"You are lucky. I am not so lucky." I felt more embarrassed than lucky when my tuk tuk (rickshaw) driver, Keo, learned that I am studying (or will be again) in the United States. Keo is 26 years old.
We had just spoken the day before with Soben, another young man about my age. We met Soben as he was the ticketing guard on duty outside one of Cambodia's many stunning temples. Soben pays U.S. $500 for the first two years of university, then $700 for the final two years. I swallow hard, knowing how much has been paid for my B.A. and how much will be paid for my Ivy League M.S.
One can hire a tuk tuk driver from sunrise to sunset for about $15.
Little children are in abundance, constantly tugging at my clothes, asking for "one dollah." I hung my head down and shook my head. Children from six up try to sell trinkets, water, and photocopied books to tourists. They are everywhere. One day, two young boys about the age of ten, Boh Sai and Mu Sang, joined us for lunch. We paid $1 for a meal for the boys. Boh Sai lifted his filthy shirt and showed me his belly, rubbing it to indicate he was glad for the food. I offered him more from my plate, but he gestured for me to eat it! I fought hard not to cry in front of them.
I felt (and continue to feel) anger. Helplessness. Sure, we fed the boys a meal and felt somewhat good about ourselves, but these kids will likely have to continue to keep begging for food.
"What can I do? What are some practical things we can do? Why are there so many kids on the street?" I ask these questions to Keo. He smiles the warm smile that I found in all Cambodians. His response: "I do not know." There are many orphanages in Cambodia, and the situation has supposedly improved.
However, Cambodia's terrible past is very recent. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge (Pol Pot regime) took over the country, imposing a radical type of agrarian communism and killing an estimated two million people including some foreigners. We visited the Killing Fields where the executions took place and where the skulls of some people remain on display for the world to see and be reminded of the genocide. We also visited Tuol Sleng, a prison for those to be executed. It reminded me of Poland's Auschwitz. Hopefully that gives you some perspective of the atrocities.
When Keo was a child, his dad died serving in the military. His mother went to Thailand and he was sent to a Pagoda to be cared for. He now rents a bedroom for $50 a month and shares that space with a friend. It's "not so good" since he cannot afford to support his mother. He is saving up to move to the beautiful countryside where the cost of living is slightly cheaper and he can perhaps share a room with his mother.
Su Kun, a dashing 25-year-old who is studying tourism, has to work hard because his mother died when he was ten months old and his father has other wives who he cares about more than his children, says Su Kun. "I don't have parents to help me pay for my education."
"Do you like Cambodia?" I ask Su Kun. He answers, "Well, even if I don't like it, where else can I go?" But then he smiled, just like Keo smiled.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that there's something about Cambodian faces that can make one melt. There is hurt but innocence and kindness in their eyes.
I learned that Cambodia has a large number of international NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Perhaps a lot of progress has been made in the past years, but Cambodia has still a long way to go. Some NGOS do encouraging work; Friends International works to get kids off the streets and equip them with sustainable skills. I hope the NGOs are doing more good than damage.
I originally went to Cambodia to see the temples, stunning temples, and stunning they are. But it is the Cambodian people who awe me. I have never met a collective group of people as warm as Cambodians. They seem to be making the best of what they have. They don't seem to harbor anger for all the injustice they've endured and continue to endure. Resilience and perhaps, unspoken hope for a better future push them to live each day with such grace. And that smile, oh boy, you've got to see it for yourself! You'll fall in love too!
Disclaimer: My knowledge of Cambodia is limited to the Lonely Planet guidebook and the museums I visited. I am trying not to draw conclusions from the stories that were shared with me. I simply want to share with you what I have been privileged enough to see and experience in the cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Some of you live or have lived in Cambodia, and I'd love to learn more about your experiences.
Reading suggestion: First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It's a memoir of a young woman who survived the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime.