Friday, November 23, 2012

Corruption Junction, Cambodia

After my last post detailing how I was robbed in Phnom Penh, it's easy to understand how Cambodia was tainted for me from the get-go. Although I tried my best to judge the country unbiasedly, I was itching to get out of Phnom Penh, and ultimately, Cambodia.

Now, let me first explain my one major pet peeve among typical traveler conversations: when another traveler tells you definitively where to go or not go. I have so often been advised to completely avoid a destination because one person hated it, or been told to revise my travel plans to hit their favorite spot. Everyone has an opinion based on their interests, timing and experience. When I am asked for advice on a place, I try to be careful to articulate it in such a way to clariy it's only my opinion and experience.
Angkor Wat after our sunrise bike ride
That being said, I understand people have varying experiences and opinions of Cambodia. In fact, I know people whose opinions I trust that loved Cambodia.

After leaving peices of my heart in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, I was started to wonder if there'd ever be a place I didn't love in it's own special way.


Other than the breathtaking Angkor Wat temple complex, I can confidently say Cambodia was my least favorite place yet. Mind you, I am only speaking from my short and limited travel, which I understand is not encompassing of the entire country.

In addition to getting point blank mugged in Phnom Penh, I did not find the capital to be a particularly welcoming place. Wherever you went, whether it was buying water or getting a tuk tuk ride, people make their living on scamming tourists. We were lucky to find our driver Stone, who was featured in my last blog. Virtually every other driver harassed us to an extreme, certainly more than I experience in other SE Asia countries  The disparity between the rich and the poor was sickening. The history is depressing, though very important for everyone to learn about.

On to Sihanoukville, a grimy beach town filled with Western drunkards and expats. Bad idea trying to catch some rays at the beach there, as the local children (employed by who knows) harass you to buy their goods - and I mean, these young children actually started using very vulgar language towards us when we initially and kindly refused.

Perhaps when you're that poor, there may not seem to be any other way to get by than scamming and harassment. All over Cambodia young children are employed to sell goods, yet there isn't much of a chance that these innocent faces are reaping any of the profits. In Siem Reap, 10-year old children carry around infant babies insisting they don't want money, they need an expensive milk formula. This is a well known tactic they use to return the formula for profit. It is heartbreaking watching so many children unethically used who are missing out on a childhood.

On to Koh Rong, this island getaway was a chilled out place that I got to utilize my recent scuba diving certification. But, even on this island, I searched the faces of the locals for even a trace of a smile, which seemed to be a rarity.

Siem Reap was our favorite destination. It was nice to be able to walk and bicycle around town, and Angkor Wat was truly as stunning as they say. We stayed 5 days to relax and unwind, but here too, we found the locals not to be particularly helpful. The male staff in our hostel were a little too accommodating and creepy, while our cooking class instructor's unfriendly demeanor ruined the experience for us. Despite good reviews at Le Tigre de Papier Cooking School, this was by far the worst of the five cooking classes I've taken in Asia.

Our final experience leaving Cambodia certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. What was meant to be an 11-hour trip to "Four Thousand Islands" in Laos turned out to be 16 hours and by far the worst travel I've experienced yet (this says a lot after a year in Southeast Asia). After being picked up at 5AM, we were dropped in the middle of nowhere around 10AM to switch buses. Apparently the bus didn't wait for us, so about 15 of us were stranded in the middle of nowhere, Cambodia. We waited for two hours in the blazing sun, until finally we were crammed into a non-air conditioned mini van where we several of us were with seats.
15 of us and our bags in the middle aisle..
A couple hours later, we switched again, without explanation, to an already packed-to-capacity local bus. The 15 tourists were expected to sprawl in the aisle of the bus with our travel backpacks for three hours. A few more arbitrary bus changes later, and we made it to Laos! Since we arrived at the border after hours (to no fault of ours), we were expected to pay extra stamping and visa costs, which go directly into the border officers' pockets. Finally, this same Cambodian bus company ripped us of with a terrible exchange rate as we were forced to exchange money before getting on the island.

Luckily, I survived the experience with my friends so we can laugh about it later. We were able to chill out a few days on Don Det, an island on the Mekong River, where we spent Thanksgiving missing our families.
Overall, I was just not as taken aback by the kindness I found while traveling in other SE Asian countries. I imagine working in a tourist town or industry can get quite tiresome and I noticed that many locals seem to lack patience and take up an attitude in their communication with foreigners. Now, I'm certainly not holding Cambodia up to the same customer service expectations as in America, but I have to wonder why everyone seemed so miserable. Wouldn't it make their days more enjoyable to smile a bit more?

Of course, I realize I am generalizing, and there were certainly some nice Khmer people who left an impression with me. After living in an extremely non-touristed area of Thailand for over a year, I understand that the beaten tourist path we stuck to in Cambodia is not a true indication of a country. Thus, perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to return and see the Cambodia that so many people claim to love.

I also learned more in Cambodia than I did in any other place. With or without being robbed, this country truly teaches all visitors to be thankful for what you have.

This was my experience and perception of Cambodia, but I am always interested to hear about people who had different experiences than I did.

[Remember I am now working with iPod quality photos due to the robbery!]

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