It’s day 5 in Cambodia and nearly 48h in the capital of Phnom Penh and we still haven’t settled our thoughts except to say that Cambodia is not comfortable.
It’s difficult to describe how we feel because it’s so heavily prejudiced with our privileged western perspective. We’re white, middle-class with a good education who were both brought up in a loving environment. We’ve made something of the opportunities laid out before us and have stored enough capital to live the rest of our lives without working, if we’re a little circumspect. We have each other, we’re happy and healthy. Privilege doesn’t come much higher than this.
It was best illustrated at a family roadside shack where one of the males spoke good English and he was curious about our journey. His single word response gave an insight to his incomprehension “Why?”
Cambodia is an incredibly and obviously poor country and yet we have seen more Range Rovers and Maybachs here than either Thailand or Vietnam. But it’s very easy to rush to a simplistic liberal judgement that we need to temper.
The streets of Phnom Penh are more intense than either Bangkok or Saigon and the push for your dollars is a harder sell than either of its peers. Beggars are more prolific and, in the evening, the street vendors selling nik-naks such as wristbands or small purses are typically aged 6-10. It’s quite a shock to us and it’s very Dickensian. Think of an Asian version of Oliver Twist and you won’t be far off.
Tuk-Tuk drivers are on every corner and their calls are a constant aural backdrop to any walk across the city and we are much more aware of pickpockets than we have been anywhere else.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a judgement l, I cannot imagine the experience of the genocide here of less than 40 years ago and I have no true comprehension of what it’s like to live in poverty. But it is an uncomfortable environment when you have a liberal leaning.
If I’m honest, the discomfort comes from not really knowing how to behave to be the best that we can and minimise that little twang of guilt of privilege that comes from that coincidence of birth.
It was a lot easier in Vietnam where the community was generally rural and poor, but didn’t treat you as a walking wallet.
The easiest thing here would to build a defensive carapace of resentment and superiority, it’s something we saw in South Africa where we first heard the joke:
Q: What’s the difference between a tourist and a racist?
A: Three days
People are people and I doubt that many of us would behave much different from the people here had we been dealt the same life cards and I think that if we remember that then we can start to negotiate this ethical minefield.
A rude person is a rude person regardless of whether they’re selling $1 bangles or Cartier jewellery and deserve a little pushback. There’s a difference between desperation and rudeness though and dropping a few handfuls of 500Riel (10p) notes to the beggars as we walk helps a little. Stopping and buying drinks by the side of the road from a family still is quite rewarding for the interaction and a smile with a little friendliness most often breaks down the more mercenary intentions.
However, it’s difficult not to feel a degree of disgust at the contempt shown by the privileged here. Not usually the tourists though, the resident ex-pat community appears both to be highly racist and exploitative. We’ve obviously seen elements of it in the beer-bars around South East Asia, but It feels different here.