When I was invited to join the ACYPL delegation to the Philippines and Malaysia, they gave us the opportunity to extend our trip.
In college, I learned about Angkor Wat and always wanted to see it. Candidly, I didn't know where it was until researching a possible extension - learning it was in Cambodia. After quick research to make sure it was safe, I booked the ticket and off we go.
My Cambodia goal was singular: see Angkor. I didn't know if life would ever take me back to Indochina, so this was a check mark. Other than a plane ticket and a hotel reservation, I had done no prior planning. I thought I'd rent a bike and go tour. But thanks to 3am karaoke, I'd slept absolutely zero hours before leaving for the Kuala Lumpur airport at 4am. Exhausted and maybe a little hungover, I decided day one probably shouldn't be on a bike. So upon checking into hotel, I went down to the street and rented a Tuk Tuk driver for a whopping 18 bucks for the whole day.
So off we went. For the uninitiated, a Tuk Tuk is a two wheeled cart towed by a moped. In the hierarchy of traffic in Cambodia, its arguably just above a bike. And since the mopeds, cars, bikes and TukTuks tend to drive where there is open road, regardless of lane or traffic direction, every ride was its own adventure.
He spoke decent English. Most "white" visitors are European, so he was a bit shocked when I said "US." We chatted a bit as we rode up to Angkor Thom. After exploring for a few hours, we went to lunch. I bought him lunch to pick his brain on the area, beginning the three day conversation that will stay with me.
To me, Cambodia's poverty is devastating, far worse than Manila or Guatemala, my previous experience with soul crushing poverty. Per capita GDP is just over $2,000, or roughly 4 percent of per capita GDP in US. But in reality, this really overstates it. Some 80 percent live in poverty, defined as an income of 2 dollars a day or less. Most of that 80 percent makes more like a dollar a day. While wealth and cost of living, at some level is relative -- most of the meals I ate in the country, largely from street carts or market vendors, only cost 2-3 dollars, that is wicked expensive for most people who subsist on something akin to a rice soup. Any protein is a luxury here.
Riding by Tuk Tuk provided a vantage that a car or bus would miss: the smell and the noise. Rural Cambodia smelled like fire, because every home had one going in the yard to cook. As for noise, if not for the roar of an occasional tourist bus and mopeds, it would have been silent. We stopped at one particularly beautiful rice field, and it was absolutely still. You could hear animals and men cutting in the rice fields. No hum of development, no loud stereos. Quiet. Almost disturbingly so.
So back to my guy. Turns out we are same age. He's married. Three kids. Age 6, 3 and 1 (spoiler alert), the oldest who I first met when Syem and I ran into each other at a town Christmas lighting my first night there.
He was the first in his family to live outside of the rice fields. His family land was bombed by the US in the Vietnam War. His dad lost a leg to a mine accident, and it sounds like his brother has PTSD, which research unsurprisingly shows afflicts a disturbing percentage of the population here. There is growing evidence in Cambodia that because PTSD is so prevalent that it actually gets passed on to the next generation.
Despite this, my driver self taught English, not perfect, but plenty for us to communicate. Over lunch, I drill him a bit. He listens to voice of America and watches CNN & knows our politics well. He pointed out with frustration the pictures of government officials that line the roads, just muttering "corrupt, very corrupt" as we pass beaten down schools and hospitals. They don't really do anything for the people he says.
Tourism has been a boom for this part of Cambodia. Some 1 million people a year come to see Angkor. Hotels and new construction are everywhere. In fact, I found the town to almost be annoyingly western. You had to get out of city center to find good authentic food. The development has led to jobs, but its hard to say if people are really benefiting. I ran through several neighborhoods on Sunday morning & basic services are completely lacking. The beautiful river which goes through the center of town turns into a dumping ground, sewage ditch and sadly, swimming/bathing pool only a block away from the tourist district. Running past naked kids splashing in that polluted sewer of a river was jarring. The main hospital in town looked like a war zone from the outside. No westerner would go there except under total direst. Yet the wealth from tourism has led to a series of beautiful homes being built behind walls, just outside the city limits.
My guy came here after peace was restored in the late 90s, and all in all does well. Makes enough to be able to afford to send his kids to private school (50 dollars a month) where they will learn English. He owns his own cart, though he seems to operate as a subcontractor for the hotel, which I'm assuming provides him a lower, but more steady income. His wife does not work now, so he has to earn for him, his family, his disabled dad and his brother, who can't hold down work. In a year, he will make less than I made in a month at 24 years of age.
Like him, there isn't a family that wasn't touched by the war that took some 2 million lives. My guy was a baby during the genocide, but like all Cambodian kids of the 80s & 90s, he grew up dodging landlines and dealing with violence from the ongoing civil war that didn't really end until nearly 2000. We'd drive down the road and he'd point out fields and say "pop, pop, Khmer Rouge" with his hand making a gun. Once he got on his knees to show an execution. And frankly, his story is a relatively tame one. He's still here, along with his parents. Plenty of late 30s/early 40s guys in Cambodia can't say that.
Climbing temples, you can't help but think of families that hid in the ruins for years. And you can't miss the crushing poverty, in part because everyone is really short, growth stunted by lack of basic nutrition. Yet everyone you meet is absolutely wonderful. Cambodians, despite their history and poverty are some of the most welcoming and gracious people on the planet. And that's where it gets you, and if you let yourself dive in, it's no longer a vacation. In fact, I never once felt threatened -- well except when I got a stink eye from a military officer running through town. My gut says most Cambodians probably feel the same way.
You can get Templed out here. On day 2, we did like 12-14 sites. Climbing up old stairs not built for 200lb guys with size11.5 shoes, even when you are decently fit, will wear you out. So by Day 3, I just wanted to explore. There was a temple about 35km north of town and a museum to landmine nearby that I wanted to see. But I told my guy I just wanted him to show me his country, the way he wanted me to see it.
When he picked me up, he had his kid. There were places he wanted to show him too, now that he was 6, who had not been beyond the Angkor temples, which are 10km north of town. So we climbed in the cart and off we went. As soon as we got outside the temple tourist area, Cambodia changed. We passed ox drawn carriages taking timber and rice to the market. We drove by homes, usually just a 15x15 platform, raised up on stilts to avoid the floods, with families cooking on their open fires, kids often playing in nearby ponds, some of which were bomb craters. I didn't run into a single beggar, but I was definitely economic development. Every time we stopped, sometimes for above mentioned ox carts, people would run to the tall white guy trying to get me to buy everything from baskets, to rice, to trinkets and even used Tupperware. When we'd walk around, my driver's kid would often ride on my shoulders (not sure he's hung out with many 6ft tall white people), which only drew more sales people, sometimes other kids who really wanted me to put them on my shoulder as much as wanting me to buy their stuff.
At one temple, I met a girl selling scarves. She looked 11. I asked her her name and age. She was 21, raising money for college, so she said. There was a story with every kid selling things, and prewired to be cynical, I thought it was BS, so I asked her course of study: economics. I was still skeptical, so I asked her why many Cambodians choose the dollar over the Cambodian Rial. Her answer: 2-3 minutes on the micro economics of the country and lack of trust in Cambodian authority/currency policy. So I bought four scarves. Sad thing is, she's exactly who Pol Pot would have targeted- someone trying to better their own lot by being more intellectual. That's who they killed in the genocide. As a result, some studies suggest illiteracy is as high as 90 percent.
This is a crowd that seems to take real pride. Every morning, you'd see ladies sweeping the dirt medians, or cleaning up the market area. Guys were chopping down weeds with machetes. Some of them are paid, but most of them aren't. Kids are taught to bring their hands together and bow to guests. My six year old buddy bowed to me. By the end of the day, I'd proudly taught him the fist bump as a more appropriate greeting for me. His Dad approved.
I could tell stories for weeks about little interactions here or there, and I found myself exhausted of tourists who would treat their Cambodian hosts like second class citizens, and/or those who chose to not show respect at their monuments. For all they have survived, they've earned our respect in my opinion. I haven't had to endure 1/1000th of what the average 40 year old Cambodian has dealt with.
Back to the trip. It's me and the kid in the cart. We rode down the "highway" as he pointed out the animals: monkeys, dogs, and assorted other things. I ran him through his colors and numbers. Smart little dude.
Typically, because my driver hadn't paid the "fee" to be an "official" guide, over the three days, when we got to temples, he didn't accompany me into temples (unless there were no police around). He did ask me to take his kid to one early on day 3, which was more fun for me than him.
When I got to the genocide museum, I expected to go it alone. But before I knew it, I had a six year old at my feet, as well as his Dad. We spent an hour in that museum. He explained to me the pictures, the political figures and the weapons. He knew every gun, it's common name and what country it came from. He showed me the uniforms. His view of foreign policy was impacted by those countries who armed Pol Pot. This wasn't a museum for him, this was his life. His kid had no idea what were seeing, he was just running around like a kid, mostly pointing out tad poles in a nearby pond.
But then we got to a wall of pictures that hit me like a 2x4. It was of child soldiers, some as young as 8. They taught the kids that shooting was a game. There was a poster of a kid asking a dead man to "get up, i want to keep playing." And I looked at that kid who had been in the cart all day. And I had to walk outside. That was all the Cambodia I could take.
I went back up to Angkor Wat for the final sunset. Most people watch it from a hill nearby so they can see the sun set over the temple. That hill can have literally thousands of tourists, which was the last thing I needed. A lady at the hotel told me to go inside, that no one is there, and watch the color of the stone change. And she was right. There were maybe 5 of us in that upper courtyard watching the light change. It was beautiful, as the shadows changed on the carvings. It was also a chance to process. How is it that people who literally have lived in a constant hell for 40 years still be as warm and welcoming as they are? I'd like to think I wouldn't be angry, or have total disdain for guys like me. I'd like to think that.
He took me to the airport late on Sunday night, gratefully for me, sans kid. First time in three days we didn't talk. I didn't know what to pay him each day, so I'd give him two $20s, twice his fee, but still way too little. Each day, as he did at the airport that night, he'd try to give me $20 back, saying "too much...too much." Too much? I'd pay for his kids to go to school if I thought he'd let me. We exchanged hugs, I gave him my card, and off we went back to our own, very different worlds -- worlds as different as planets.
Life's lottery is dumb luck. By world standards, if you are reading this, you like me are lucky. Guys like me don't have institutionalized limits on our dreams -- our dreams are limited only by our work ethic and often the luck we create. That kid's future is predestined largely by the geography of his birth, yet he was like any other six year old. Fortunately for him, he is getting an education, clearly has two good parents, but the history of Cambodia suggests there is no guarantee for him or his age cohort. In a land of such poverty and disparity, violence is always a real possibility. As the kid gave me a hug and a fist bump at the end of that long day, I do know I'll always wonder.
You can go there and rent a car, or hop on a bike and go temple hopping. I expected to be, and was wowed by the temples. What I didn't expect is to get hit over the head by the place. A friend who went to grad school in Vietnam told me that three days was all they could handle in Cambodia before it started to break them down. I didn't understand. I do now.
I do believe things happen for a reason. Maybe God felt I needed to be reminded of the blessings of life in America. Regardless, His Christmas present to me was that regrounding that we all need from time to time.
With that, the blog will return to politics soon, as life's other journeys take priority. I sincerely appreciate all the comments I've gotten over the last two weeks. Just do yourself a favor: go see it for yourself. Angkor is amazing in its own right, but the people you meet are worthy in their own right of your trip. And if you go, I know where you can find a guy there with a moped and a cart. Just down the street from the Borei Angkor hotel. Only 18 bucks for the day.