Reflecting on Cambodia

“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.

Kids in Cambodia

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.

Angkor Wat

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.

24 Responses to “Reflecting on Cambodia

  • I only spent about ten days in Cambodia…not nearly enough time but was the end of the trip, and isn’t everything rushed then, no matter how long you travel for? I got the exact same feeling though and would love to go back to get to some of the places and people I missed.

    • Yeah – first impressions are difficult but it’s a wonderful place once you scratch the surface a bit. I also felt like I could have spent a lot, lot longer there.

  • It is challenging, I agree. One of the most difficult moments for me was visiting SL 21 after after going to the Choeung Ek memorial- it was a bitter and stomach-wrenching experience. I only felt better after visiting an orphanage nearby and seeing all the kids spreading their love to anyone who came close.

    • I did the same – visiting S21 and the Choeung Ek killing fields one after the other – and it left me feeling emotionally shattered and very depressed. Like you, it was the spirit of the young people that made me realise that a devastating history doesn’t have to mean an impossible future.

  • Hey Dave,

    This is one of the better blog posts I have read so far this year (and I read my fair share of travel blogs posts).

    I’ll put it up on the Dohop Facebook page later today, and will be reading more of your blog in the future.

    • Fantastic! I’m really pleased you enjoyed it, and thanks so much for the compliment (and for sharing it!)

  • Reading this I can remember feeling exactly the same about Cambodia when we were there. Despite how broken it is, despite the poverty, despite the millions of social problems and inequality, the people are unbelievably genuine and happy. Their sense of humour and outlook is inspiring. You are so right – you really don’t expect to leave Cambodia with such a feeling of hope but you can’t help it!

    Our tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh was one of the friendliest guys we ever met. He drove us around for a whole week and I remember walking out of the Killing Fields filled to the shock of this place to his smiling face holding me hot tea he’d driven around the neighbourhood searching for because he knew I’d missed my cup of tea and wouldn’t accept payment for it. As he hands the tea over, he tells us his entire family was buried in a similar field and shared his story of survival as a 4 year old hidden by his grandfather for years. The same grandfather that had died a few days earlier while he was driving us around. We had no idea at the time but it was clear as he was telling us about it how devastated he was by his grandfather death. Then his smile came back and he continued to joke with us for the rest of the day.

    I think it’s the people like him that leave you with a sense of hope after seeing all the despair of Cambodia.

    • Awesome comment Tracy – thanks! That’s a great story about your tuk-tuk driver and the cup of tea!

      I know that for Cambodians the hurt is never far below the surface – it seems that everyone has a story they could tell that leaves us visitors gasping in shock and disbelief. How anyone keeps up a smile and a semblance of happiness and positivity after that kind of trauma, I honestly don’t know.

      I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

  • Cambodia was incredible. The people are friendly and wonderful yet have been through so much. It’s the fact that they are trying to move on, smile, and change things for themselves and their families that was so inspiring to me.

    • Absolutely, mate, couldn’t agree more. Really glad that we got to hang out for a while in Siem Reap, too … was lots of fun!

  • Very powerful last few lines Dave. I haven’t been to Cambodia, but I could get a sense of what you mean by hope amidst so many hopeless factors. My brother’s band is popular in Cambodia and when they toured there, he went to a camp for women who have been trafficked. They did a video for MTV Asia to raise awareness on human trafficking based off of that visit to Cambodia. Here it is. I think you will enjoy it. Cambodia may have its problems, but it seems like the people have a spirit you can’t crush.

    • Great video, Suzy – I hadn’t heard of The Click Five but really enjoyed that song! Congrats to your brother! 😉 And you’re so right about the spirit of the people – if what they’ve been through hasn’t crushed them, I suspect that nothing will.

  • Dave,
    I’ve never been to Cambodia (yet…) but I have been to Kenya twice, so I can somewhat relate to what you are describing. You have really got my attention with this post, very powerful and moving. I look forward to following you.

    • Thanks William, I really appreciate the comment! I think I need to get back to Kenya soon, to see whether it still has the same impact on me. With a bit of luck, that might be as early as next year…

  • The pictures are incredible and really capture the hopeful tone of the piece. Well done.

  • Having just landed back in Melbourne this morning after only a little over a week and a half in Cambodia, reading through this post completely hits the nail on the head of everything that we felt during our (too short) time in Cambodia. It is hard going – the constant harassment from beggars, kids, sellers, tuk-tuk drivers, would be enough to drive anyone crazy, but it’s what’s gotta be done. Like us, they’re just trying to make a buck, in incredibly difficult circumstances. The people are incredible. But it’s heartbreaking to hear a kid saying they want to travel like us, and just knowing that that is probably completely impossible for him. We fell in love with Cambodia in a very short time, and plan to go back there again. Soon, hopefully. It is one of those countries that everyone should visit – if not just to put your own life in perspective.

    • Thanks Rebecca … and welcome back to rainy Melbourne! 😉

      You’re totally right about the harassment, and the reasons behind it. As annoying as it often becomes, it’s hard to get too upset when you stop for a minute to think about why it’s happening. And totally agree about hearing kids (and adults, for that matter) say how much they’d like to travel like us, and realising that for most it is an unattainable dream. A Cambodian passport costs more than a NZ one, in a country where many people earn less than $2 a day.

      You’re right, it’s certainly a place that puts your own life into sharp perspective.

  • Well said, Dave. We spent almost two weeks in Cambodia last November and still carry it with us in a way completely different and more complex than any other point in our travels. The abject poverty is all the more glaring in the face of the unfailing optimism of the locals; the corruption within the NGOs and local government all the more horrific given the love-of-country and personal dedication evident in the local community.

    We are going back again this year, breaking our “plan” to not back-track until we’d covered more of the planet. There just seems to be so much more there that we need to see, and hopefully, more that we can do. I’m still haunted by the little boy looking for food in Siem Reap one day as we ate at a local restaurant. I resisted, as I did almost every time someone begged, but this little boy was different. He was truly hungry and I didn’t really know how best to help.

    Cambodia challenged me, too. It challenged my thinking on poverty, volunteering and sustainability. The “easy” answers aren’t quite so cut and dry when you’re face to face with this little boy, and its the NGO Mercedes that goes blowing by, AC blaring, mud splattering the disfigured beggars and homeless kids. Surely we can all do a bit better.

    Thanks for bringing the discussion back to the table.

  • if you ask any cops, they all fuel their car with the motor running.
    in fact it’s secretly recommended.

    we don’t live in 1960s anymore, fueling your car with the motor running doesn’t do any type of damages or raise any risks.

  • I had an amazing time in Cambodia. I haven’t been there too long but what I remember the best is being stuck in the traffic in Phnom Penh and noticing that few cars away from us, elephant is standing and patiently waiting for traffic lights to change….it was something! And another thing is sipping drinks in the bar taken out of Vietnam War, swing and jazz, dark wood and political conversation. Of course sunrise above Temples of Angkor but that goes without saying!

  • I find the people of Cambodia to be so extraordinary and resilient and am humbled in knowing that they are only a few decades post genocide. It seems that there is an extraordinary amount of hope in the country and that work is being done on a grassroots level and with very little money to move forward by removing the remaining land mines and supporting the children who have been wounded by them (see as well as in supporting Buddhist and arts based orphanages. Thank you for this rather inspiring article on Cambodia, and it’s people and their present and ongoing challenges.

  • Well said Dave. I’ve been in Cambodia for several months now and run a hotel in Siem Reap called the Angkor Tropical Resort. The Cambodians are remarkable people. I’ve seen a double amputee selling books on the street in Siem Reap and he had one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen! And SO many children will say hello to you and make you feel like a celebrity. I’ll happily repost your article on my facebook page and website. Keep on keeping on!

  • At least there is an excuse of Cambodia having such a disparity between the rich and poor. The US on the other hand …

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