It’s 9 pm and I still can’t get the smell of the fish market we visited this morning out of my nose. This country gets into inside of you and you can’t shake it out.
We pedaled out of Siem Reap this morning shortly after the sun came up and then returned in the dark.
Our van lurched down the uneven dirt road and as the lights of Siem Reap came into view I felt like I was returning to the twenty-first century.
Over the course of the day we cycled down country roads that took us through remote country villages, into the grounds of Buddhist monasteries and through local markets teeming with live fish jumping out of their pails, bales of basil, morning glory vegetables and dragon fruit.
Through all this, I’m learning that there are at three Cambodias–two I’ve seen and one I’ve heard about.
There’s the Cambodia that we interact with in the central business district and the near-city neighborhoods. These are spaces given over to commerce and tourism and they are here for people like us to experience a sort of branded version of Cambodia. It’s made for us to feel comfortable, but no so comfortable that we feel like we are in the US. It’s a landscape of tuk tuks, street vendors and outdoor markets and cafes. It’s bustling, energetic and exciting, full of t-shirts, bracelets, faux Ikat and Batik material, straw hats and cheap watches.
It’s also a far cry from the Cambodia that we saw as we cycled and paddled through the countryside today.
We didn’t have to get that far outside of Siem Reap to see this other Cambodia. From our hotel in the central business district we pedaled up the river road and across major thoroughfares for about 5 km. A few turns down side streets and the asphalt turned to a pock-marked red clay road.
The middle-class looking, concrete houses we passed soon gave way to homes made of wooden lattice and corrugated metal. Children, some naked, some fully clothed played outside, ran in and out of homes and rode their bikes up alongside as they passed us by. The further we got from the city, the more people waved and cried out, “Hello! How are you?” and they laughed when we sang back “Sousday!” which means “Hello” in Khmer. We ate noodles from a street vendor and we sampled all manner of sweets–fried bananas and sweet potatoes and sticky rice in bamboo sticks–prepared by people on the side of the roads. We saw rice farmers gathering up their harvest. We passed a pond of lotus flowers and we watched as old men and women sped by us on scooters, some chewing on what looked like betle plants. We passed by homes that were blasting funky Cambodian pop songs from their speaker systems (I could hear it 400 meters down the road!).
After lunch, we boarded a wooden ‘fast boat’ that took us to lake Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Asia. Tonle Sap is sourced by snow melt from the Himalayas–all that water gathers here and creates floodplains that allow the Cambodians to grow rice and wetland areas that are so important that UNESCO designated it a bioreserve in 1997. From Tonle Sap, the water feeds into the great Mekong River and then finds its way back to the ocean, in the South China Sea.
Tonle Sap is also home to Cambodia’s ‘floating villages,’ our afternoon destination.
Sujata writes in great detail about our experience at the floating village, but here, let me just note that, aside from the villagers’ use of motor boats, what we saw there was people living a life very similar to the kind of lives their ancestors probably lived two or three hundred years ago.
That brings me back to the three Cambodias. At a certain point, one can experience this country, or any given developing country for that matter, and think something like this: “Well they are poor, but they seem so happy and they are so nice to us! There’s naked babies frolicking in front yards, families hanging out together on a weekday morning and women pumping water from wells. How quaint!” You have to resist this temptation, though, and simply ask, “Why doesn’t the Cambodian government provide these people with, what to us are basic necessities–asphalt roads to move their goods to market, catches for the torrential rains that fall nearly every day, public water and a kind of health care system where old folks don’t have to ride on the back of scooters with IVs hooked into their arms?
Because it turns out that the babies are naked because the parents are poor, the dad is home on a weekday because there’s no work and the water that’s pumped from the well still needs to be boiled so the children don’t get dysentery. One in eight children in Cambodia dies before their fifth birthday–this is the second highest infant mortality rate in the whole world. If a Cambodian makes it past five they can expect to live to about 68.
This evening, back in Siem Reap, we got caught in a massive downpour that lasted for at least an hour. Sujata asked me if I had ever seen rain like that. I hadn’t. When it ended we went outside and found the streets completely flooded. The drainage ditches that line the major thoroughfares of the city had overflowed and cast up to three feet of water onto the city streets. (During the day, the water there is slightly fetid, so I’m assuming it’s a kind of a sewer.
Part of the reason people don’t complain about the lack of government services is the government, the Cambodian People’s Party–run by a gentleman named Hun Sen who has been the leader of this country since the Vietnamese ‘liberation’ in 1979–rules with a benevolently iron fist. I talked with enough people and read enough to decide not to publish this post, for instance, until we were out of Cambodia. For the first week I was here, I was felt slightly paranoid for thinking this, but then I found myself drinking with two Colombians who have lived here for two years and confirmed my suspicions–people who speak out sometimes disappear. I wasn’t worried about that happening to me, but I wasn’t taking chances. Cambodia’s twentieth century, in other words, has taught the Cambodians to be quiet, not ask question and toe the line.
During our bike ride through the countryside we stopped at a village, some 15 km from Siem Reap. (I’m not going to give the name of the village). Had our guide not taken us off the dirt road and onto the narrow footpath that led past a grove of trees and into the village, we never would have even know that people lived there.
We met up with the co-founder of an NGO (I won’t give the NGO’s name, either) who introduced us to the people who lived there and showed us some of the water filtration systems that the NGO had installed for some of the people in the village.
The highlight of this stop was when our guide took us to a small wooden workshop where six women from their late twenties to late fifties were assembling animal ‘stuffies’ to be sold in the markets of Siem Reap and beyond. The women greeted us with warm and loving enthusiasm–how weird I must look to them. One of the women came up to Sujata, put their arms together and pointed out that their skin was the same color. They asked our kids how old they were, wondered to our guide if Atticus is a boy or girl (he gets a lot of that here) and looked into our eyes for a longer time than most westerns are comfortable gazing into the eyes of strangers. I met and held their gaze, and I left there hoping to god they’d make it, because if it were not for the NGOs that worked in the village, these good people would lead exponentially more difficult lives.
I have to learn to hold their bravery and their graciousness in the same mind that I hold the rotten hand they’ve been dealt by their leaders.
Beyond this village there’s a third Cambodia. It’s not a part of Cambodia that I have seen or probably ever will see. I only know about it from our guide who mentioned, in passing, that the villages 50 to 100 km beyond the larger cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang are even more isolated and that the people who live out there are even more vulnerable than the village we visited.
I’m finishing this post in the Siem Reap airport. We will soon board a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and then we’ll spend a week in Vietnam. I still have a few more posts on Cambodia that I’ll publish in Vietnam.