(Photo: The home of one of the “luckier” families in Kep, Cambodia)
Early on Wednesday morning 24th October 2018, we headed to Ha Tiên in Vietnam to meet our escort and interpreter Mr. The, who would accompany us across the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. We had heard from a number of reliable sources that it was a relatively common occurrence for tourists to encounter corrupt officials who would impose absurd costs for visas on foreigners travelling out of Vietnam and onwards to Cambodia. In fact there are men and women who surround the border waiting for vulnerable tourists to arrive on the pretence that they will help them with border officials to have ease of passage at minimal cost. The flip side of this scenario is that these men and women charge a huge sum of money to tourists for their “service”. Mr. The had come recommended to us by a westerner living in Ha Tiên to help us avoid “hidden” costs that often “suddenly” arise on the whim of an official at the Border Control Office.
Mr. The, a dark-skinned middle-aged Cambodian man with a gentle tone to his voice greeted us in Ha Tiên and explained to us in broken English what we needed to do that morning. He was very much aware of the effect that corruption was taking on the tourist industry in his country and wanted to assist foreigners as much as possible to counteract what was going on for many years at these border crossings. His fee was just €40 which included the travel costs, and seemed a small price to pay to avoid any potential difficulties we might encounter had we have travelled on our own. A taxi arrived to take us to the exit point of Vietnam. We walked across the Vietnamese border and entered the office on the other side to have our visas processed by the Cambodian officials. Mr. The followed our taxi on his motorbike and made himself known to the uniformed officials on our arrival. They sat behind their desks looking serene and intimidating, using abrupt hand gestures instead of words. Mr. The stepped in immediately and spoke to them respectfully and almost pleadingly in their native tongue. Within minutes, more abrupt hand signals and our paperwork was processed with no “additional” costs added ad infinitum! Mr. The quickly guided us to another car waiting for us (and our luggage) on the Cambodian side of the border to take us to our first stop, Kep, just 30kms from the border. It felt like we were taking part in an old James Bond movie, and that Sean Connery would appear out of nowhere at any moment in his specially equipped Aston Martin. I was quite relieved to see our luggage being tossed into the boot and not us! 🙏🙏🙏
(Photo: The border crossing on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border)
Having spent almost two months travelling through Vietnam, I was very much shocked at the poverty I witnessed there. I expected that Cambodia would be very much the same, however, I was in for yet a greater shock as we drove along the practically non-existent roads to our next destination. The fact that this country is one of the poorest countries in the world became obvious as we drove. White malnourished cows wandered along the roadside. A large white cow tethered to a post inside a corrugated iron shelter caught my eye. I assumed it was a cattle shelter. And as we spluttered along the pot-holed roads, barely hanging onto the teeth in our heads with the jolting of the car, I spotted children sitting on top of wooden boards that ran along the width of the shelters, balanced on boxes to raise them off the muddy floor below. There were no lights, just total darkness inside. In some of the shelters, young adults lay sleeping on these boards. As we passed more and more of these corrugated boxes, I quickly realized that these structures were in fact homes! The luckier families live in these I’ve been told. The not so lucky ones live under sheets of tarpaulin held up by bamboo sticks. As we came closer to Kep, homes became a little bit more sturdy, with many old Cambodian style wooden houses built on stilts to protect them from the flooding that comes with their “wet season”. But even these houses are not fit for purpose in many instances and would be considered too dangerous to use as a home in Ireland. In all my lifetime, I never ever realized that this type of poverty existed in the world today! My understanding of “poverty” was the worse case scenarios I’d come across in the western world. Seeing what I was seeing as I travelled the roads into Kep and beyond, has been one of the most life-changing lessons I have learned while travelling on this journey. This is not “poverty” as we know it. This is Cambodian people living in conditions the equivalent of what we would deem apocalyptic. Hell on earth basically! And sadder still, they do not know. This is all they know! They have no way of accessing media from the outside world and so they live in these hellish conditions totally unaware of how the rest of the world live! Or maybe it’s better that they don’t I guess? As I grew more and more saddened by what I was seeing, the biggest question for me was “WHY”? WHY? Why are people who are born here expected to live like this? Why? Who is to blame for this? And why … just WHY? If people in other parts of the world live with their only worry being where the next designer bag or car is coming from, or indeed, me, who had just spent three weeks enjoying the wonders of an idyllic paradise island only 100 kms away, WHY are these people living like this??? By the time we reached our accommodation in Kep I wanted to delve into the history of these people, their Government to try to find some logical answer to the questions that were running through my mind at 100 mph. However, with limited access to Wi-fi, my questions would take longer to research and I would have to rely on local knowledge for answers.
Yet again, when we arrived at our clean and comfortable, but very basic, one roomed Cambodian style home raised on stilts, I was hit with pangs of guilt that we had at least a bed, electricity and running water. The homes we had just passed didn’t have any such luxuries! Once we had settled in, we rented scooters for the princely sum of $6 per day (princely by Cambodian standards. The average household income for a Cambodian family is just over $2 per day) and set off to explore the locality further. What we discovered was mostly the ghostly remains of old derelict French style buildings hidden behind large walls with padlocked gates, clearly abandoned many years ago by the French who occupied many of the finer buildings in Cambodia almost 150 years ago. Evidence of the grim atrocities that this country has endured over the last 50 years during the war in Vietnam is everywhere. And even more so, the impact of the genocide that went on during the years of the Khmer Rouge reign, led by the well renowned Monster who was the Head of State back in the 1970’s, Pol Pot! Yet again, the word apocalyptic best describes the ruins that remain, not only of the buildings, but of the bridges and roads and whole infrastructure in most parts of Cambodia. This country has not even come close to the beginnings of recovery from its past, and it won’t, because the existing Government won’t allow it. The existing Government is basically made up of the lower members of the earlier Khmer Rouge regime, (the higher members having either died from old age or having been imprisoned for purely international PR purposes rather than to punish them for what they put these people through during their reign). There was an eerie silence throughout the countryside as we travelled, and again, a sense of doom and desolation. We travelled onwards towards Kep beach where we found the market square with young people selling street food from their simple stalls. Buddhist Monks from the local Monastery strolled along the beach in their orange robes, skimming stones into the water. We stopped for a cold drink at one of the bars and sampled yet more of the refreshing lime and peach juices, and a dip in the warm water of the Gulf of Thailand was a must. In the evenings, small monkeys waited patiently on the walls by the beach for the last of us humans to leave, allowing them to feast on the days scraps of food left behind. We had been forewarned not to approach them for fear of them dishing out a severe bite. Their cuteness is an illusion that many tourists fall foul of when attempting to get near to them, offering them food in exchange for a possible cuddle. It doesn’t happen! They are vicious and thankfully we knew this in advance, as the novelty of these creatures is quite enticing if we didn’t.
Over the days we spent in Kep, we came across groups of impoverished children happily playing along dirt roads. When we stopped to talk to them, the older children watched us cautiously with fear clearly evident in their huge brown eyes, while the younger ones (no more than 4 years old), approached us excitedly to examine us and our scooters. They were a sight to behold!
(Photo: Children playing on the roadside in Kep, Cambodia)
Another very unusual part of Cambodian society is the absence of older people, i.e. people from 60 years and older. Over 50% of the population of Cambodia is made up of people under the age of 22 years old. Only 4% of the overall population of now 16m people are over 65! A shocking statistic! While travelling throughout other countries in Asia there were elderly men and women everywhere. China, in particular, where grandparents are the main carers for their grandchildren are a huge part of society. However, there are very few people over the age of 60 still living in Cambodia. Why? Well most of them were murdered by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970’s. Demographics from a number of census records from 1947 through to 1981 shows continuous population growth up to and including 1971 with an average growth of approximately 30% every ten years. However between 1971 and 1981 there was a sudden drop in the population of over 8%. Over 2 million people were murdered or died from malnutrition, which goes some way towards explaining the huge deficit of elderly people living in Cambodia today.
And again, the same question, WHY? The answer, genocide in the main! So I had not really been conscious of this guy Pol Pot, the Prime Minister of Cambodia from 1976-1979 before coming to Cambodia. I had seen the movie the Killing Fields as a young girl, but living in Ireland, I couldn’t relate to it on any real level. Yes, it moved me. I remember that much about it. But no more than any other movie did…. the old romantic ones where I cried at the end, put the popcorn away and then got up and moved on and forgot about it. The Killing Fields at that time to me was “just another movie”. I had no real connection or knowledge or understanding about the background to it. What young child would I suppose? But here, being here. Seeing the poverty and the carnage that the years of war left behind made me want to watch it again. And I did. But this time in a whole different light.
(Photo: Prime Minister of Cambodia Pol Pot 1976-1979)
It would be too detailed and lengthy to go into the whole history of Cambodia under this man’s reign as Prime Minister and leader of the Khmer Rouge. A shortened version which gives some insight into the poverty that remains in Cambodia is that Pol Pot came from a wealthy Cambodian farming family. He struggled with his education, failed miserably at many of his “prestigious” exams and eventually went on to study Marxism-Leninism amongst the wealthy aristocratic society in Paris in France, eventually returning to Cambodia, becoming involved in politics. The Vietnam war rained terror on Cambodia during the 1970’s. Both the Vietnamese and the United States Army basically bombed the s**t out of Cambodia in an attempt to prevent North Vietnamese soldiers using it as a passageway from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Saigon in the South to attack the southern Vietnamese people. With war escalating between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians in the 1970s, Pol Pot was elected Prime Minister of Cambodia in 1976. His vision was to establish an agrarian socialist society. Probably influenced by his Marxist ideology! His aim was to have a self-sufficient state. He forced those working and living in the cities in Cambodia into the countryside and his intention, unrealistic as it was, was to force his own people to be self reliant and successful by working on collective farms. His expectations were delusionally high in the context of the amount of work that he expected from the Cambodian people. Those who failed to reach his unrealistic and unachievable targets, working in horrific conditions, were tortured and starved at best and executed or buried alive at worst. And those who objected to his ideology were viciously murdered by his party, the Khmer Rouge. He blamed the evacuation of the Cambodian people on the threat of American bombings on the cities, and the Cambodian people were none the wiser and obeyed his orders. They believed the evacuation would be temporary. The Cambodian people became peasants to the Government and were starved, religion was banned, minority groups exterminated, and educated people executed for fear of them retaliating. Anyone who wore glasses was immediately executed on the grounds that they were reading too much and likely to be educated. In the rice fields, in order to keep the output targets high, workers’ rations of rice were taken to inflate the figures resulting in them dying of starvation. Today, some 20 years later, over 20,000 mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era have been discovered in Cambodia. It is estimated that this Monster Pol Pot and his party were responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people during their reign. In 1998 Pol Pot was summoned by an international tribunal to account for his actions during his reign, however, he died (conveniently) that night. According to his wife he died of “heart failure”, however when his wife refused to hand over his body for an autopsy and had him cremated, suspicions were raised that he had in fact taken an overdose and killed himself. Almost 50 years later, a United Nations backed tribunal has convicted only three senior Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity. Some have died while waiting to go to trial…50 years later!??@. And while the senior figures are no longer in power, every dog on the street knows that the existing government is merely an extension of the same party, the Khmer Rouge! Cambodia is not a poor country per se. There is wealth and money there. It’s just not shared with the people. It’s put into the pockets of the current leaders. Greedy, heartless leaders who pass their own people every day living in squalid conditions, yet still line their own pockets with money. And no human rights organisation seems to be doing a goddamn thing about it! The excuse? It’s a democracy now and no longer a communist country?! Oh really? So the leader of the opposition party that apparently won the last election was executed in strange circumstances and a recount of the election result was called by the current leader Hun Sen! And imagine, when they recounted, Hun Sen’s party was found to be the winning party?! Ok then…lets not give a s**t and ignore what’s going on there so! Grrrrr!
Yet again I digress from our travels. But it’s important to know what’s happening in the world I believe. I didn’t know until we came here about the conditions that exist for people in Cambodia, and as I’ve pointed out before, all travel blogs are not glamorous. In this part of Cambodia there are no bikini bodies and muscle men lying on the beaches, other than foreigners. There are few holiday resorts per se! In fact, we left Kep after one week and travelled further north to the city of Kampot. To arrive into a western style resort was like stepping from one world into another. It was situated on the banks of a river where firefly danced at night and palm trees isolated it from the poverty that existed outside. It had a pool which was a blessing in temperatures of almost 40 degrees. Run by a wonderful guy from Holland called Hans, who left Europe in the 1970’s to come out to do refugee work in an effort to help the Cambodian people who had suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Now retired, he has made Cambodia his home and has set up this wonderful resort (and only resort) just outside the city. A few days there gave us time to refuel.
Little did we know how much we needed to before we reached our next destination of Sihanoukville, a major city further north, and a place we decided to visit for ten days because it was the only place along the west coast of Cambodia that allowed us to fly directly to our next destination, Perth, Australia.
If we thought we’d seen the worst of Cambodia, we hadn’t! Sihanoukville was yet to come!
….More to come!