*Sigh* I don’t even know where to start with Cambodia… Cambodia is one of those places that will be forever engraved in my heart. It scarred me, it scarred me deep.
A broken heart
We flew to Siam Reap first where we planned to stay for two weeks, as we knew we wanted to visit the ancient ruins of Angkor but we also needed a couple of ‘settle down days’ after our big Thailand extravaganza. Siem Reap is a lovely small city by the river with beautiful sunsets and lovely people, and Angkor is unbelievable – it’s 400 square km of an ancient civilization, some of it super well preserved, some of it almost completely engulfed by the jungle which makes it even more amazing. But it’s also a city in one of the most impoverished countries in Asia, one with a sad recent history and with very visible scars.
I mean, when a local travel guide leaflet reads ‘take a bike tour through the beautiful country side but watch out if you leave the road, as there might be landmines’ you know something is off (like, how can this still be?), but it goes way deeper than that…
Before going to Cambodia I did a little research – I always try to do a bit of research about the countries we visit – and we learnt about the country’s brutal history, about there being a lot of poverty, and that we should expect a lot of beggars, many landmine victims, and particularly child beggars. Most organisations (charities and NGOs) ask tourists not to give children money, or candy, not to give them anything at all (not even food) as this makes it more difficult for these organisations to keep the children off the streets. But this is easier said than done.
We were staying in a hotel off the city centre, so that we could avoid the tourist crowds. What this usually means is that you also get a more ‘real’ feel for the city, and boy did we get it… While there are only a few beggars in the main streets (honestly very few), in the outskirts of the city you see what they mean by poverty. You see it. Raw-in -your-face poverty. I am not even talking about people begging, I am talking about what you see. Children, barely dressed, barely clean, running around at night on their own, collecting garbage, playing with each other on dirt roads, and yes, sometimes asking you for a ‘dollar’ or food.
And you feel soooo helpless. And it’s not like we don’t do any thing. We’ve donated to the very same organisations that ask tourists not to be a part of the problem. Heck, I’ve been donating to them ever since I got my first pay-check, but when you’re there, you feel absolutely useless. And angry, angry that it’s not enough, that you’ve not helped enough, that so many still need help. And so guilty. Soooo guilty. As in, ‘why do I get to be so lucky when so many aren’t?’ When did I get to be this lucky?
And I believe it in my heart that us, the lucky ones, have a responsibility to those who have not been so fortunate. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” which is to say “With great power comes great responsibility”. I follow that principle with all my heart, I do. I know sometimes we misunderstand the words ‘much’ or ‘great’, in the end it’s all relative, really, in the light of it all, how hypocrite would it be to tell this child ‘I don’t have enough’?
I cried on more than one occasion, I did. My heart literally broke in Cambodia. It shattered to pieces and I could barely hold it together.
A friend of mine worked there at an NGO/school for children for a couple of weeks and you should hear the stories. The children arrive on their own, no one is telling them you ‘have’ to go to school, just because it’s a safe place, it’s a place of hope, they want to go there. They arrive wearing what little old clothes they have, carrying a little plastic bag… they don’t have backpacks, and forget about books or any sort of stationary… Would you tell that child ‘you don’t have much’?…
And then you have children giving you the sad looks, begging you for help… And on the other hand the same organisations that are doing a great job (they are, I’ve read that in the past years they managed to decrease the number of child beggars drastically in Siem Reap) begging you not to be a part of the problem. And man oh man, it is tough. I have never felt so powerless.
For me it has been so far, one of the toughest, and probably deepest, travel (and human) experiences. This is not to put you off, by any means, on the contrary in fact – it’s a beautiful country, with beautiful people, and should absolutely be on your bucket list (I mean Angkor is probably one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been). And it needs you.
How can we help now?
Cambodia is, as I said before, one of the most impoverished countries in Asia. Many who visit feel as strongly as I did that we must step up and help, and many have even taken a further step, and stayed behind to build organisations seeking to help those who need it the most. Here are a two great organisations that are doing a brilliant job, that could use your support to help and bring hope to more children, and more families in Cambodia. I cannot stress enough how much your help is needed… Here are the links, if you’d like to check it out, and, who knows, maybe even help?
- Angkor Legacy Academy – the school where my friend worked – who are doing a tremendous job of providing free education to children from poor family backgrounds. Their goal is to diminish illness and preventable injuries in a village just outside Siam Reap, through education and by providing basic health and safety standards. You can check their work here.
- Cambodian Children’s Fund – is a bit broader (it’s also a much bigger organisation) that seeks to “transform the country’s most impoverished kids into tomorrow’s leaders, by delivering education, family support and community development programs into the heart of Cambodia’s most impoverished communities.” You can check them out here.
(If you’d prefer, you can conduct your own search – there are loads of organisations who could use you help now – or you can help other children around the world through UNICEF or Save the Children).
A history of war, genocide and broken families
We made a point of trying to understand Cambodia’s history a bit better, as we knew very little about it, to understand its people better, to understand the pain some still carry and their scars. I wanted to have read ‘First they killed my father – a daughter of Cambodia remembers’ before travelling there, but couldn’t find an e-version, so we ended up watching the Netflix movie of it, instead. It’s a good ‘first step’ into learning about the Khmer Rouge regime a bit better, and understanding what the people of Cambodia went through.
We also read some articles online and, in Phnom Penh, visited a Killing Field, equivalent to the Nazi’s concentration camps, where we got to hear history told by other survivors.
In four years, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the death of approximately a QUARTER of the country’s population.
They targeted all the ‘intellectuals’, the educated people – doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, engineers, monks, anyone with glasses, anyone who spoke a foreign language… – all were killed. Their only crime? Knowledge. Books were burnt, schools and hospitals destroyed, all western medicine was forbidden and people were stripped of all their belongings. Many were forced to do heavy labour in the fields – some died due to the extreme conditions and hunger – and many children and teenagers were turned into soldiers. Families were separated, and still to this day many people don’t know what happened to their brothers, sisters, or to their parents…
At the Killing Field you see the mass graves where they found all the bodies, you see the bones, and the skulls of the innocent that were killed there. The hardest bit for me, was the Killing tree – a tree where they killed the babies, in front of their mothers (who were then raped and killed), because they believed ‘there is no gain to keep them, and they might take revenge on you.’ I’m not going to lie, I had to sit in a nearby bench, take a deep breath and just stand still for a moment as I waited for the tears to stop.
Today the tree and the mass graves have little bracelets, small messages, toys and other tokens to honour the lives that were lost there. A Buddhist Stupa was built, containing bones of the victims, as a memorial to remember those who were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
I understand that this is hardly the glee place one seeks when on holiday, but I believe that knowing and understanding the dark bits of human history is of utmost importance to prevent it from happening again. How can we recognize the same evil, if we refuse to learn how it looks like?
On that note, one of the most shocking things I learnt in all of this, was that for years the West praised the Khmer Rouge regime! They even had a seat at the UN! Swedish ambassadors visited, and didn’t suspect a thing, as they were only shown what was convenient. For years the West recognized the Khmer Rouge as the rightful leader of Cambodia, thought they were doing great, whilst the genocide was taking place!! How can we be so blind? How can we ignore what refugees tell us? How can we label it as ‘just rumours’ if it came from those suffering it the most? If people are running away from home, isn’t that a sign?!
Really makes me wonder what kind of crimes are we choosing to ignore today? How many tyrants are we turning a blind eye on? Who else are we failing?…