from down under to up over: khmer kisses.

be careful because cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit.  you will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.   -joseph mussomeli, us ambassador (2005 to 2008)

tucked into the pocket of southeast asia is a small country that exists today very much as it did 1,000 years ago when angkor kings ruled the land: cambodia.

the white building, phnom penh.  a community for artists, prostitutes and other misfits. think 'cambodian chelsea hotel'.
the white building, phnom penh. a community for artists, prostitutes and other misfits. think ‘cambodian chelsea hotel’.

like many impoverished countries, the former khmer kingdom is lost in the shadows of its superior neighbours, thailand and vietnam.  it is haunted by the history of an inhumane holocaust and generations of gruesome genocide.  it still suffers from cold and callous corruption.  yet somehow with the strength of the human heart and an everlasting credo to “live by nature”, the people of cambodia rise every morning as if each day is a chance of renewed survival; just as morning dew brings fresh air – a new day filled with fresh hope.

an unusual stop on my itinerary back from down under to up over  i only had eight days to immerse myself in this conflicted, torn society.  the dusty drive from the airport to the guesthouse was enough to break my heart.  but a week plus one day was enough to capture my heart.  for through all the stench filled streets and broken down slums there shone the kindest smiles i have ever seen.  it was love at first sight, indeed.


i came to cambodia with an agenda.  six months ago when organising my plane ticket to cross back over hemisphere, my intention was to come to the ancient land of kamjuba to help a friend from new zealand set up a social enterprise whereby bikes were given to children in rural areas so that they could ride to school.  for many of these students it would be the only way for them to access education, to learn how to read, to escape the rice paddies and have the freedom to be a child; to build a future.  sadly (and frustratingly) the program was stopped short when immigration officers demanded a monetary bribe (in the thousands of dollars) for the cargo of bicycles which had been donated and shipped (for free) from new zealand.  defeated, my kiwi friend returned to his home country to put his goodwill to use there.  i cannot blame him, i was fuming for him.  but this is the pathetic reality of foreign aid (at times) for even an act of kindness comes with a price.

for a while i mulled over what to do – do i reroute my travels or do i soldier on?  i didn’t have the finances to amend my itinerary nor did i have the courage to travel to cambodia alone.  but my heart fluttered to go.  true, i have spent ten years fundraising for international development programs but never i had “gone into the field”.  my trepidations lied within my sentimental weakness of not being strong enough to witness the living conditions of southeast asia—to be confronted with extreme poverty.  indeed, i cared but with blinded naivety, i was not prepared.

alas, my decision to go was made when my travel writer friend bought a plane ticket to come with me.  with a veteran vagabond by my side i was elated. not only would I be traveling for the first time with someone i adored but i would be mentored along the way.  karma turned it all around it seemed.


the independence monument in phnom penh to mark cambodia's freedom from french rule in 1953.  sixty years of suffering in succession, many argue if cambodia is a free nation at all.
the independence monument in phnom penh to mark cambodia’s freedom from french rule in 1953. sixty years of suffering in succession, many argue if cambodia is a free nation at all.

with the decision made to go i was faced with another conundrum: do i approach my time in cambodia as a working holiday or exotic exploration?  my writer friend and i thought it’d be best to do a little bit of both.  so it was through one of those kevin-bacon-six-degrees-of-separation moments where we met a bloke, this larger than life, red-beared, intelligent man who had devoted his entire being to helping others and building sustainable communities, who through his many layers of generosity connected us to his business partner in phnom penh who was just as kind.  upon our arrival in the capital city, we had rooms arranged at you khin house, a stable of boarding rooms attached to a school (of which the proceeds from the accommodation supports) and appointments made to visit various charities and social enterprises throughout the phnom penh region.  to say that i am grateful for the efforts of these two men is truly an understatement.

like most quick trips the itinerary never goes to plan as an opportunity for my friend to do a story in koh kong emerged.  but when we experienced a logistical failure we took the initiative to retreat to the countryside of kep, a stretch of forest and dirt roads about five kilometres from the border of vietnam.  prior to our expedition, i was able to visit small world, a social enterprise that promotes innovation and sustainability amongst cambodia youth, and meet with various expats about their experiences with other NGOs.  although a working holiday morphed into a curious study of the region it was beneficial for me as i learned that despite decades of despair and destitution the people of cambodia are born with an enduring spirit.


to accompany my physical learnings and to truly understand this country i thought it would be best to read about cambodia while i was there rather than do mounds of research prior to my arrival.  by chance, i picked up cambodia’s curse: the modern history of a troubled land” by joel brinkley from the you khin house guest library. the author’s summary at the end of the introduction perhaps describes the khmer mentality best:

learned behaviour [of guilt, shame and submissiveness] is one reason most cambodians do not react to their leaders’ misbehaviour.  they are silent when officials enrich themselves on public proceeds and live in mansions the size of small hotels.  they say little when the government tramples on their rights and constitutional guarantees.  they seem not to notice as their police and military commit larceny and barbarity that would be unconscionable almost anywhere else in the world.  they are quiet when the government sells their property to wealthy businessmen and then solders forcibly evict them in the night.  but then these afflictions were prominent features of khmer society in the time of the great kings of angkor 1,000 years ago.  the lineage of larceny is clear.  far more than almost any other state, modern cambodia is a product of customs and practices set in stone a millennium ago.

these afflictions that brinkley is referring to were also present during the slaughterhouse era (1975 to 1979) of the khmer rouge.  under the party’s reign, 3 million cambodians died–the worst genocide in human history.  in the years that followed the fall of the party its former rulers–murderers–were able to reside in amnesty in luxury homes while others dine in prison awaiting a trial that will never happen.  justice doesn’t exist in places like cambodia.  its king and prime minister leave their people to rot in a past that will never be forgotten.  justice is meant to bring closure.  but for the 14 million cambodians inhabiting the land today, the austerity and crimes of their forefathers still scar them.

hard labour for such little return.  cambodia, forever under a grey cloud of economic strife.
hard labour for such little return. cambodia, forever under a grey cloud of economic strife.

the demoralisation of the people does not stop there.  next to mental health instability and post traumatic disorder still being felt 40 years after the khmer rouge massacres, khmer people are also plagued by economic strife.  for centuries their only reliance has been on rice–a mere one crop a year to feed a starving nation.  agriculture and farming practices can expand but the government refuses to invest in irrigation techniques and modern technology.  the private deforestation over the past thirty years (by none other than the retreating members of the khmer rouge) has also destroyed much of the luxury woods along the western border where pimped up pirates export the natural resource to thailand, pocketing the profits–criminals living like kings; civilians reverted to peasantry.

yet perhaps nothing is more despicable than reading about government bulldozers eroding urban dwellings, selling residential communes to foreign developers.  the curse of beoung kak lake — the moment when, about five years ago, the cambodian government gave a private company a 99 year lease to take over the phnom penh lake district for urbanisation.  dubbed, “the new world city” the lake was filled in with sand, flooding the neighbouring slums with raw sewage, turning residents into refugees overnight.  herded like sheep into the night these helpless, homeless humans were transported 25 kilometres out of the city and dumped on the brink of dried up rice paddy fields with no food, water or compensation for their loss.  government soldiers said they were lucky they weren’t shot.  fear-stricken, the people of beoung kak lake did not protest.  the world did not react.  hope dried up with every grand of sand that was poured into the water’s land.

cycling towards aspiration.
cycling towards aspiration.

cambodians, victims of slavery, genocide, commodification and exploitation.  some history (and contemporary aid) criticise them for being lazy.  i say they are merely scared.  scared that by asking for help, for food, for better pay — for a better life — will result in execution, torture; deeper suffering and strife.  some anthropologist associate this lack of resistance to the legacy of being educated on the theravadist buddhism “be grateful for what you are given and don’t aspire for more.”  let us remember that education is at times a form of propaganda.  as brinkley cited historian david ayres in his text this notion has translated into a social hierarchy still evident today, “students were equipped to become citizens in a system in which they were taught to refer to themselves as slaves and to willingly accept the necessity of their subservience to individuals of higher status.”  as students became adults they didn’t aspire for more out of laziness or lack of will to try; they didn’t aspire for more because they were taught that it was a sin to dream.

i’m not an anthropologist or a government worker or an ambassador or even an international NGO volunteer.  i am merely a backpacker who spent eight days in this foreign, conflicted land.  but it was enough time to give me the credentials to close with this: cambodia is not a dangerous place to visit.  in fact everyone should travel here to play witness to the fact that cambodia fell in love with the world and it was our betrayal, our political flirting, that broke its heart.

may your travel crushes lead you to cambodia only to depart smothered in khmer kisses.  your heart will not break … it will only be lifted.

khmer kisses, good dreams.  (sunset @ kep)
khmer kisses, good dreams.
(sunset @ kep)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. gipridham says:

    moved beyond words. . xo

  2. gipridham says:

    Moved, far beyond words. . xo

  3. Daniel says:

    I’ve been close, but never there. You paint a marvelous picture, with all the flaws and scars.

    1. many thanks, daniel. your comment was truly moving. a country of beautiful flaws indeed.

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