Traditionally, as we leave a country we take time to reflect on what we’ll miss (and what we won’t). We’ve been a bit slack on this trip, only managing New Zealand and Australia so far, but are determined to revive the exercise. It’s a good way to compare perceptions and helps balance any bad memories with good ones.
So here goes for Cambodia. We were last here six years ago. This time we will miss:
- The genuinely open and hospitable people. As tourists we are essential to people’s livelihood, so we would expect a warm welcome from people working in industries where our dollars are the focus. But, more than any country we have visited, people return smiles in the street, appreciate our pathetic attempts at Khmer, are interested in talking about themselves and finding out about us. Culturally, Cambodians are wired to maintain a sunny exterior and we simply don’t know enough about the whys and wherefores of that to understand its effect on individuals. All we do know is that it automatically breaks down that first hurdle to social interaction and makes the country an easy place to spend time.
- The pride in all Cambodia has to offer. Despite the depredations of colonialism and the Khmer Rouge, there is still a rich cultural heritage to explore, and places like Battambang are incubating a new generation of artists and performers. Everyone is keen to prove that Cambodia is no husk and that economic poverty does not need to mean an intellectual or cultural desert.
- Thirst for knowledge. Every young person we meet is studying something – whether it’s the waiter who goes to night school or the tuk-tuk driver improving his (they are all men) foreign languages by talking to customers. That said, the loss of Cambodia’s keenest minds in the 70s has left a gap that they are still working to bridge. The quality of further education is variable at best (how can someone studying web design not learn how to Google?) but rebuilding an army of brilliant teachers takes generations. Remember that next time someone complains about experts…
And what we won’t miss:
- The poverty. For all that we have seen some signs of improvement in people’s standard of living, it is clear that increased wealth remains firmly in the hands of a small minority. Few people have refrigeration (especially in rural areas), electricity is eye-wateringly expensive and social care is generally provided by family or charities. It’s hard to envisage something as life changing and precious as the NHS or welfare state emerging here any time soon.
- The struggle for hygiene. Without potable water on tap, decent housing, affordable medicine or effective waste management, and with temperatures regularly in the 30s, it’s amazing anyone is ever well. Child and maternal mortality is high, mostly from preventable or easily treatable conditions. When Allan came down with a nasty dose of food poisoning we were able to buy medicine for a handful of dollars. He was on the mend within 24 hours. For some families, that’s more than they could possibly afford, even if they could get to a reliable pharmacy. For us, it translates into mild anxiety about finding well-prepared food. For many Cambodians, the risk is very real.
- The roads. In towns, traffic speed is fairly slow, with most people travelling by scooter or bike. Although driving rules are vague to non-existent, there’s a mutual need to look out for other road users. On the main roads connecting towns, where there are more lorries, buses and four-wheel drives, the tone changes. Delivery drivers are under constant pressure and are equipped with old and dangerous vehicles. On the journey to Battambang our bus driver was, thankfully, on the ball when a driver pulled straight out into traffic and into his side, forcing the front of the bus off the road. The other driver couldn’t get round him so simply waited for the bus to move off, all the while talking into his mobile phone. Road accidents are another major cause of death and good quality hospitals are rare and expensive.
It will be fascinating to see what the next six years bring. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to find out for ourselves in 2023…