“Tuk tuk, sir?”
“Sir, tuk tuk? Where you going?”
The noisy old bus had staggered to a halt on Kratie’s main street, disgorging its few passengers into a blinding cloud of dust and exhaust smoke. With a grimace I scooped up my backpack from the side of the road, bracing myself to yet again push through a crowd of clamouring drivers wanting my business.
And then, suddenly, I stopped.
Recalling a conversation I’d had about just how little money tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia make, I let one of them usher me onboard. I knew that the guesthouse was only a few hundred metres up the road, but hey, I was tired and he needed that dollar a lot more than I did.
When I tried to pay, however, the young man waved my money away with a smile. “Just remember me if you want a tour, sir“, he said. “You know where to find me.”
And sadly, that I did. With only one bus stop in the small town and so few tourists during the rainy season, where else would he be?
Cambodia had challenged me since arriving a couple of weeks earlier. In a way, I hadn’t experienced anything like it since landing in Kenya a decade ago. The previous few weeks in Vietnam had had their challenges too – poker scams, lost passports and crazy motorbike journeys among them – but they were physical difficulties. Those I knew how to deal with.
The mental challenge of Cambodia, however, I was totally unprepared for.
I had taken a boat up the Mekong from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, and as soon as we docked a few kilometres out of town and headed into the city by minivan one thing became abundantly clear. Cambodia was poor. Seriously poor.
Told in the past that Vietnam was wealthy by comparison, I had no idea what that really meant. Beggars, many crippled by both disease and dismemberment, were everywhere. Unidentifiable rubbish swirled around in the wind and mangy dogs ran amongst the hungry kids along the main highway. Even that had seen better days – under reconstruction for miles, it was more mud pit than road as the monsoon rains poured down overhead.
Poverty I can deal with. I don’t like it, obviously, and it’s often confronting, but over the years I’ve become somewhat used to it when I leave the comfort of home behind. What I can’t deal with so well is rampant inequality, and sadly Cambodia has that in spades.
Bumping along the rutted roads beside us, splashing mud and sewage over the bare feet of destitute pedestrians, was a late model black Mercedes sedan. And then another. When I asked our driver who it was that sat behind the car’s darkened windows, the answer was both short and unsurprising. “Government” was the reply.
My first 24 hours in Cambodia weren’t particularly easy. The tuk tuk drivers were incessant once I finally got out of the minivan somewhere in downtown Phnom Penh, knowing that nightfall and the pouring rain left me at a disadvantage. Of course the tuk tuk that I chose broke down en-route, leaving me to trudge down darkened streets in the deluge, splashing through the mud in search of a guesthouse.
My share-taxi ride to Svay Rieng the next morning was an interesting experience, from the driver refilling the gas tank with the motor running, to being offered handfuls of finger-length crickets for lunch, to being harassed for several minutes at a ferry crossing by a kid with tiny stumps instead of arms to feed him (I did) and give him money (I didn’t).
It would have been easy to throw my hands up in the air at that point, you know. It’s all too much. I could have headed straight for Angkor Wat, spent a couple of days there shielded from most of the touts and poverty, and carry on through to Thailand or Laos. Many people do. The thought did briefly cross my mind.
But I’m so happy that I decided not to.
Why? Because despite the poverty, obscene governmental corruption and ongoing struggle to deal with the aftermath of a genocide so horrific that it’s almost incomprehensible, Cambodia is a country like no other I’ve visited. It is undoubtedly broken, but despite everything it has been through it is far from beaten. And for that, you can thank nothing more than the spirit of its people.
This place has a long and proud history. Dating back over a thousand years to the Khmer kingdom that encompassed much of modern-day Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, it left us with the largest religious monument on the planet.
That spirit shines through the minute you sit down and start to talk to almost anyone. There is a profound love for this beautiful land. The average age of Cambodians is very low, for obvious, saddening reasons, and yet it seems that it is precisely the younger generations that hold the keys to the country’s rebuilding.
I spent hours chatting to anybody that I could communicate with, from guesthouse owners in Siem Reap to an old man on the beach in Ko Treung, those tuk tuk drivers in Kratie to abused girls in Svay Rieng, and the message was the same. Education, ambition and hard work provide the chance of a better life.
When a fifth of the population were murdered well within living memory by the insanity of the Khmer Rouge genocide – including most of the intellectual and professional classes – it would be easy to just give up. Easy to imagine that there’s nothing to look forward to and therefore no reason to even try.
Within a few minutes of starting any conversation, however, I knew that wasn’t the case. There is real hope for the future amongst young Cambodians. As my new friend Sotheara, an office worker barely out of her teens told me one night in Phnom Phenh, “I love my country, and I want to help it the best way that I can.” It will be up to her, and hundreds of thousands like her, to do exactly that.
I don’t want to understate the challenges that face Cambodia. Corruption and poverty are endemic, and until Prime Minister Hun Sen – himself a former Khmer Rouge member – and his cronies finally depart the scene, institutional change is unlikely. Child prostitution is a major problem, much of it perpetuated by Western tourists.
Food shortages amongst the poorest are exacerbated by cheap land sales, and trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders have only started in the last few years. There is a long, long way to go before the majority of the population feel any real improvement from the country’s recent economic growth.
And yet, from a sense of despair upon entering the country, I left it with a sense of hope. Of all of the experiences I had in Cambodia, that one was probably the biggest surprise of all.