CAPTIVATED BY CAMBODIA
We made it – we’re back in Bangkok! Our transit through the Cambodian/Thai border crossing at Poipet/Aranyprathet went off with nary a hitch, taking all of half an hour! We got to Poipet, on the Cambodian side, at around 10:00am after leaving Battambang at around 8:00am, and it was pretty quiet so we were stamped out of that country in less than 10 minutes. A quick walk across the strip no-man’s land that sits between the 2 immigration portals (which, weirdly enough, is densely populated with casinos), another quick pass through immigration, and we were in Aranyprathet, Thailand. And man what a difference! Thailand is SO much more developed than Cambodia; the differences were so stark that it left us in shock. Here on the Thai side there are gutters along the roads, no garbage lining the streets, plentiful electricity, all the houses are made of bricks and mortar, there are franchise shops all over the place, and people are so well dressed! And our hotel here in Bangkok is just so posh compared to the simple Cambodian guesthouses we’ve been staying in. Thailand’s status as a regional super-power and burgeoning economy is clearly evident, and a lot of things just work so much more smoothly over here. Still, there are things about Cambodia we will always cherish – the people foremost amongst these.
During our brief travels between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Battambang, the Kingdom of Cambodia and its friendly people stole our hearts. How a people that have withstood so much horror and tragedy can be so open and welcoming is almost incomprehensible, and yet they are. Cambodia’s people really are its greatest asset and one of the main things we will always remember about this visit to South East Asia.
There are other things we will remember about Cambodia too – some of them not as nice as the people. But together all these things come together to form a collage of images that will stay with us forever. We chatted through some of these during our long bus ride from Aranyprathet to Bangkok today and have collated some of our favourite memories of Cambodia and most interesting random Cambodian factoids here…
The official religion of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism which is practiced by around 95% of the Cambodian population. Boys spend at least 3 months as novice Buddhist monks during their formative years and it’s common to see the monks and novices going house-to-house in the morning with their rice bowls, seeking alms (i.e. food for the day).
Cambodia’s flag is the only one in the world to feature a building: Angkor Wat.
Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected King as the head of state. The King is elected by the Royal Throne Council from the ranks of the royal family. The current monarch is 51 year old, unmarried, ex-ballet dancer King Norodom Sihamoni. Rumours indicate he might be gay, but no one around here seems to mind, the nation still loves him.
Mr Hun Sen, the head of government of Cambodia, is the longest serving leader in South East Asia and has ruled Cambodia for over 25 years. He was formerly part of the Cambodian Communist Party but is now leading a rebranded version of the party called “The People’s Party of Cambodia”. At the last elections Mr Hun Sen’s party won by a narrow margin, with cries of electoral rigging suggesting it may not have been a fair count. For now the reins are still in his hands but with the next elections coming up in 2017 it will be interesting to see what happens.
Corruption is a fact of life here. It’s everywhere – from police men pulling people over for imagined infringements, then claiming a small “fee”; to politicians practicing blatant nepotism and lining their pockets with millions in ill-gotten funds.
The gap between the rich and poor is huge, with the wealthy driving around in prestige cars and a third of the population living off less than $1.00USD per day. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with most people living off less than $2.50USD per day.
Luckily most Cambodians have very little debt. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, the new Cambodian government encouraged people to return to abandoned cities and towns by giving them free houses. As a result most families own their own homes, allowing them to use their meagre incomes for necessities such as food and clothing.
Clothing is pretty cheap here – I got some new T-shirts for $2USD each. This is because the country’s biggest source of income is the textile industry (the second largest source of income is tourism). Cambodia exports basic clothing items all over the world. Check the label on your shirts, you might be surprised!
Recently oil and natural gas were discovered in the waters off the Cambodian coast. These natural resources should help add some much needed revenue to the nation’s economy. How much of that revenue will be spent on public services, vital infrastructure, and common needs remains to be seen.
Most people in Cambodia prefer US dollars to their own Real. We never used any Real as virtually all transactions are carried out in US dollars. It’s like their currency isn’t even real… (get it?!)
What we would consider basic public services don’t exist here yet. For example, there’s no centralised rubbish collection in most places. As a consequence there’s rubbish everywhere and the smell of burning garbage (including plastics) permeates the air every evening.
Running water and electricity aren’t available to the 12 million+ Cambodians that live in rural areas. Most of the houses have a pond in their garden and multiple rain water urns from which they get water for drinking, cooking, and washing.
For those who ARE hooked up to the main power grid, electricity supply is intermittent and unreliable and most businesses have their own back-up generator.
You’ll find squat toilets and a few Western-style loos in the cities but in rural areas the majority of people do not have access to a toilet. They use the fields or dig a hole near to their house. The government has a target to give all Cambodians access to a plumbed toilet by 2025.
Petrol stations exist but most people buy fuel for their motorbikes and scooters by the litre from street corner gas stations that sell petrol in recycled soft drink bottles.
The rate of deforestation in Cambodia is one of the highest in the world. In 1969, the country was 70% covered by rainforest; now it’s just 3%.
Don’t stray off the path in Cambodia as it’s estimated there are still 4 million landmines still to be cleared. Left over from the civil war, the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnam Wat, landmines are still strewn across the country and cause a high number of causalities. It is estimated that it will take a decade or more before all the land mines are completely cleared.
Fresh food still reigns supreme. There has never been a McDonalds in Cambodia and Cambodia is the only country where KFC is losing money. And with good reason! Why would you eat that crap when the local food is so delicious?! We loved the food in Cambodia – especially the coconut-based curries and amok, the national dish that is just simply delicious.
The most important part of every meal is rice. In fact, Cambodians greet each other by saying “Nyam bai howie nov?” (“Have you eaten rice yet?”).
Most Cambodians don’t celebrate their birthdays and, due to the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, many don’t know their exact birth dates.
Traditional Cambodian weddings are quite involved and can go for up to 3 days. We saw a number of wedding festivities going on whilst we were in Cambodia and they seem to be lavish affairs, where hundreds, if not thousands, of people are invited. Why so many guests? Because everyone has to bring a gift of money*, so the more, the better for the newlywed couple.
*The couple has to pay for the wedding feast and festivities out of the funds received, but most get enough money gifted to them to have enough left over to buy some essentials for their new life together.
Funerals are expensive and a big deal, with everyone in the village coming out for the final funerary procession. A Cambodian funeral traditionally lasts for 49 days. This can be shortened to make it cheaper, but the longer the better for the deceased in the afterlife. We drove past a funeral procession today and saw for ourselves how many people turn up for an event like this. It shows how strongly connected the communities here still are; where the death of a member of the village affects everyone.
We like what we’ve seen of Cambodia and, even though we’ve just scratched the surface here, already feel like we would like to return and see more. There are beaches to explore down South, and hills to climb up North; plus there are hundreds more temples to visit in the ancient city of Angkor! We’ll just have to come back one day…