Cambodia may be the kingdom of Wonder, but it’s also an incredibly heart-wrenching place. From the moment we got off the plane and clambered into our Tuk-Tuk, we saw poverty everywhere. From children digging through trash to ramshackle homes that were barely even standing, Cambodia’s dark history has left a lasting stain on its people…or so we thought. Quickly, the bright smiles of the people we rode past began to outweigh the signs of impoverishment. After only a few hours wandering Siem Reap, we quickly reassessed our opinion and decided on something entirely new: Cambodia is more heartwarming than heart-wrenching.
True, the people have endured a genocidal regime that committed such atrocity it decimated the country’s ability to function. Between 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge regime killed between one and two million people in the country – including all those who were ‘educated’ such as doctors, teachers etc. True also, that the country is held in a bizarre poverty trap by Chinese and Vietnamese intervention. But the most true thing we found was that every single Cambodian person has an incredible ability to smile, laugh and be happy despite the situation they are in.
From Tuk Tuk drivers who were absolutely desperate for your one dollar fare to restaurant owners charging almost nothing for delicious meals, these people need your money – but they never ever make it feel desperate or greedy. Instead, their genuine warmth rubs off and you find yourself feeling humbled by their ability to smile.
In the west, we are born privileged beyond recognition. Even our poorest people have so much more than the Cambodians – yet we spend our lives whinging that we don’t have the latest smartphone or that immigrants are stealing our jobs. In Cambodia, where Vietnam controls the profits of Cambodia’s own top tourist attraction, Angkor, they just smile and continue trying to survive.
It was here in Cambodia that my idea of carefree travel was turned on its head. I’d spent a month in Thailand enjoying the fairly honest swindling that goes along with the Thai people’s friendliness. While Thailand isn’t quite western, it’s nowhere near as poor as Cambodia. The people there, as a result, are more comfortable trying to be cheeky with tourists. It’s a game, and one you don’t feel as bad for taking part in.
In Cambodia, however, the atmosphere is one of desperate need. The vendors need your business. In one stall I found myself bartering for a t-shirt and realising that I was trying to knock another dollar off, when that same dollar has such a minimal impact on my own life. I’m hardly rich, but this was at the beginning of my travels with my savings intact. Who was I to be doing this? Surprise surprise, the vendor in question just smiled at me and sold me the product. He was enthused with the sale.
From then on, I was far less likely to bargain down prices as much as I had been. Sure, everyone loves a bargain and the vendors in Cambodia are charging massive mark-ups, but when I spotted children lying in the back of the shop I just couldn’t justify fighting over a few dollars. It wasn’t worth it.
Check our our video from Siem Reap, Cambodia.
I’m a pretty kid positive person. I’ve got amazing nephews who I like to play with. I like making kids laugh. They are, without sounding cheesy, a lovely way to cheer the world up. In Cambodia, kids are exposed to awful circumstances and yet demonstrate exactly what it is about children that is so inspiring. Let me explain.
Firstly, kids are made to sell or beg on the street by desperate parents. This was upsetting to see, but I’d also read enough about it to know the right course of action: ignore them. It’s hard to do that when they’re so innocent and you want to help – but these children should be in schools. Cambodia is trying really hard to rebuild its education system, and parents exploiting their children’s ‘cuteness’ to sell to foreigners is a terrible thing. At one point we were in the Killing Fields museum and a child popped up who’d climbed under a fence to sell postcards. I felt terrible turning him down, but ultimately if you encourage this practice, they’ll never go to school.
However, we’re talking about the heartwarming things, and children in Cambodia gave me my fondest memory of the place – seeing groups of kids in Siem Reap heading to school. In the west, school has become a mundane activity that kids despise. They whine about going, or they avoid it entirely. In Cambodia, where the populace has been deprived of education for years, the children are absolutely ecstatic to head to school. Day after day, we’d pass little trains of children riding bicycles on their way to or from school, smiling broadly. We’d see older kids taking younger ones, all of them so incredible happy to just be going to school. Something we all take for granted, but is so precious.
Discover what we ate in Phnom Penh
Cambodia is perhaps one of the proudest countries I’ve been to. From their Angkor beer to their infectious questions such as “Do you like my country?”, it’s a place where people are very excited to show tourists the heart of Cambodia. Surprising, for a country so riddled with genocide and landmines. A strange juxtaposition exists when you’re visiting Tuol Sleng (S21) prison or the Killing Fields, museums to thousands of murdered people. Your taxi driver will enthusiastically take you there, telling you about their own family members who died. They’re actually proud of the dark history – not just because of the tourism dollars…it’s because of the identity. Cambodian people will never forget what happened, but they have grown above it and beyond it. They are a warm, charming people who want their country to be known across the globe.
And why shouldn’t it be? I knew nothing of the terrible genocide here before I visited – and having seen the horror, I also got to see the amazing happiness and warmth of a people who have very little. In Cambodia, the kingdom of wonder doesn’t just apply to the ancient site of Angkor Wat – it also applies to the people. A wondrous place that I’ll never forget.