Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Bubble

They call it the "Angkor Bubble", those 95+% of visitors who slide into Cambodia, usually Siem Reap, stay at 5 star hotels (inexpensive), spend 1 1/2 days touring the Angkor complex, eat at the nice restaurants, have fun walking along Pub Street in the safety of their group and then go home. 

The guides I met who made their living from tourism were both happy and sad about that statistic.  Because not working 1 day basically meant starving for 3.  Most of them have families and extended families' children that they support.  There is no social assistance of any kind in Cambodia.

Secondly because the image most people have of Cambodia isn't real.  Those smiles you see from the people don't truly reflect how they feel inside.  And it isn't the peaceful, serene, happy place it might appear to be.  Inherently we all know this discrepancy exists in the world, for example, in a lot of the Caribbean, where compounds "protect" tourists from the truth and vice versa, the locals from all the gluttony. 

When Cambodians find out you are aware of the reality of their country and their plight, you experience a gush of emotions from their eyes and face for you are truly seeing them for the first time.  They have suffered immensely and do not normally have an opportunity to speak about it to outsiders.  In many ways I felt much weaker than the people I had a chance to meet.

It isn't easy to have to send your children out to sell so the family wouldn't starve.  There are a lot of ill adults.  Basic public health is pretty much non existent.  Forget about schooling where teachers are asking for daily fees in order to provide lessons as a way to supplement their income. Or Doctors demanding extra payment or else no treatment or treatment with expired medication.  Or having to sell your children, thinking you are providing them a way out when in reality it meant sending them straight into the sex tourism industry.

It's frustrating when people know that the future of the country rests on the education of its young people but so few are able to go to school.  I can't begin to express how sad and upsetting it was to see 5 - 10 year olds, looking much younger due to malnutrition, leaning right up against you, repeating the same 2 lines of English over and over again in efforts to sell you postcards, bracelets, bunches of bananas, all with dead looking expressions on their little faces. 

And even more shocking was when I spent time at a local NGO in Siem Reap, who is doing great work and seeing how children were behaving, now that they do not have to work the streets -- A condition of sponsorship.  A number of them were quite aggressive and violent with each other in the name of "play".  Their edge was extremely disturbing which made me immediately wonder how long will that take to heal? 

The volunteers there looked withdrawn except for one Australian fellow who had enough sunshine for the rest of us.  He takes it in stride and realizes the mountain the country needs to climb is simply too high for any one person or organization and he can only do what he can do.  I can totally understand why the maximum placement time is 6 weeks.  It doesn't take long to start feeling down.  I also saw some real successes which shone out that much brighter. 

Twice a year he volunteers as a teaching assistant for a month with the belief he is imparting a positive influence and that it will make a difference both in himself and for kids that happen to be around at the time.  He and his wife have been doing this for the last 4 years and they donate their bicycles to the kids each time they leave.  Lovely people.

Not having a bike is a barrier to getting an education for kids in further away villages.  They cannot even think about owning a bike, much less afford to get a flat tire fixed (25 cents). 

When I told him that I knew within a few minutes that teaching was not for me, he jokingly told the coordinator to definitely, for sure, throw me in with the kindergarten kids.

Please note that this is not an orphanage.  All kids there have families and travel daily to attend school.  Orphanage Tourism is not to be supported.  Decent places will not offer up children to be viewed and petted like a zoo.  Children in orphanages need to feel safe in order to grow and heal. 

That means consistency, not an assembly line of strangers coming in and out who add no real value.  Often causing problems such as accelerated tooth decay by giving candies -- These kids and families are not in the habit of teeth brushing.   

In many cases, the ones that will allow visitors, often house kids who aren't really orphans but are in the business of making tourists feel good about themselves and the money donated doesn't go to furthering the future lives of the children outside of reinforcing their sad acting careers.

Also, as incredibly difficult it is to say no, consider not buying stuff from the children.  Most of them work for touts and you aren't helping them one bit.  Read up on current scams (ie the milk formula scam in SR) prevalent in the area before you go so you don't inadvertently perpetrate the very thing that holds people back.

Bumpy ride to the NGO.
See his jacket?  It was 28 C at 7:30 am
and we were both freezing!
That's when I knew I had acclimatized.

Morning exercises

Snack time, for those who can afford to buy.

The NGO's humble beginnings.
Currently a Women's shelter.
A guard has been placed there at nights after
incidences of rape.

Across the way from the Shelter.

We take garbage pick up for granted.
There, they burn everything, including plastics.
If photos could show the smell...

What used to be the "Computer Lab".
The cordoned off fencing revealed 2 classrooms.
My host started here as a teacher.
He told me it was hard work running after kids who would just escape,
not knowing how to behave in class.
When the first volunteers came, their jobs were human fences...


  1. Whenever I read accounts like this, I come away just feeling dazed. I don't really have words for how I feel, but I'm glad that you are trying to do something to help the situation.

    1. I felt so helpless there. It highlighted for me the importance of understanding first and the effectiveness of a grassroots approach. Local people know what local people need. What might make sense to us may not be applicable or doable within the context of culture.

      The big picture is so tough to see that you need to chip away at it one person, one family at a time to keep things manageable. Even writing about it has been painful. I had debated about just posting pictures but feel I owe it to the people to describe as best I can what I saw. We cannot take action if we're not aware of what is going on.