While in Cambodia I said several times in conversation that I thought I would need to live there for a couple years to really understand the country - who really has the power and influence, the money and how that interacts with the general population. Who knows - maybe that two year stay will occur at some point.
At this point I would obviously not call myself an expert, but there certainly were some obvious things going on, and a scan of reports on the internet has solidified some ideas I had, particularly regarding Chinese influence and investment.
The most obvious thing you see while in Cambodia, is a huge disparity between the rich and poor. We worked with many people and children who survive on less than one dollar a day, however, every day we saw many very expensive vehicles traveling the streets of Phnom Penh. We also drove and floated past many properties that I could only call Mansions. There is also a lot of construction going on of opulent government and commercial buildings.The conclusion I came to was that someone either was hording the wealth, and/or some outside entity saw opportunity, and was playing the game "Monopoly", buying up all the green and blue and yellow properties, putting up hotels, and expecting the value to increase. With my little bit of knowledge and experience, I would say both of those things are true.
The other thing that was obvious was the reliance Cambodia has on outside aid. There was no sales tax when I bought stuff there, including gifts and computer networking gear. There also is no income tax collected from those millions of people surviving on one dollar a day. But there are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) everywhere, providing services to the people you would normally expect the government to provide. And my quick article scan confirmed that close to half the country's budget is paid for by the West, and China has started to make significant contributions as well. Apparently there are some taxes collected when outside entities make investments in the country, though there is also a lot of bribe money that changes hands as well to make projects happen, and to direct projects to those entities with connections and money.
The quick answer we usually received when we asked people who owned the mansions and cars, was that the person had some sort of tie to the government. My understanding is that many governmental officials also have side-businesses that they direct projects to, to enrich themselves and their friends (similar to Dick Cheney and Halliburton).
Once you learn the recent history of Cambodia, it makes it easier to excuse them for the dysfunctional nature of their government, even if it is still frustrating. In the early 70's, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed during the Vietnam war. And it was just 30 years ago that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was pushed from power, after killing millions of Cambodians. During the horrific time of 1975-1979, the combined effects of slave labor, malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people, approximately 21% of the Cambodian population. Those deaths were especially concentrated with educated Cambodians, who were considered suspect in the campaign to re-create the country in his vision. The result is a very young population comprised of many who still or until recently grew rice in the provinces.
The latest news that keeps recurring has to with Cambodians being pushed off of land they have lived on for many years, to make way for shiny new houses, roads and casinos. The landscape is continually changing as investment dollars keep flowing in, with a government whose pockets are greased and who don't seem to have much regard for the poor who get significantly impacted by their actions.
It is an opportunity for good-hearted people from around the world to converge and provide energy, support and funds to help the less advantaged people of the country. And my enthusiasm for helping stays strong by remembering that any effort that helps lift up a human, even if temporary, is of great value, and is worth doing. But I also wonder if the macro environment could undo in a second what might take years to build and create.
If you have a few minutes, here are links to some articles and info I found this morning:
The Center for Khmer Studies
Cambodia balances East and West
Chinese ‘Black Gold’ to Flow from Cambodia
China's growing influence in Cambodia
International analysts say China’s policies in Cambodia are only one aspect of its engagement with the region as a whole
CAMBODIA : Chinese influence on the rise
By Jessica Wawrzyniak
Today Dave (the President of ClassACT and one of my traveling buddies) put it aptly when he said, "I feel like we are aliens here". Indeed we are. It's as if we're constantly parading through the streets as people stare, and smile, sometimes giggle amongst themselves, and very often come up to us in slightly overwhelming numbers in order to harass us into buying something for a "very chip pry foh yoo". Every once in a while we'll hear the word "barang" casually floating through the air as if we don't know that they're talking about the "foreigners". Yes, it's true, at times we are treated as if we have just emerged from a glittering golden spaceship, but the general feeling we get (and this may very well be a completely naive assumption) is that they like us. This might be due to the flocks of gleaming children that surround us with questions of "howahyoo?watisyournam?wheayoofrom?howmanybrothasistadohave?" anytime we arrive anywhere. Most common is a timid request to have their picture taken. Once one kid builds up the guts to ask you and you acquiesce, then prepare yourself to take a hundred additional photos as the children suddenly charge forward with more assertive demands for their picture taken.
What truly cements the E.T. Experience for us here is that this is a world unlike any we have seen. Our little stint in Siem Reap led us to explore mystical temples thousands of years old that we couldn't imagine in our dreams. This was the stuff of another kind of fairy tale (the kind without Snow White and Cinderella), I am talking about something otherworldly, ancient, and exotic. It was here that we shared a one-of-a-kind moment with the universe: Just before dawn, as we stepped carefully up to our first moonlit view of Ankhor Wat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat), we looked up into the sky and saw a rainbow. This was no ordinary rainbow. It spanned the entire sky and there was no sun in sight. It was 5am. This was a MOON rainbow. We stared on, stumped by this wondrous sight. Then, it began to rain. And it didn't stop. We spent the entire day outside splashing through puddles and navigating temples - I haven't felt so much like a kid in a long time. This was truly an epic adventure, but more details on our temple hopping will come soon. I'm not done talking about the moon.
It's always interesting to find those minute differences between cultures - I'm talking about how different cultures emulate the sound of a rooster, or what the word for "ouch" is in each language. Well, the other day I discovered that the whole Man-in-the-Moon thing, is a total lie. Now that my life has been turned over to Cambodian rules (and boy are things different here), I have come to accept that there is no longer a man, rather a RABBIT that resides in the moon. Try looking at the moon, squint hard enough, and you will see it.
Today is the first day that my traveling companions and I classified our stomachs as feeling "almost normal" - after about 3 weeks of constant surprises and inhibiting instability, things have finally settled down. Overcoming this great hurdle is always a momentous victory for travelers, but it is ironic that after all this trouble, and after coming so far digestively, that tomorrow my two great bodyguards, Niels and Dave, will be flying back home to the US of A. I am sad to see my friends go, and I would like to give a personal public thank you to them both for being such great companions. It's been a crazy ride. Still, I will forge on.
We could very well be the aliens landing in the very real world, or just some good ol' run o the mill Americans landing on the moon, but however you see it, we are someplace we have never been before. And that makes all the difference.
By Jessica Wawrzyniak
November 1, 2009
It's difficult not to smile when you are in Cambodia. The only exceptions are the moments when you encounter the remnants of genocide and war: amputees, hundreds of hardworking homeless people in the streets all trying to make a living - but still can't afford a roof over their heads, very young children spending all day and night selling things instead of being in school, festering mountainous dumps where people scour for items that they can use or sell, animal cruelty, trash trash everywhere, burn victims, neglect of natural resources, neglect of humanity, people dying of illness, poverty, extreme poverty, and poverty of a level I didn't even know existed, HOWEVER in the face of all this, I have never walked down a street here and not gotten a smile from every single person who met my eye. These are an enduring people. An inspiring people. Because while the country itself has survived a wretched past, from which every single person is affected, the people charge forward and make no excuses. It is the potential that every individual has that is inspiring, for no one here feels that anyone owes them anything. They are willing to work their fingers to the bone if it means a better life for the people in this country. This is a place where the person who has nothing will give you the shirt off their back if they thought it would please you, and I'm not kidding. It is an overwhelming experience being here (which is probably why I haven't been able to write until now).
From the moment I arrived until just yesterday, things have been Operation GOGOGO. Our schedule here was jam-packed with teaching and visiting and working and preparing for our classes and gathering materials. It has been a privilege working with the children and young adults here. Teaching English and photography has been an absolute joy, but even moreso are the learning experiences that I am going through myself. While here I have learned bits of Khmer (the language of Cambodians), as well as been taught the steps of traditional Khmer dances (including the fun-filled coconut dance), and I also spent an entire day visiting the various families and homes (some of which can barely be considered shacks) of my students. This experience was extremely humbling as we were welcomed with open arms by complete strangers. I am hesitant to get into all this too much because I'm not sure I would be able to stop writing if I started telling you about the project I am involved in here - so to spare you, I will just give you links to places you can get a bit more information on:
and for some video and photo footage of what we've been up to check out Dave's page:
We haven't been out and about in Phnom Penh all too much, and in just a few hours we'll be heading to Siem Reap to visit the great temple of Ankhor Wat. It's an 8 hour speedboat ride from here all along the rivers and lakes of the region. I'll be sure to include photos in the next email.
But of course, no stint in Asia would be complete without a night of karaoke. CHECK.
Personally, I would like to write more and overload you with my adventures here, but I get reprimanded when too hefty an email weighs in people's inboxes. I hope this one is enough to answer your questions and concerns for now. I wish you all well and hope to hear news of your respective parts of the universe soon.
Last Sunday we visited an NGO near the hotel in Phnom Penh called Aw-Kun (which means thank you in Khmer) to check out what they were doing for kids in Cambodia and also because they served food and we were in search of lunch. I think it was the first time since we arrived that we ordered some non-asian food for lunch or dinner. Niels and Jessica got fish and chips. We also ordered a small pitcher of beer and a shake.
The restaurant that made the food was not actually on-premesis; it was down the street, and Aw-Kun had a deal where they received 10% of any food orders that came in.
About 10 minutes after putting our order in, we saw the funniest thing - our waitress, sitting sideways as a passenger on a motorbike, with a pitcher of beer in one hand and mugs in the other! I was too surprised and slow to snap a picture or video of that, but I did record this video of a small boy who came by the restaurant with his mom and brother.
Jessica and Niels were in "Go Mode" from the time they landed in Cambodia with the photo portfolio project. Weekend days were exactly like during the week, visiting schools, families, prepping for classes, meeting with people. It didn't stop.
So when it was all over, one coud imagine they might be tired.
Here is a peaceful moment, post classes, when we finally got to relax back at the hotel.
While there are many things that are different between going to public school in the US and Cambodia, there are a couple things that really caught our attention. I'll write about those in a second, but I have to mention that I am constantly learning new information, typically from people who don't speak English fluently, so sometimes the info has to be adjusted as we go along.
First, the school schedule is different. Here, there are two sessions per day, and children attend one of the two - either 7am-11am or 1pm-5pm. Classes are held 6 days per week, Monday thru Saturday. During the time of the day a child is not in school, they sometimes attend tutoring classes with a teacher, or they might be working. That includes small children who might be working. Sometimes children attend supplemental classes, for example to learn English. The school we are supporting provides supplemental classes in English, computers, art and dance.
The second difference has to do with cost. Though public schools in Cambodia are "free" to attend, it actually is required that children pay to attend. This is required because the teachers salaries are abysmal so the only way they can survive is to collect additional money. It might cost 12.5-25 cents per class for younger kids and more for older kids. This may not seem like a lot, but it is for a poor family living on $50 per month. 25 cents per day times 6 days per week for four weeks is $6. If you have three kids that's $18. A big chunk of your take home pay.
Considering the reason for the extra charge it wouldn't seem so bad except for what the consequences are of not paying this daily "tuition" fee. The typical teacher, from what I've been told, will treat the non-paying students differently in class; ignored basically. And even worse, if a child has not paid, any tests they take result in bad grades, even if they are the smartest person in the class.
The director of the school we support told us a story today from his childhood. He was told by his teacher that when they have the next big test, it will be necessary for each student to bring in a present. His family was poor, and could not afford anything more for school, so for a couple months he saved up what he could. He knew he didn't have enough money to buy a the kind of gift his teacher would want, so he bought a less expensive present. When the time came to give the present to the teacher, he handed it her, she looked at it, and then pushed it back at him and told him to bring it home. this was a situation he has not forgotten about.
The whole "paying off" the teacher thing does well in educating the students about bribery, which is really unfortunate.
The title really tells it all. What a great time we have had bringing the project here.I will try to get comments from Niels and Jessica.
We actually completed this two days early due to a holiday that starts on Thursday. It's the King's birthday, and apparently it is quite a big bash. The shortening of classtime came as a surprise to us, but Niels and Jessica adjusted the schedule so that everythiing could be completed in the time we had.
Here's a link to some info about the holiday. http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200310/30/eng20031030_127240.shtml
I woke up early Wednesday morning, which is actually normal for me no matter where I am,. though we were out late last night. But I haven't been sleeping as much since I've been here. After stumbling around a bit I realized I was up for real and needed some coffee. On other days there were some instant coffee packets in my room, but the maid did not replenish the supply, so I thought - well, let's go down to the lobby - maybe they'll have some! Not knowing whether this was a 24 hour serviced hotel, I wandered down to find the lobby quite dark. A gate was pulled across the hotel entrance and was locked, and some motorbikes were parked in the lobby. And, the two front desk clerks were sleeping in the chairs in the lobby!
My first thought was how I wasn't going to be having coffee anytime soon. I also thought how it seemed awful that these guys had to sleep in the lobby. I couldn't imagine that happening in the U.S., but actually this is quite common in Cambodia, from what I've been told. I've been told the tuk-tuk drivers sleep in their tuk-tuks. Many people sleep on their motorbikes. And, there are many who live and sleep at the city dump. Sleeping in the lobby is obviously better than the dump.
So, I headed back up to my room without coffee, showered, shaved, no coffee. By the way, I have an amazing view out my hotel window - the Sap river meets the Mekong River that goes out to the Mekong Delta. And, I can watch the sun rise over this every day. Wow. I love it.
Checked email, no coffee.
Around 6:30 I decided to go next door for some coffee. And that's when I saw the elephant. I was sitting in a chair facing the street, under the fans (you have to sit under the fans - it's hot!) Sipping my coffee (Yayy!). Motorbikes going by. Tuk-tuks going by. People walking by. And an elephant walking by!! Was I in Jumanji?? It just leisurely walked by, in the street, with his walker holding a rope. I guess it was out for a stroll.
I researched this and apparently the elephant's name is Sam Bo and he lives at the Pagoda up the street.