Feb 28

Thoughts on Cambodia

by in Postcard Valet, Thought Objects, Travel

We only had about five weeks left to go in our travels when we started planning what we’d see in Southeast Asia.  We’d had more than enough time in Thailand, but that still left Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore on our to-do list.  Five weeks isn’t a lot of time even when you don’t have to factor in long hours of travel between points of interest.  Ultimately, we had removed most of Cambodia from consideration before we’d even arrived in the country.

Still, you can’t travel Southeast Asia without going to see Angkor Wat, right?  Although it meant passing up the capital, Phnom Penh, we made sure our bus from Saigon took us straight to Siem Reap so we could spend as many days as possible exploring the ruins in the area.

Border Crossing

The border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia was easy enough.  The bus conductor took $25 USD from each of us before the bus left Saigon and, because we’d studied up, Oksana knew that he was keeping $10 for himself.  She grumbled about it, but he did ease us through immigration when we got there.  (And we did see signs at the border, in English, stating that the price for our visa was only $20 USD.)

Crossing the border was more interesting on the Thailand side.  We had to stand in line for awhile to get our stamps, but before they let us go, there were a couple other safety measures to perform.  First, we were electronically fingerprinted.  That wasn’t altogether odd; many countries now have those little boxes with the red lights that blink green after scanning each of your fingertips.

A little further down, though, a man stopped us so he could put a digital thermometer up against our foreheads.   Beep-beep, no bird flu, welcome to Thailand.

The only other place I can recall having my temperature taken on arrival was at the Dubai airport, but that was a much less invasive process.  They simply had thermal imaging cameras pointed at the immigration counter lines.  I assume if you were running a fever, they’d grab you for further testing or questioning.

Right across the border into Cambodia, on both the Vietnamese and Thai sides, there are an abundance of casinos.  The border towns are quite seedy, as you might expect, and the legalized gambling didn’t help matters any.  But economically speaking, I can see why they allow it.  The exchange rate and easy visa application process attracts a certain element from their more developed neighbors.

Sadly for the Cambodians, the reverse isn’t true.  While it’s very easy for someone from a neighboring country to pop on over for the weekend, Thailand and Vietnam heavily restrict the influx of Cambodian tourists to their countries.  Not surprising.  It’s that way the world over.  When a rich country borders a poor one, the direction of immigration flows one way.

Poverty

I could group many of my observations about Cambodia under the heading of “poverty,” but I’m going to try to avoid that.  Perhaps the differences I noted were because of other, less obvious reasons.

Ice

There’s a huge ice industry in Cambodia!  It sort of reminded me of stories I’ve read about 19th century America.  We noticed it first right across the border, where a vendor was pedaling (literally) ice blocks from a cart hooked to the back of his bicycle.

The ice itself seemed to be uniform in size and shape.  They were huge rectangular blocks, about 6-inches, by 6-inches, by 3- or 4-feet.  There was a whole network in place to hauls these blocks from an ice factory out to wherever they were needed – usually to the restaurants or roadside kiosks that sold sodas or ice cream.

This made perfect sense inside the temple complexes, where modern buildings were practically non-existent and gas-powered generators were probably luxury items (if they were allowed at all.)  It would be difficult to entice a tourist to your restaurant if all you had on hand were wilted vegetables and hot soda, so each establishment had their own plastic cooler and loaded up on ice every morning.

Later, I came to realize that a widespread lack of electricity was most likely why ice is in such high demand.

Fire

We never had a problem finding power, but we paid to stay in a hotel in the wealthiest, most touristy city in the country.  Besides being able to charge our camera batteries, we also had wireless internet access.  Thinking back, though, it’s safe to assume not everyone lived so well.

Believe it or not, many restaurants – low-end ones, certainly – still cook all their food over wood fires.  Most of the roadside pit stops we made on our bus ride across the country were at places like that.  On the way back to the bathrooms, you could see the cooks preparing food on a fire built right on the floor in one corner of the kitchen.  Drinks, of course, were being sold out of ice-filled coolers.

I’m not saying that those restaurants didn’t have electricity, but what they did have was probably only used for cheap, minimal lighting.  I doubt the country has the infrastructure in place for gas cooking, but electricity should at least be an option.  The lack of refrigerators or electric stoves may have just come down to the proprietors not being able to afford big appliances.

We also saw lots of fires along the roadside.  Some of that was garbage disposal, some was for cooking.  We saw people hauling around firewood from time to time, too.  Must be an industry there, somewhere.

Public Services

As you can imagine, a country as poor as Cambodia isn’t likely to have the best health care.  Siem Reap, however, has a decent children’s hospital.

One evening, as we were coming back from the ruins, our route passed in front of the hospital.  Our tuk tuk was the only vehicle on the road when a doctor stepped up to the curb before crossing the street (the hospital is split among buildings on either side.)  We came to a stop as crossbars were lowered and machine-gun bearing military personnel escorted the doctor from one sidewalk to the next.  I made a point to ask about it when we arrived back at our hotel.

Siem Reap is probably the wealthiest city in Cambodia and all of that wealth comes from tourism.  It’s no accident that the best hospital in the land is located there.  Most, if not all of its financing, comes from tourist dollars.  (One of the ways they collect money is by hosting a cello concert every Saturday night.  One of the doctors plays music, shows a short film, and talks about the medical issues affecting Cambodian children.  The concert is free to the public, but the donations they collect help fund the hospital.)

Anyway, because so much money is concentrated in one location, officials worry that the hospital and some of its employees may become targets for criminal activity.  Thus, the military presence.

As we learned about the children’s hospital, the conversation took a turn to public schooling.  We asked a lot of questions to get a feel for how educational institutions operate in Cambodia.  Our driver told us that there are two models for schooling, government and private.

Government-sponsored schooling is free, he told us, but isn’t very good.  Classes are only 4 hours a day and the government teacher rarely does anything more than write things on the board for the students to memorize.  Classroom sizes, on average, are 50-60 students.

Private institutions are better in almost every way; however, there are per-student and per-term tuition costs involved.  Consequently, classrooms are significantly smaller, kids can get more than 4 hours a day of instruction (again, depending on tuition costs), and teachers are invested in actually helping their students learn.

To hear our driver tell it, students who go to public schools don’t really stand much of a chance in the real world.  If a parent wants their child to have a shot at a productive life, they’ll have to find a way to pay those tuition fees… and even then, the child will be at the mercy of Cambodia’s economic conditions when they graduate.

Sadly, many parents forego schooling altogether and train their children to hawk postcards and trinkets at the temple gates almost from the time they’re able to walk.   Those kids will grow up with no other option but to teach their own children the same thing.

The Cambodian People’s Party

I just read through eight dense paragraphs, across two Wikipedia entries, explaining the Cambodian government.  It wasn’t until the very last sentence that my suspicions about the country’s governance were confirmed: “The party adheres to a platform of Socialism.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that.  Governments rarely are.  While there are elected officials and multiple parties vying for control of an upper and lower chamber of parliament, Cambodia also has a king.

But I have a feeling it’s the Cambodian People’s Party that pulls all the strings.

Now, granted, I know very little about how the government in Cambodia works.  My hunch about the CPP is based solely on the number of road signs I saw while our bus crossed the countryside.  Think that’s an unfair assessment?  Obviously, you’ve never driven through Cambodia…

At a guess, I would say that there was a large, Department-of-Transportation-style, metal sign proclaiming something about the Cambodian People’s Party planted every half kilometer along the main highway from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.  That’s about 400kms or roughly 800 signs.  In addition, many of the more important looking buildings also had signs and banners proclaiming allegiance (I assume) to the party.  With that kind of “media” coverage, it has to be darn near impossible for another party to take control of the parliament.

As with other Southeast Asian countries, the fall of the Soviet Union had profound effects on the government of Cambodia.  In 1991, they tweaked their communist ideals and the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (with Marxist-Leninist ideals, it was the only legal party in the country at that time) renamed itself the “Cambodian People’s Party.”  It’s not surprising they still have a very secure hold on the reins of power.

Service

As in many poor countries, labor is cheap in Cambodia.  While they haven’t yet harnessed their workforce for international ventures like Thailand and Vietnam has, you can still see how cheap labor affects the service industry.

The most obvious example is what I came to think of as “over service.”  Much the way restaurant waiters would hover over us after delivering a check in Vietnam, every member of the wait staff would do something similar in Cambodia.

This would manifest in familiar ways – as when bellboys offered to take our luggage up to our room — but we soon realized it went far beyond that.  While you look over the menu for breakfast, they’ll watch over your shoulder and offer suggestions.  While you wait for a tuk tuk that the hotel had called on your behalf, they’ll stand by your side at the curb.  I would have felt just as uncomfortable if they’d assigned a butler to follow me around all day.

Looking back, I can see that they were just doing what they could to make our stay as stress-free as possible, but Oksana and I had been self-sufficient in our travels for a very long time at that point.  Perhaps less travel-weary tourists welcome that level of “over service.”

Bootleg Books

I got quite used to seeing bootleg DVDs and Blu-Rays on the streets of South America, but the big ticket items in Southeast Asia are books.  We started seeing them in Vietnam, but there were many more vendors near the temples of Cambodia.

The books for sale were all travel-related, with the bulk coming from Lonely Planet’s library.  The opening price was often only $5 or $6, leading me to believe they could be had for only $3 or $4.

We didn’t purchase any for a variety of reasons.  One, we didn’t need them; we do almost all of our travel planning via TripAdvisor and Wikitravel.  Two, our bags were too heavy as they were.  And three, we’d read about how most of those bootleg books were nothing more than poorly-photocopied reproductions, sometimes with pages missing, flipped upside down, or even merged with other books!

Without buying one, we couldn’t confirm or deny those rumors, however.  While every book looked extremely slick and professionally printed on the outside, every single one was shrink-wrapped tight.  There was no way to check the quality without buying one first – the mark of a true bootleg industry.

Water

At certain times of the years, water is a force to be reckoned with in Southeast Asia and Cambodia is not exempt.  For much of our long bus ride, we drove along the shore of the massive river-lake, Tonlé Sap.  With nothing else to do but look out the window, I watched people fishing from small canoes as well as from the decks of their stick-stilt houses along the shore.

The lake fell behind us as we approached Siem Reap, but we continued to see many fields and ditches flooded with water.  I assume the fields were rice paddies, even though they were flat and without tiers.

What surprised me most was what appeared to be people fishing in the ditches.  Many times I would see a group of three or four people throwing large nets out into the water.  You have to understand, these were closed ecosystems; a single ditch might only be as large as a basketball court.  What could they be catching?  Tiny fish?  Freshwater shrimp?

Whatever it was, it seemed like it was being farmed.  I saw one group using a couple gas-powered pumps to drain water from one ditch and pump it into another.  There must be a good reason for doing that, especially since the next rain would just fill it right back up again.

Temples

Obviously, Cambodia has temples.  The ruins of Angkor Wat and its surrounding complexes go back over a thousand years, to when the Khmer empire ruled the region.  Now, as in the surrounding countries, Buddhism is the dominant religion.

Most of my time in the country was spent exploring the ruins of temples, but I saw a few monstrous and majestic modern-day temples from the window of my bus.  They were impressive enough in both scale and upkeep that I wondered if religion is more important to Cambodians than it is to Thais or Laotians.

If you’ve seen how well the wats of Thailand and Laos are kept, you’ll know that’s saying something.

Angkor Wat

Even though we went to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, I didn’t realize before getting there that that particular temple is a very small portion of the ruins that Cambodia has to offer.

In just three days, we also visited the ruins of Bakong, Lolei, Preah Ko, Phnom Bakheng, South Gate, Angkor Thom (including Bayon, Baphuon, the Elephants’ Terrace, the Leper King Terrace, the North and South Kleang, and Preah Pithu), Victory Gate, Thommanom, Ta Keo, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, and Preah Khan.

See what I mean?  Take a look at how small Angkor Wat is in relation to the other ruins on this map:

Angkor Wat is probably famous because it has the distinction of being used as a religious site pretty much continuously since it was built in the 12th century.  All the other temples, at one time or another, fell into disuse and eventually became the ruins we see today.

For the record, I felt Bayon and Ta Prohm were far more impressive than Angkor Wat.

Insects

I’m sure, what with there being a jungle and all, that there are a frightening number of scary insects and arachnids around the temples of Angkor Wat.  Fortunately, we didn’t see many, but we heard them.

They start up in the late afternoon and continue on until sunset.  I wrote in my journal that it sounds like “high pressure steam escaping from the forest.”  It is unbelievably loud and actually hurts the ears.

The first time we inquired about what could be making such a racket was back at our hotel.  One of the young employees, eager to practice his English, explained to us that they were “sort of like butterflies.”  I tried to imagine a colorful butterfly screaming its way along an erratic flight path through the jungle.  Couldn’t do it.

Later, our tuk tuk driver told us they were cicadas.  That made a lot more sense.

Compact Discs

I saw a novel use for old CD-Rs on the streets of Cambodia.  They use them as reflectors on their tractor-drawn carts and tuk tuks.  Not a bad idea, really.  They’re dirt cheap and do a great job bouncing back any light at night.

Koreans

Any Koreans traveling through Cambodia have my deepest sympathies.  It’s an open secret among Cambodians that they’re very easy to overcharge.

(To be clear, we’re talking about South Koreans here; North Koreans’ travel options are more, shall we say, limited.)

Our tuk tuk driver Mr. Boret, told us that the other drivers fight over Koreans tourists.  Whereas we negotiated a price of $15USD/day for his services, he could routinely charge a Korean $30 a day; $60 for a couple!

“Why?” I asked.  “Do they have a lot more money?”

His smile, though large, had a hint of guilt behind it.  “No. It’s because they don’t speak English!”

At first, I took that to mean that they weren’t able to haggle the price down, but now I realize it goes beyond that.  Lots of sites, including the aforementioned Wikitravel and TripAdvisor, are full of forums where people discuss what they paid for everything from cab fare, to street food, to 5-star hotels.  If a certain Korean doesn’t speak English, he or she is locked out of a whole wealth of travel information online.  And if Koreans, as a group, are monolingual, and if most Cambodian hustlers have been using this to their advantage, then it’s quite possible that Korean travel forums are, even now, full of misinformation that just reinforces those too-high prices.

I wonder if any other nationalities have the same trouble in Cambodia.  Chinese travelers may be largely monolingual, as well, though I’ll bet there are plenty of Cambodians who speak Chinese.  The Japanese, perhaps?  Russians?

Nah, not the Russians.  They may not speak English, but something so inconsequential as understanding would never stand between them and a good bargain.

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Postcard Valet is a travel blog and video podcast by Arlo and Oksana Midgett. They just returned to Juneau, Alaska, after almost three full years of travel and living abroad. Many of their stories, photos, and videos have yet to be shared...

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