodia works… you can close down one immigration line two wait for two of your friends whom you know are coming, so they don’t have to stand in line. I went through immigration without a problem, got my bag and was on my way.

Someone in the arrival area had a sign with my name on it so we climbed into their tuk-tuk and went to our guesthouse. Guesthouses in Cambodia, like much of SE Asia, can basically offer whatever services they want, regardless of quality because the price is cheap and they know that backpacker travelers will always stay at the cheapest place they can find. Most places though maintain a decent bit of cleanliness and hospitality but are usually lacking in decor. Our place was this way. The people at the desk were great, breakfast was decent, the price was only $8 a night and we had clean towels and made-up beds at the end of each day. The walls were covered with white bathroom tile to about the height of my chest and from my chest to the ceiling was bright orange. We did have a powerful fan that kept the mosquitoes away and kept us cool although usually the last thing I’d think about before going to sleep was the possibility that this fan, going about the speed of sound, would unscrew itself from the ceiling and what a mess the maid would find when she came in to clean our room the next day. But that first night I was just happy to be in Cambodia and looking forward to the next morning when we’d head out to what is reputed to be one of the most gratifying places to visit in the world.

I know that people’s experiences at Angkor Wat vary, and my guidebook said that you’d get a “tingly” feeling when you first saw it. For me it was the opposite. The first 20 minutes I was there I was pretty disappointed, mostly because all I ever hear or see is one or two pictures of the most glamorous sites, and often at sunrise or sunset. Kellen did pretty well for the first few hours and then started to shift his focus to the rocks and sticks on the ground, wanting me to put them all in my daypack. We would have ended up bringing home half of Angkor Wat but instead I explained to him the importance of leaving them, all of them, right where he found them… an explanation that was not motivated so much by the historian in me, but by the impatient father in me. Angkor Wat is 1,200 years old and it shows. Kellen asked me “daddy, Angkor Wat is 1,000 years old, and how many weeks?” Later, when looking at something about knee high, maybe two feet square, and which I assumed had something to do with water and a water spout, Kellen said, “look daddy, this is where they roasted their marshmallows!” He was very excited at this and took out his Toys-R-Us digital camera and snapped away. After spending the day at the Angkor temple complex, the city, I was sufficiently impressed. We went back for a second day (many people spend a week exploring) and by the end of this second day I was simply amazed.

This ancient city once had over one million inhabitants, at a time when London and Paris were small river towns, and what would become New York, of course, was inhabited by small towns of Iroquois Native Americans. The houses that these people lived in were made of sticks, mud, and straw and are long gone. The temples throughout the city, though, are still there and the workmanship almost defies belief. It really is like walking around in a lost city, exploring piles of rocks, or neo-classical architecture, and it makes ancient Rome or the Acropolis look like child’s play. It really is perhaps the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life. But where did the people go? There were one million citizens of this city 1,200 years ago and Cambodia’s biggest city today tops in at just around a million people. The total population of Cambodia today is around 14 million people. By comparison, Illinois has about 13 million people. Some historians speculate that the city was so large, geographically, that the one million people simply could not sustain themselves, or the land, and so it gradually faded away. But this is by no means accepted historical theory, and even Marla, not a trained historian, but having a bit of common sense, disputes this idea. After spending two days in the ruins of ancient history we turned to that other thing that Cambodia is known for. Landmines and war.

In 1980 there were less than six million people in Cambodia and over six million landmines. Today there are still over six million landmines throughout the country, mostly from the two wars that the country fought from 1970 until 1980, and some are still found from WWII days, which speaks to the remoteness of some of the country but also to the complete inability for the government to deal with the problem. Every day there are an average of two people that step onto a landmine, or 700 per year. Mostly these mines just blow a leg or arm off, but if it is a small child, as it often is, it will kill them. The number of amputees in Cambodia is upsetting. They are literally everywhere. I asked one guy, in his mid 20’s, how old he was when he lost his arm. He was 14 and he bent down to pick up something shiny in the field. He was lucky, I saw another guy who lost both arms, his eyes, and one leg. It seems that every country in SE Asia has its own scars from a recent war. Landmines and amputees are Cambodia’s. I took Kellen to a war museum which is really just a junkyard for old military equipment, small arms, mines, and large anti-aircraft guns, all of which are fully hands-on, except the mines. I have read that it is common for museums and private collectors to have live ammunition in their collections and it is best to stay well away.

When the Khmer Rouge soldiers laid their mines they made no maps of the minefields and they placed the mines in locations where people would naturally go – under the shade of a tree, near a water source, or near food sources, such as in rice paddies or near gardens. In fact, during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1980) people in the villages were sometimes punished by making them go work in a garden that was a known minefield. The consequences of the Khmer Rouge regime are far-reaching, but one of the indirect results of this war are the many orphanages bursting to the seams, all over Cambodia.

On Christmas Day I took Kellen to the Sunrise Children’s Village orphanage and it’s amazing how quickly he fit in with these kids. He doesn’t speak their language, share their religion, color, nationality, or anything. While us adults are busy destroying the world the kids are busy playing with each other. Sometimes these kids are enlisted in adult vices as well. In Cambodia, from 1975-1980, children were forced to work as soldiers, often made to kill their own families or their own villagers. Today it is not war, but the sex trade, that is destroying the children of this country. It is common for girls to become prostitutes by the age of 10.

After the orphanage I took him to a cello concert. The concert was free and was for the benefit of a Children’s hospital which privately funded, turns no one away and never charges one penny for it’s services. The doctor who started these hospitals was in the country from 1970 until 1975 when he had to leave because of the war, and then he returned in 1991 to rebuild the hospitals. There are now six of his Kantha Botha Children’s Hostpitals and he is training new pediatricians, surgeons, and nurses. This doctor is also the cellist who performed and does free concerts every Tuesday and Thursday, every week, and has for years. The money collected from donations at his concerts bring in around USD five million a year. This man is a true hero, a true saint and I felt just a little humbled by his humanity. He was a performing cellist for several years in Switzerland where he is from, and as he talked about the children of Cambodia and their plight, I was terribly saddened. Over 65% of all Cambodians carry TB. The children die from Dengue Fever, TB, Japanese Encephalitis, and other preventable and treatable diseases. Dr. Beat (bee-aht) Richner, is a kind of Jesus for these people. The concert hall is located next to the hospital and when I left that night there were women with children camped, in line, beside the hospital waiting for their turn. Please google or youtube Dr. Beat Richner, read a bit about him and make a donation if you feel so inclined. It was difficult not to be moved by this man’s compassion and his dedication, his willingness to sacrifice his life to save these thousands of innocent lives. Because of him, his hospitals have treated over 7.5 million children, all for free. His staff of 2,000 are all locals, except two. They are paid very well, and he says that his hospitals are completely corruption free, unlike the Cambodian government. Dr. Beat says that 80% of all medicine in Cambodia is fake and 20% of it is toxic; every day his six hospitals treat children who have taken toxic medication and all of medication his hospitals proscribe are bought from western countries. The Cambodian government has done nothing to end this crisis.

Many times people tend to think of traveling as just a bunch of adventure and fun-filled days, but in fact, in a place like Cambodia this kind of reflection would be missing out on Cambodia’s depth, it’s tragedy, and its beauty. What’s worse is that Cambodia is this way because of the way the West, particularly the United States and France, have carried out it’s foreign policy philosophy. This isn’t West-bashing, it’s plain, simple, and now none of the western countries will lend a hand to help Cambodia. So, what are the people to do? How can they live? One way is to turn to otherwise unacceptable behaviors; revolution, begging, piracy, or prostitution. All of these things have taken their toll on Cambodia in the last twenty five years, and still are. One of the most rampant epidemics in contemporary Cambodia is prostitution.

But prostitution in Cambodia is different than in other places, such as neighboring Thailand for example. The difference is that the prostitutes in Cambodia are not choosing to live this life, many are slaves, trafficked in from the poor parts of the country, with promises of a better life (and the parents willingly let them go under this pretense), and then forced into brothels where they often don’t even get to leave the house. This is not sex tourism such as one can find in the Philippines or in Thailand, but it is commercial sex and it is becoming an accepted industry not just in SE Asia, but throughout the world, even in the US and Europe. It is money though and once the girls are old enough to get out, often into their 20’s, and after servicing up to 10 men a day, for years, they aren’t quite sure where to go. Who would want them? Certainly in these societies they will find no husband, but they may very well have children. Sometimes brothel owners will rape a young girl, she will become pregnant and will then have nowhere to turn for financial help. No one wants to marry her now that she has been possessed by another man, and she has no way to support herself so the man who raped her will take her in, making her live a life of prostitution. Once they are older and no longer “serviceable” they retire. If they are attractive and have remained disease free they will very likely remain prostitutes, working independently but with a continually declining income. Then, if their daughters are beautiful the mother will prep the girl to follow in mom’s footsteps simply as a way to survive. As sickening as this thought really is, this is a fact of life and takes place in Cambodia, and in other poor regions of Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s case is particularly bad because there is no real incentive to stop it.

This is not unique to Cambodia. In India, for example, prostitution is officially against the law but the Hindu code unofficially embraces prostitution by marrying young girls to deities. As part of this marriage the girl would clean the temple of the god, perform other rituals, and work as a prostitute. The practice is called devadasi (from which we get the westernized term ‘deva’) and while it has been on the decline in most of India, is still prevalent in southern India, and while devadasi is disappearing, prostitution of these girls is not. Perhaps even more tragic is that often the children of these devas are destined to remain in this profession since many Indians still adhere to the caste system even though it is illegal to discriminate because of caste.

In Cambodia, as elsewhere, those who are hiring the girls, young girls, are often those people with money and influence. But Cambodia has not always been like this. There are not as many doctors, nurses, teachers, civil servants, or skilled workers in the country now. Most were killed a few decades back and repopulating those professions has been a slow process.

So these in-your-face problems in Cambodia – child prostitution, children’s diseases, poverty, the orphans, and all of the local problems weighed heavy on me as Kellen and I boarded our boat for the six hour boat ride down to the capital city of Phnom Penh. I wondered what I would do to keep my own children alive, prostitution or starvation? And thought about the detrimental effect that traditional Victorian values have had on the world. It really is something to think about. I’m not suggesting that these things are acceptable, but I am suggesting that things are not as morally clear as the West wants us to think they are.

The problems have been around for much, much longer than the Victorian age and its values. They will continue to be around as long as this Earth exists, as long as supply and demand exist. Our efforts to change them seem futile, seem to go against nature… but what is nature? Is nature our morality and our fight to keep it, … and if so, whose morals? Man’s, or the Bible’s, the Koran’s? or Buddhism? Even these moral codes, when mixed with cultural norms create the conditions for immorality. Consider that when a man becomes a Christian in many parts of the world he must get rid of all but one of his wives, thus destining them to a life of solitude without a husband, or hope for one, and no financial support in a culture that despises and does not support divorced women, single mothers, or women who are unmarried and are not virgins. It is also true, if considering objectively, that all major religions in the world have historically embraced the subjugation of women. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. No matter what your religious feelings about a woman’s place in the home, men have used this subjugation as a way to maintain control. In many parts of the world women are circumcised because they are not allowed to enjoy the act of sex. In some cultures they are considered to be, on one hand, mothers and nurturers, but on the other, creatures who will seduce men with the power of their sexuality, thus the need to hide them away, cover them up, prevent them from taking positions of power, and generally otherwise control them. Religious cultures throughout the world embrace this subjugation, it cannot be denied. I imagine it might be natural for some people to immediately come to the defense of their religion but to do so without objectivity is irresponsible and, unfortunately, typifies and strengthens that accusation which is so often hurled at religious people, the accusation of blindness and subjectivity. Contemporary western ideals, religious or otherwise, simply cannot be universally applied throughout time and space to all cultures. Is this nature, our religious and moral codes that we attempt to adhere and which we hope will keep us civil?

OR, is nature the physical and human laws which govern us, such as gravity, supply and demand, and greed? Is it possible to overcome supply and demand, greed… and moral gravity? I think that this is the whole point of spirituality. It seeks an end to these problems, a law free, sin free world where people act out of love, not out of moral obligation. Immanuel Kant wrote that the only thing that is good without qualification is good will. All other good things can be used to further one’s self-interest. From a practical perspective though it has been proven over and over again over the last century that community based living, simply doesn’t work because of greed. It’s simply impossible to fulfill because in order to carry it out there will always have to be someone charged with seeing it through, people who don’t have good will. There will always be people who can, and will, lead. If there is a power vacuum, it will be filled, it’s a law of political science. Similarly, if there is a demand for men to vent their sexual frustrations on young girls, a vacuum of sorts, there will be a supply for this demand.

Tragically it seems that as western social norms penetrate the cultures where conservative values are still the same that they’ve been for thousands of years, it is the poor and destitute, very often the children, who suffer first and who will continue suffering. A prominent international relations scholar, Samuel Huntington, wrote an article several years ago called the Clash of Civilizations in which he proposed that we, the human race, are rapidly approaching a time when western culture and eastern religions would bring serious clash.

So I thought about these things as I sat on the topside of the long, narrow boat that would take us down the river. Kellen sat next to me, peeling a banana and throwing the peels into the river below. I watched the men use bamboo poles to push us off from the old weather beaten, rickety wooden dock, listened to the roar of the huge Mitsubishi engine as it came to life, and faintly heard a local vendor on the end of the dock hawking his Coca Cola to other passengers on board. I looked back to the shore, the floating villages along the riverbanks, women walking around in their pajamas with baskets of fruit or bread on their heads, kids splashing in the water, the man with the Coca Cola now walking away, no lighter in his Cokes bottles than when he’d approached the boat. The boat caught the current, the men, unable to effect any further help with the direction of the boat, put their bamboo poles away and I looked down into the swift, steady, muddy flow of this river.


This story was written on December 30, 2008.


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