CAMBODIA: FINAL THOUGHTS by RJ Furth (April 2015)
Tonight is the last of our ten nights in Cambodia. It has been a wonderful trip that fulfilled my hopes of adventure and a journey to old Southeast Asia. Forty years after the start of the Khmer Rouge nightmare and seventeen years since the last Khmer Rouge surrendered, this nation is well on the path to modernization. Internet, wifi and cell phones are ubiquitous. Many have cars and just about everybody else has motorcycles. You see the occasional satellite disc on small village houses. Tourism has arrived, though it is only world class in Siem Reap, home to the amazing Angkor Wat temple complex. Other things remain closer to Third World. Transportation is underdeveloped. That is no train system, though the French left an extensive one when the exited the country in 1954. There is no domestic airline and few airports that could handle modern planes. The French built a large airport in Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, but is overgrown with grass and used for motorcycle races and soccer. We hired cars and drivers and had drives of 3, 5 and 7 hours, all in new Toyota Camrays. The trips were not cheap and the only alternative were buses. Like many countries, Cambodia is covered in trash. There is no environmental ethos, so people throw garbage anywhere and everywhere. Battambang was particularly trashed with plastic bottles and plastic bags and other rubbish, as were the sides of most roads. The food is quite good, though not as good as Thai and Vietnamese food. Ingredients are there tough, with lots of fish and chicken and fresh fruit and vegetables. More hotels and restaurants open every year and are a high quality and in most price ranges, though only Siem Reap and Phnom Penh have five-star hotels. Most travelers are young backpackers who have a choice of inexpensive, clean guest houses. I particularly recommend Cambodia for the young and adventurous, though the older and adventurous can have a great time.
Although many countries are popular for culture or food or scenery (France on all counts) it is often the people themselves who make the greatest impression. We found the Cambodians to be gentle, pleasant, helpful. I talked with an American who runs a small business in Battambang. He acknowledged that the people are nice, though he said he sense a dark undercurrent. I suppose that can be said for most people. Racism and tribal conflicts exist in most every country. The Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered around 3 million out of a population of 7 million. (Cambodia currently has about 16 million.) It is hardly the only country in which people have shown a horrific tendency toward cruelty and disregard for human life: China under Mao, Russia under Stalin, Germany under Hitler, the U.S. vs Native Americans, Australians vs aborigines, Peru’s Shining Path, Columbia’s FARC, ISIS, Rwanda. I could go on, but the point is that all people contain the seed of evil. What I do know is that Cambodians have moved on from the dark days. They live under a dictatorship and deal with widespread corruption (as is true in so many countries) yet they are quick to smile, quick to offer help, make you feel welcome in their country. Pushiness is rare. Tuk tuk drivers invariably offer a fair price, then ask if you want a tour or to visit some tourist site. When you say no they move on rather than nag as happens in some countries. We may not return to Cambodia. This is our second visit and we have seen some wonderful parts of the country. Other destinations have jumped to the top of our list. I am happy to have made the journey, though. Many times we were reminded of Indonesia, Burma, Laos and Thailand in the 70s and 80s. Cambodia is experiencing development, but it is slow and there is plenty of time to enjoy what this country has to offer.