Monday, 7 July 2008

The elephant sneezed...

We have fallen in love with Cambodia. We have been beguiled by its exotic charm of volcanic public baths, friendly locals with a great sense of humour, hardworking beautiful women and strong stocky men, pepper trees, cashew nut trees, papaya trees (maybe not jackfruit!) and small islands with clear water, white beaches and amazing , amazing seafood.
After only 3 weeks, we have also come to care a lot about what happens and what goes on in Cambodia. Many conversations have turned to discussing what we could do if we lived out here. And why? Simple, really, there is a lot to care about. One of the reasons for traveling was to learn more about the places we visit. Before visiting Cambodia, I knew a little about the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and I had seen the film The Killing Fields many years ago. But that was it. I certainly had little idea of what happened next after 1979 when the Khmer Rouge left. The story is deeply complicated, mysterious, frustrating and sad. The people who took over the country's reigns in 1979 are still in power today, yet Cambodia still faces a massive hangover from the horrendous and brutal policies carried out under the Khmer Rouge governance. The infant mortality rate is second in Asia after Afghanistan, adult illiteracy is high at 30% and the country sits very high on the Transparency International corruption league tables.

Politics is high on the agenda just now, with national elections at the end of the month and sometimes it is hard to know what all these facts and figures really mean. All we have to go on are anecdotal stories from the various tuktuk drivers and locals we spoke to. The party in power, the CPP, is meant to be riddled with corruptive practices. We were told that before the election they will pay villagers upwards of $5 each for their vote. They also have privatised many of Cambodia's main tourist sites. Angkor Wat, for instance, is run by a company owned by someone who is in the CPP government. Cambodians get access to the site for free but little of the huge tourist revenue gets pumped back into the local economy, one of the poorest in Cambodia. The Funcinpec party is the Royalist option and was, until recently, headed by the King's brother. But he is one of the last true international playboys, famous for sex scandals and more. The CPP party were going to arrest him and he went in to exile (very cloudy on the details here). He is now running a new political party from abroad and standing for election - whilst supposedly in exile. As I say, the details are a little cloudy but he is still the King's brother. The main opposition is the Sam Rainsey Party, and interestingly everyone we spoke to said they were going to vote for them. They want a change and a new direction. But the Sam Rainsey Party are also anti-Vietnam. Infact, most Cambodians don't seem to like the Vietnamese or the Thais for that matter. And it's not the England/Scotland banter we know and love/hate. They really don't like the Vietnamese and Thais and are not afraid to say it. Cambodians blame them for stealing much of their land, culture and heritage. Old disputes die hard.
Most Cambodians don't earn a lot of money and life is hard. A school teacher only earns $30 a month. A textile factory worker can earn $60 a month. There is no Welfare State and medical care is of a very basic standard. It may help to put it in context to know that the price of a litre of fuel is currently about $1.20 - $1.30. A litre of fuel will cover a distance of about 30km or more. If you need to travel each day on your moped to get to work (there are no public bus services, people usually travel 5 to a moped or stacked high on the back of a heavily loaded truck), it doesn't take great maths skills to work out that this doesn't leave much at the end of each month for food, water, clothes etc.
At the other end of the scale, a bank worker (with good ICT and English skills) can earn $200 a month and a Customs official can earn $200 a month plus an extra $500 in 'under the table' exchanges.
Therefore, who wants to be a teacher when the salary is so low? Education is free but many children still do not go to school. Family resettlement had made it financially impossible for many to travel to the local school, you still need to pay for a uniform and books and sometimes the teacher may demand a little extra money each day for you to attend. We were very fortunate enough to meet another colleague of Kathy's mum called Ros, who was in the process of setting up an NGO with the simple purpose of creating the means, wheels and community ethos for getting children to school. It makes you think, though, it really does.

There are many great organisations and NGOs doing terrific work in Cambodia, and as a tourist we felt it was important to be as responsible as we could in where and how we spent our dollars. The 'stayanotherday' (not to be confused with the classic East 17 song) leaflet and website was a great help and guide. Even then, there is a growing problem with what is known as 'orphanage tourism'. There are many orphans in Cambodia due to problems like Hiv/Aids or the fact that their parents simply can't afford to look after them. Tourists are welcomed to visit many of these and ' make the children's day'. But this presents its own problems of properly respecting the privacy of the children, how meaningful the interactions are and taking photos of the children like they were something to be admired at in a zoo.
One of the most interesting and imaginative suggestions for helping landmine victims was Miss Landmine 2009!

I repeat again, these are all anecdotes but they do make you interested and eventually they do make you care.

I like the story of the orphaned Mcac monkeys we visited at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, courtesy of Barb and the excellent Betelnut Tours. They group all the orphaned monkeys in the one cage and encourage them to bond together to form their own gang. This process is helped by us humans going up to the cage and baring our teeth at them to 'toughen them up'. There was one wee group of about five monkeys who were only interested in hugging each other. One of the larger ones was intent on spoiling there love-in and kept pushing them apart but it only served to make them cling even tighter to each other the next time they grouped together.

We are going to watch the upcoming Cambodian election with great interest.

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