Cambodia – where ancient wonder & modern dilemma meet

By: Chenyu

Sep 19 2011

Category: Travel

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Here it is – Cambodia or 柬埔寨 – a country that i feel so close(distant-wise to China), but at the same time, feel so foreign as I have no idea what South East Asia is like besides watching the movie Hangover II or Du Lala’s Story. I packed my suitcase again and went on a trip to Cambodia. I didn’t know Cambodia beyond the ancient wonder – Angkor Wat. The trip turned out eye-opening and beyond my expectation – a group of 20 of us travelled from Siemp Reap to Phnom Penh over 2 weeks and learned about human trafficking and the efforts against this prevalent issue in Cambodia and South East Asia.

Aug 26th, I left Pudong intl Airport for Phnom Penh. It was drizzling when I landed at Phnom Penh at 11pm. Here I copy-pasted my notes from my 1st night in Cambodia:”First impression was that there are many motorcycles and many Chinese characters around :)”. When we were driving to my hotel, I chatted with the taxi driver, who although speaks imperfect English, but he was not afraid to try. He told me that a lot of people learn Chinese and French in Cambodia. My hotel room($20/night) was nicer than i expected – big bed and all facilities etc. more importantly, there is wifi in the room.

Aug 27th, 9am. I was greeted at the hotel lobby by SP- our trip coordinator who left Cambodia during what I later learned Khmer Rouge(75-79) and came back 10 years ago. He made BBC HIV-AIDS awareness documentaries before and is now working on micro-finance and consulting. Seeing Phnom Penh during the day is quite different – again so many motorcyclists, but almost all with helmets. It reminded me of China a few years ago, of course now in China you see everywhere there are cars and traffic jams. What really impressed me was that everyone I saw was wearing a helmet. then i asked SP, “is that a law?” SP was like yeah, it was implemented last year. policy really works!

Then I met the main coordinator B and his wife – the next 8 hours was a fun road trip from PP to Siem Reap on the highway that leads to Thai-border. We stopped by a local restaurant for a fish meal – which reminded me of China, but they have this special fermented fish that looks very raw, but tasted very good.i love FISH!
During the ride, i had a lot of discussions with B and SP about the developmental issues faced by Cambodia, and surprisingly(or not) about China’s immense role in Cambodia’s development and how the current govn’t is in fact very pro-Vietnam. The incentives of the govn’t and the people are not in line with each other.
I saw lots of skinny cows on the road and B told me that the cows in Cambodia are malnutritioned and will be exported to Thailand to grow very big and sell. That was such a distinctive picture of rural Cambodia – my eyes are filled with green trees, rice paddies and white skinny cows. The road(built by Chinese) was of course better than i have experienced in Ghana. Another feature on the road are the policemen who stop the cars and charges fees – apparently travelling in Cambodia is the most expensive in the world relative to GDP/capita.

I went around to villages and witnessed a funeral and all the silts that are built from straws and dirt. When S and I were walking along the rice paddies and seeing the villagers along their wooden house – S asked me :” how long can you imagine yourself living here?” I paused and said, ” maybe a week?” then S pointed out that the villagers have no access to clean water or electricity or entertainment.” I’ve lived in Africa for 6 weeks, dealt with cold shower and no TV, but i still had clean water and at least some form of shower. But people here, they live in wooden house and they don’t even have a well. That’s reality and then I think about how lucky I am again. I think it is really important to experience poverty to develop the empathy for others.

After visiting B’s mother and S’s relatives who are all very welcoming and friendly, we finally arrived Siem Reap at night. After the rain, the roads to our hotel were flooded and our car was driving in the water/puddle. Sewage system does not seem to function well. That night, I met Renee and Elaine, who are in the MPA program. They have worked for 5-6 years in different countries on migration issues. What I love about these trips definitely have to do with the amazing people around – I learned so much from chatting with them for half hour. Later, when I look back to the trip, the many lunch/dinner discussions we had on migration, human trafficking, or on China, movies etc were so memorable! The intellectual engagement and intensity really is part of this school. At the end of the day, there is always a geek inside of us. 🙂

Angkor Wat was absolutely stunning – the sheer volume and complexity of the Hindu buddhas and huge stones amazed me of how the ancient civilization managed it. In the afternoon, when I stood at the foot of Angkor Wat temples and looking up the many stairs, that was a time I felt “wow” – just like when I was staring at the huge white wall at Taj Mahal’s, or looking down the active Volcano in Nicaragua. Going to these places really showed how wonderful this world is. I feel blessed to have spent Aug 28th, 2011 at Angkor Wat. Later, we watched on the 4 hour bus ride and it felt so close to heart as I grew up playing the video game with my cousin and after witnessing the scenes in real life. Of course, in one of the restaurants we had Angelina Jolie’s fav cocktail – Tomb Raider.

The trip allowed me to witness sthe poverty that has been persistent in this traumatized country(Khmer Rouge Genocide during 1975-79 and severe corruption with current government). Poverty and lack of development make human trafficking more prevalent in Cambodia. This is another time that poverty is right in my face, just like the poverty simulation we did with CrossRoads Volunteer Day this summer.

TO BE CONTINUED….. ( below are the notes that are not organized yet)

We saw a lot of NGOs now having trade stores near their office that sell arts/crafts from the former street-children or trafficked victims. After two weeks, I strongly felt the need to have private sector approach to public problems. SO many NGOs are trying to help, train and empower the victims, but at the same time they compete for the same pool of funding and I didn’t see much collaboration among different groups.

One of the last days of the trip, we went to visit college students in Phnom Penh – their college education was not developed till 1991 and the students are so eager to interact with American counterparts. although they fondly called us “Briston College” instead of Princeton…the students expressed their view on Vietnam War and Cambodia-China relationship. They speak passionately about what they learned and read in textbook.

Victor/ Guillaume – French entrepreneurs Project Alba to revolutionize Cambodia’s economic development, crazy but inspiring stories


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