Reflections on three weeks of travel in Cambodia

A major artery in the capital city of Phnom Penh (click to enlarge photos)

Among the numerous images that I have retained from my recent travels in Cambodia are two indelible ones.

Those impressions involve a family in the seacoast city of Sihanoukville on the one hand and, on the other, works of tourist art in sprawling markets as well as in hotel rooms and lobbies.

In a country of grinding poverty, there is no avoiding beggars, child laborers, individuals asleep where they work or on the street, shop after shop that literally is a hole in the wall, and one-room hovels that many must call home.

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof’s superior work aimed at ameliorating and his writing on humanity’s deprivations around the world, child labor, sex-trafficking and child abuse cannot be far from one’s thoughts.

What remains engraved in my mind is a young mother holding an infant with two very young children making their way along the boardwalk in Sihanoukville with eyes pleading for food left on the plates of diners in a string of open-air restaurants.

Offered a handful of uneaten fried potatoes left on a plate, they gobbled the food up unhesitatingly and gratefully.  At another table, they stationed themselves in front of several diners who finally ordered them some sustenance while the foursome remained standing before them and shoveled in whatever was provided.

(Child-welfare organizations warn against giving into the temptation to reward children for their begging since success keeps them out of school in a country where lack of education is an overwhelming bar to growth.)

Not worth close to 1,000 words, never mind dollars.

Not worth close to 1,000 words, or any $$$.

As for the rainbow-colored paintings, they evoke a bucolic countryside with contented farmers and water buffalo grazing on verdant fields.

Absent is any trace of irony, no nod to the farm workers trudging along chokingly drab and dusty roads past parched fields, no acknowledgement of the four-year-olds trimming pineapples that they seek to sell, no inkling of the female garment workers crammed onto the beds of trucks to factories that pay exploitative wages.

There are several causes of such poverty, among them: 1. Widespread corruption that diverts resources from the folks who need it; 2. Decades of occupation and incursion by other countries; 3. The devastation by the Khmer Rouge that ended just 34 years ago; 4. Limited natural resources; 5. Lack of education as a result of poverty that forces children to drop out of school by the second of third grade so as to go to work.

MonksYet the country, to which I have compelling ties, has grabbed me by the throat. As disturbing is the poverty, there is much to enjoy for those who find the developing world to be energizing and who have traveled widely, as have I, from Kazakhstan to Kenya and Suriname to Singapore.

Although that statement may seem like a boast, my point is that getting around does provide some perspective, though I was ill prepared for equatorial heat from the mid 90s into the hundreds every day.  And it wasn’t even the hot season.

Still, the heat didn’t prevent us from rambling around Phnom Penh for hours at a time or managing to appreciate 17 (!) temples spread kilometers apart outside Siem Reap, a surprisingly grown-up city with a thriving night market not far from Angkor Wat.


You want stairs? They got stairs.  Lots of stairs.

Angkor Wat, for which no description seems to avoid clichés, produced myriad pleasures.  Thus must I say that temples as old as the ninth century  — which I expected to underwhelm me — astonished me with their architectural, artistic, engineering and construction achievements.

They also challenged me physically, so steep and high are the steps to their crests.  Under a withering sun, they make for an unimaginably demanding climb that reveal impossibly satisfying the vistas.

Did I mention the heat?  With me close to heat exhaustion one day, three of us relaxed in hammocks under one of many thatched huts available for having a modest lunch overlooking a man-made lake in which only few partook of the cooling waters.  Bags of ice on my head and neck eventually led to my recovery.

Sihanoukville proved to provide welcome change.  Staying in a lovely hotel ($35 a night) a block from the most popular beach with a private terrace from which we could watch the sun setting over the sea, we hiked from one beach to the other and took two day trips on boats to islands that define “tropical paradise” not more than two hours away and minimally developed.

Sunset on the beach in Sihanoukville

Sunset on the beach in Sihanoukville

(Paradise tends to end a short walk inland, where the piles of garbage I encountered were more than a little disconcerting.)

We engaged in the worst snorkeling that I’ve encountered anywhere in the world but also slouched contentedly in chairs under palm trees sipping the juice inside freshly hacked open coconuts while watching swimmers not far away.  A decent lunch was grilled by the boat crew.

Paradise ends not far from the beach, and I'm indignant as ever.

Paradise ends not far from the beach, and I’m predictably indignant.

Returning to the reality of the cities, I found that the volume of motorbikes, tuk-tuks (kind of a rude open carriage tugged by a motorbike, or moto, as they are called), bicycles and cars competing for space on potholed roadways to be nearly as great as elsewhere in Southeast Asia such as in Saigon and Bangkok.  Once, my tuk-tuk was caught for 10 minutes in true gridlock at the intersection of streets 105 and 310, which are the antithesis of thoroughfares and are well off the beaten path.

Strangely, horns are rarely sounded in anger, and charitable avoidance is practiced of the occasional cow and myriad pedestrians, who must fearlessly cross streets with faith and hope.

I had learned in two of the adjoining countries to cross with eyes glued ahead, and it worked in Phnom Penh.  When making my way in the street next to impassable sidewalks cluttered with merchandise and vehicles parked willy-nilly, I developed a sixth sense for what was approaching behind me and barely noticed when onrushing air brushed the hair on my arms as motos nearly grazed them.

That motos routinely cut corners–mounting sidewalks surrounding gas stations, for example–was, I confess, a bit disconcerting.

Traffic accidents are common, especially on the intercity “highways,” but I didn’t see any.  I gather they occur more frequently at night, when drink likely impairs judgment.

As for police enforcement, nothing could be more arbitrary.  I watched once as four officers stood near an intersection snaring motorbike drivers seemingly at random while others committing the same infractions went untouched.  Those grossly underpaid peace officers collected fines on the spot.

And they didn’t call the payments fines, but immigration officials asked my Cambodian-American partner for a “tip” when entering and leaving the country–in one case $5 and, in another, $2. Coincidentally, the most recent New York Times magazine’s ethicist column discussed this very practice.

Floating houses, not houseboats, on Tonle Sap near Siep Reap and Angkor Wat.

Floating houses, not houseboats, on Tonle Sap near Angkor Wat.

Cambodia is a nation in which corruption has long been rampant, from the bottom to the very pinnacle of business and government in the guise of “facilitation fees,” whether to grab land from peasant farmers or to obtain official permission for virtually any endeavor.

Crime is another issue.  I understand that muggings, purse snatching and other unsavory activities are common, but I witnessed none and have read not so much about them in the local English-language newspaper or on expat blogging sites.  Most troubling to me are politically motivated murders that go unpunished and imprisonment both of human rights activists and individuals who raise their voice in opposition to the authorities.

Of course, the cosmic upheaval and genocide of up to 2 million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s is inescapable.  We visited the notorious Toul Sleng prison, converted from a school complex, and bore witness in what is now a museum to the incomprehensible horrors of that period.

We also went to the killing fields, an excursion that amounted to nothing like a walk in the park.  There remain numerous round sunken mass graves the diameter of school buses.  Scraps of rotting clothing can be glimpsed in them along with shards of bone.  On the surface of the path through the fields, signs warn against stepping on sparse fragments of bones and teeth.  Mounds of skulls are heaped inside a memorial.  “Chilling” doesn’t begin to describe the somber scene.

Seven of us ate grandly and consumed bear in a Chinese restaurant.  That's "my" family around the table.

Seven of us ate fine dum sum and consumed beer in a Chinese restaurant–for $53. That’s “my” family around the table.

One of the first questions I’ve been asked since my return a week ago has to do with the food.

Overall, I’d say it is simultaneously savory and bland, a blend of the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, India and China with little of the burn that characterizes much of Thailand’s offering.  I much enjoyed prahok, a paste of fermented fish that puts Vietnam’s nuoc mam to shame, and amok, a national staple made up usually of curried fish.

Fish is a prominent feature of most Cambodian diets — bones and all — along with fried rice, stirred-fried noodles and soups with chicken, fish or beef morning, noon or night.  No part of an animal is overlooked, and Lin and I once shared a version of a Mongolian hotpot that had something chewy already in the broth; I decided it would be best not to dwell on its origins, but I have a lingering suspicion it was pieces of a pig’s stomach.

Happy indeed!

Happy indeed!

In Sihanookville, we passed on a couple of “happy” menus — that is, several dishes made with marijuana, which also is available to use  in hookahs on the beach.

Hey, I adapted and didn’t once choose food from home, though I did, unsurprisingly, experience intestinal issues for a day.

In restaurants that don’t cater to folks from the West, prices are consistent with the country’s generally low standard of living — as little as $2 or $3 for a main course with tipping extremely optional.  Probably our most expensive meal was at a restaurant with buffet tables sprawling into three rooms and offering everything from crocodile to corn pudding.  Cost: $14 each.

I have a weakness for markets, especially those selling food; Barcelona’s is a favorite.

Teeming Third World markets lure me with the force of a squirrel to a dog.  We intentional stayed near Phnom Penh’s Central Park, Phsar Thmey, which is clogged with everything from jackfruits to jewelry.

I wandered pleasurably among live chickens and fish, mounds of mangoes and the odoriferous fruit called turen in Cambodia and durian elsewhere.  (Turen, I learned, is mighty good when you can obtain it fresh and get it past your nose.)

Markets like this one near our hotel please me immensely.

Markets like this one near our hotel please me immensely.

In air that is both fragrant with smells of cooking stations jammed together in one area and fetid with rotted produce and discarded animal parts, I never managed to fulfill my intention of defying standards of good hygiene by sitting at one of the tables surrounding the cooks to partake of their food.

In another market, there were ranks of whole roasted pigs in one section as the April 14-15 national holiday approached.

For Westerners seeking familiar foods — at a price — the Lucky chain of supermarkets is the place to go.  It was possible to find in them everything from Skippy peanut butter ($5 or so) to blueberries ($6 for half a pint).

Those Lucky supermarkets exist in modern vertical shopping malls that effectively combine the ambiance of traditional markets with modern aspects such as escalators and food courts in a sleek setting.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

The three malls I visited go up seven or eight stories and thus can be reasonably easy to spot from a distance.

High-rise buildings are beginning to sprout in Phnom Penh, but there is a mere handful so far.  One massive residential tract stands just partially completed with shell after empty shell marching along the road after the Korean developer ran out of funds, I am told.  (I also was informed that the prime minister has purchased two full floors in one of them, increasing the likelihood that work will continue at some point.)

As a real estate broker, of course I had to get some idea of the market, so looked at four or five apartments for rent in an agreeable neighborhood that many expats favor.  In the Buen Keng Kang I zone, as they call sections of the city, modern buildings abound surrounded by gathering spots such as Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, among several such shops, and a variety of sleek bars.

One apartment — they come furnished — had two bedrooms, two baths, a balcony, full Western-style kitchen, washer/dryer, TV, balcony and air conditioning.  Electricity and water are extra, but the asking rent on a high floor was only $1,200; on a lower one, $1,000.  There is a modest swimming pool and minimal gym on the roof as well.

Other zones such as Toul Tork encompass islands of immense wealth, gated communities as sterile and sanitized as most of those in the U.S. and as empty of diversions as a prison cell.  Also in evidence are the palatial  — that’s the perfect word — residences of the politically elite and, almost exclusively from other Asian countries, the commercially opportunistic.

There is small reason to be hopeful, however.  As Keith Bradsher reported in the Times on Tuesday, foreign investors are headed south from China in search of cheap labor.  That’s something all too easy to find in Cambodia, where the overall compensation for each factory worker is less than $130 a month.

An important result of my trip has been a strengthening of my resolve to — how to put it?  — do some good in Cambodia.

Immodest as the notion may sound, I am working out a way of improving the lives of families who have a level of responsibility, entrepreneurship and ability that will enable them to raise their standards of living with mentoring and financial help (not mine).

Such a family is one I had known only via Skype.  The Khmer Rouge left the mom with no living relatives, no education and no work skills.  Most of the uneducated father’s clan survived, but he had long been without work as a driver, a job his wife believed too dangerous for him to continue.

To save electricity, Mom still prefers to boil water on a wood fire outside in an old iron pot, and their first refrigerator arrived only this year.  By Cambodian standards, maybe they’re lower middle class.

I have enormous respect for the whole family’s ability to have overcome their background and financial struggles.  One of the offspring is a 28-year-old man who works for Cambodia’s Securities and Exchange Commission.  Another is a 25-year-old man who is second in charge of a big private school, and the youngest is a brilliant 17-year-old girl fluent in English.  Although studying accounting, she reads her elder brother’s law texts for fun.  She wants to be a lawyer, but a woman in that profession has little hope of success.

Withal, the family is completing a six-story building to be used as a private student dormitory on land where their humble home had stood near a children’s hospital, university and Labor Ministry.

As he showed me around the structure being built under his supervision and with his own labor, the husband and father whose life just two years ago plunged him into depression glowed with unvarnished pride at his singular achievement, his potential fulfilled and the prospects of a better life all but assured.

This family-built structure was two-three months from completion during my visit.

This family-built structure is two to three months from completion.

There exist manifold microfinance programs, some of them self-serving and even corrupt, to dig wells, provide cows and goats, care for orphans and otherwise benefit the rural poor.  Using “my” family’s accomplishment as a model, my thought is to use my energy and skills to promote similarly small development projects in Phnom Penh that would create jobs in construction and in businesses that furnish supplies.

In contrast to double-digit rates of interest for conventional microfinance efforts, what I have in mind would cost the beneficiaries nothing to little.  The sums loaned would be much greater than the few thousand dollars usually associated with microfinance.  Contributors would be a hybrid of lenders and donors willing to be an active part of a team that would provide support and advice at a minimum via Skype.

We’ll see how far I can take the idea, but, as I say, I am strongly committed to making such a small-scale program happen.  I certainly would welcome the comments, suggestions and assistance of my readers.

I said it was hot there, right?

Tomorrow: Weekly Roundup

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Malcolm Carter
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5 thoughts on “Reflections on three weeks of travel in Cambodia

  1. Well, I’m glad that the only bug you caught while traveling and investigating Cambodia was a compassionate one. It’s so interesting that the NY Times had two recent articles related to Cambodia, similar to the one you mentioned about the security officer at the airport and the other major article in the business section detailing the recent foreign investment interest which is on the rise in Cambodia. Although, from your observations, it appears that it will need to be a sustained major undertaking. Perhaps a few years from now a foreign investor will appreciate a young woman attorney struggling to make a difference in her country.


  2. It’s always great to find other people who are as strongly affected by Cambodia as I have been. Those who get “hooked” find it impossible not to do something to help. I know that you’ve been told all about my activities there, and we should definitely stay in touch via email. I have a lot of connections there now which might be able to help and advise you. And although it’s embarrassing to promote myself too much, I will say that my novels might give you further insight into the lives of Cambodians today. A Clash of Innocents is set in Phnom Penh and touchs on many of the issues you raised above, and is already out. The 2nd in the trilogy, Out of the Ruins, will be published in September. Thanks for this in-depth and touching response to this country I’ve come to love so much. It’s great to find another “barang” who has caught the bug. Let’s stay in touch.


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