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Arriving in Cambodia


We arrived in Siem Reap, a sizable town and the hopping off point for visiting the vast complex of temples known collectively as Angkor Wat. Air travel brings the huge contrasts between countries sharply into focus. Malaysia was so very different to Indonesia, far more ‘western,’ far more developed, two countries sharing a land border in places and yet oceans apart in so many ways. Arriving in Cambodia from Malaysia the contrast again couldn’t be more stark. The bleak recent history of this country is well known, the Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge, the USA began carpet bombing large swathes of the countryside with half a million tons of bombs in 1969 ‘covertly’, killing an estimated 600,000 people in the process. The place has endured much hardship. It’s estimated that around 2 million people were murdered in Pol Pot’s genocide begun in 1975, the year that calendar was officially set back to “year zero”. This was a time when people would be murdered for merely possessing food.

It is said that more bombs were dropped on Vietnam and Cambodia than were dropped in the whole of World War II. The largely agrarian population of peasants were doused with Agent Orange (courtesy of the derided Monsanto company) and had B-52’s dropping their payloads on their heads for several years. The legacy of this continues today.

So what to expect from a country that has suffered so much? Airport immigration was a show of force from the authorities here. The confusing system had you paraded in front of a semi-circular panel of about 12 officials in military looking uniform. You paid your money at one end, and were called forward to collect your passport at the other. Meanwhile the panel of officials eyed you up and down as you waited. The whole thing seemed designed to let you know who was in charge here, we were the little people, we were left in no doubt of that. It was probably the most officious immigration regime i’ve come across, and i’ve experienced very many.

In arrivals we were met by the smiling tuk-tuk driver sent from our hotel. I love it when you have somebody holding a board with your name on it at airport arrivals. Tuk-tuk is what the Thai’s call their moto rickshaws, the Cambodian namesake is nothing like it, and really quite ingenious. It’s a scooter, usually a Honda Dream 110, with a towing hitch on the seat and a 4 person covered trailer behind. Not very stable at speed I’m sure but speed is not something that happens here. There is little motorised traffic on the roads and petrol is relatively expensive. I’m guessing that’s why the average speed is about 20mph.

A typical tuk-tuk, we hired this guy to ferry us around for a day

Our friendly driver drove us through the rain to our hotel, it’s quite a place have a look here: all this for about £12 a night. Although it’s not lost on me that this is luxury, while many here live in poverty. But we are helping the local economy wherever possible too, using small local shops and services as much as possible.

This country is on the up though, big progress has been made in alleviating poverty in recent years. About 1 in 3 people officially live in poverty (it was half the population only a few years back), economic growth is high and life expectancy is now about 62 which is an increase. The population is also very young with about half the people being under 16, you see young children everywhere you look. Only about 1 in 3 people have proper sanitation though and water borne disease is one of the biggest killers.  Malaria and dengue fever are still prevalent, mostly in rural areas. About 80% of the population still lives in and farms the countryside, which a really high figure, urbanisation has not yet kicked off here.

A lot of international aid agencies and NGO’s are working here, we’ve already seen numerous big 4WD’s around town from UNICEF and USAID and the like. I’m hoping we can visit one to find out a bit more their work. There are still many major issues resulting from 30 years of civil strife and war. State  institutions here are also rated as one of the worlds most corrupt, according to Transparency International.

First impressions though are that this is a clean country with very friendly and smiley people. Life is hard for most people, but they seem stalwart, they certainly have our admiration and respect.

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