“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” – Anthony Bourdain
My two weeks in Cambodia were non-stop, action packed. This included a 30-hour course in TESL, multiple training sessions for Volunteers in Asia (VIA), three incredible NGO visits, leading a presentation on photography, walks through the slums and red light districts, an enlightening discussion with a member of Parliament, many incredible meals (Burmese, Indonesian, Japanese, Thai, Khmer), bonding with my new VIA family and, of course, late nights at clubs, karaoke bars and hookah lounges.
It will take some time to process everything Cambodia revealed to me. Cambodia is a wounded child in many ways. A country trying to establish its footing post-genocide with the majority of its citizens under the age of 30. The trauma is still palatable. It is multilayered and complex and it never fails to challenge me which is why I love it. Perhaps it reminds me slightly of India and gets me out of comfort zone in a way Thailand does not. I do not profess to understand it in its entirety but I know one thing: I love Cambodia and Cambodians and I am always moved by the heart and spirit of the people.
I hadn’t spent much time in Phnom Penh, but these two weeks really let me delve into the city deeper and see things I hadn’t back in March. You could spend your days in fancy restaurants and rooftop bars frequenting ritzy casinos and meeting people from all over the world, but you will never be too far from the realities of Cambodia – young men huffing glue out of plastic bags, mothers begging and sleeping on the street, shoeless children hustling at all hours of the day and night, sleazy red light districts and the men who frequent them, land mine victims, survivors of the Pol Pot regime, junkies and sexpats, dirt, grime, dead rats and the smell of piss. Cambodia is real. Raw. Pulsing with life. It never ceases to confound.
Where Cambodia goes from here is unknown. China and Korea are dumping big money into Phnom Penh and turning it into a Las Vegas style playground for rich Asian business men. Unfortunately this economic influx isn’t benefiting the Cambodian people that much at all. The spectrum of wealth and poverty is staggering.
As a part of our VIA training we visited three incredible NGOs. Phnom Penh is NGO laden with many of the international heavy-hitters in tow – UNICEF, UNESCO, et al. We first visited CEDAC, an organization working to promote sustainable agricultural development in nearly all Cambodian provinces. They are working with local farmers to promote organic rice production and secure local food production. The second NGO we visited was the ICFC (International Center for Conciliation) – an organization working in conflict resolution and reconciliation to rebuild relations between former Khmer Rouge perpetrators and their victims. Incredibly inspiring work. The third NGO we visited was a social enterprise venture in which an incredible woman from Australia has been working to provide vocational training and rehabilitation to former sex trafficking victims who have been rescued and are trying to rebuild their lives. Due to the nature of the work and protection of the women involved, as well as what they do and do not want people to know, I can’t reveal much more than this but suffice it to say my mind was blown and my heart inspired. People are on the ground globally working to make things better. The movement is alive!
My last night in Phnom Penh was spent at a club called Heart of Darkness. A friend and I went outside to rehydrate and check out the street scene. What we witnessed was an uncomfortable mix of bar girls being bought by white men, land mine victims in wheelchairs, all sorts of inebriation, women and children begging, and a bunch of western party-goers who seemed oblivious to it all. It left a sour taste in my mouth and I had to get out of there. It truly was the heart of darkness. That’s Cambodia for you. She smacks you across the face just when you start to get comfortable.
An incredible tuk tuk driver and new friend, Bora, took me to the airport at 5 a.m. I left Phnom Penh deeply affected and in contemplation of where humanity goes from here. The full moon above was perfection. It was a moment in time I won’t soon forget.