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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : Cambodia after the dread

Few countries have a recent History as shocking as the one of Cambodia. It was only about thirty years ago the Cambodia was sinking into a total chaos. The Khmers Rouges were taking the government.

Today the country is still building again from ashes. Weakened, anarchic, not really organized, Cambodia is not an easy country to travel;

Except for the wonderful temples of Angkor, the reason to visit Cambodia remains in its people. The Cambodians, generally, seem to have this unconcern that makes them appreciate the simple moments of happiness in life. The smile on the face, lost in Thailand, reappears willingly here.

However, Cambodia is far to be a Heaven on Earth. The heavy corruption doesn't help the country. Unprincipled investors come to plunder the resources of Cambodia and, as often, the weaknesses are exploited.

In any cases, Cambodia doesn't let indifferent.
 

Tree periods of the History of the country

-Angkor
Angkor has been the center of the Khmer Empire, between the 9th and the 14th century. The Khmer Empire was expanded to most of Southeastern Asia at this time.

The remains of Angkor are still impressive today. Some temple, as the Bayon, help to understand what was the splendor of Angkor.

The Bayon Temple in Angkor

Some others are recovered by the tropical vegetation. Many spung trees grow in the middle of the ruins and seem to belong to it.

The spung trees invade the Ta Phrom Temple in Angkor

In front of another spung tree on the ruins of Ta Phrom

-French colonization
Cambodia has belonged to the “French Indochina”, as Vietnam and Laos. France colonized this part of the world (amongst others) from 1887 to 1953. Without fail, many things remain today from this time.

The baguette, for example, is widespread in Cambodia

With this baguette, the Cambodian invented his own sandwich, the “Khmer sandwich”. He adds to the bread a bit of salad, a kind of pâté, some spices...

I meet a “Khmer sandwich” vendors in a street of Battambang

In the shops, it is easy to find some products imported from France. Bordeaux wine, “The Laughing Cow” cheese, some pâté.

Even the “Alain Delon” cigarets, coming directly from Paris (it is written on the packet) are available

Many buildings of French architecture with their balconies are easy to spot in some Cambodian cities. The sidewalks of Phnom Penh are as wide as the one of France. The coffee (here robusta) is taken on the terraces.

-Khmers Rouges
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmers Rouges control the government, led by the sadly famous Pol Pot. The idea was to get the people back to a total equality, to clean the country from the colonial remains, and to start again on new and pure “communist” basis.

In reality, that's a total genocide that happened. Almost two millions Cambodians died during this time. Most of them were educated and killing them was made to be sure that no opposition against the Khmers Rouges would be serious.

The Genocide Museum of Tuol Sleng (that used to be a school) in Phnom Penh helps to imagine how the prisoners (who committed the crime to not adhere to the Khmers Rouges ideas) were kept and tortured.

Some jails in Tuol Sleng

A classroom, converted into a torture chamber

This part of the Cambodian History is very important, because the consequences are still easy to see today. I am not only talking about the landmines (there is still, thirty years after, between 4 and 6 millions landmines in Cambodia), but also about the requirements to rebuilt the country, that are difficult to gather...

 

Slowly rebuilding

The Khmers Rouges focused their crime on the most educated people. As they wished to come back to the simplest values, a good Cambodian was for them a farmer. The teachers, engineers and anyone who had a bit of education were sacrificed for the “great interest of the country”.

After such a bloodshed, it was logically difficult to find the people who had the adequate knowledge to fulfill some important jobs. It takes and will still take time.

Since those dark years, the Khmer youth had to fill their basic needs with imagination.

An awaken youth
« Hello ! », « What's your name ?», « Comment ça va ? »

Walking along the Cambodian roads create surely many reactions. The youngest don't miss a piece of it and express themselves in different ways to attract my attention... And then leaving laughing out loud.

Refreshing.

I like those laughter and I think they just translate a pure and simple entertainment in front of something maybe a bit uncommon. This generation will probably need a lot of humor to bear this complicated present.

Some young Khmers (from the organization “Hope for Children” near Battambang)

I saw a lot of smiles in Cambodia. Generally, I found that the Khmers are very open to meet people and to learn new things. Their level in foreign languages is higher than in Thailand or Vietnam. That makes the social interactions easier.

Globally, the Khmer is smiling, open and sociable.

Managing on your own
At the first view, Cambodia might look anarchic, and it is. The road traffic, the constructions, the administration or even the politic.

The traffic may be anarchic, like here in Phnom Penh

At night in the cities, everything is dark. There is no light in the streets. What a contrast with Thailand with his flashy signs!

Further, there is an improvised petrol-station, where the petrol is sold in plastic bottles, recycled for the occasion.

A Cambodian petrol-station

The petrol is very expensive. At 1,25 US dollars the liter, I am wondering how the people can afford it, knowing that the wages in the countryside rarely go higher than 100 dollars monthly.

The Cambodians have to manage on their own. For example, the automobile manufacturers seem only to be family businesses, when we see some results...

A home-made vehicle

Another one !

The Cambodians do what they can. Getting a dollar here and there, improvising themselves remover for a day, moto-taxi driver another, tourist guide once in a while, those are the rules for survival in Cambodia (and in many other Third World countries) for the less privileged.

In Phnom Penh for example, there is no bus system. No, here is indeed a capital with no public transport. Here is an opportunity to become moto-taxi or tuk-tuk driver. Because of those reasons, it is possible to find several drivers at every street corners.

The competition is harsh

On the top of the scale
Then, there are the one that are advantaged in this system.

How is it possible that in such a chaotic country, some can drive around with huge SUV and luxurious cars? Local politicians, expatriates with salaries reaching the sky, or high-level scroungers, there is a huge gap separating two classes of the population: “the advantaged ones and the others”.

Let's not hide it, Cambodia is a very corrupt country. The less scrupulous people are often more at ease in the less stable countries, where it is easier to make their way through by bribing everybody.

The people on the bottom of the scale, in consequence, have to undergo

 

Hitchhiking in Cambodia

Hitchhiking in Cambodia is not as easy as it is in Thailand. Many reasons help to understand why.

The lack of vehicle
First, few people own a vehicle. Only some that are “advantaged” (as explained before), usually coming from the capital Phnom Pehn, can allow themselves to buy one. By the way, it is surprising to see that when a Cambodian has his own vehicle, it is most of the time a SUV and often of the brand “Lexus”.

As most of the population is poor, there is not a lot of private vehicle on the road. The traffic is only made of bus, tuk tuks, moto-taxis, trucks and few SUV.

A concept that scares
As the difference between rich and poor is just huge, the mutual aid between them is not that high. To stop a SUV in Cambodia isn't very easy for a pedestrian. I felt that most of the drivers were worry about their safety, as if they material belongings were putting them endanger, as if it was a constant provocation towards the ones that had the less.

How to do then ?
There is always a solution. I traveled a lot with trucks in Cambodia. Those one stop quite easily and are usually happy to share a moment with a traveler.

A truck driver giving me a ride in Cambodia

As often, the most simple people are more keen, to respond positively to this kind of request. The advantage was that I could travel with some home-made vehicles;

One of the home-made vehicles with his driver

One of those that helped me to cross Cambodia by hitchhiking

 

I really liked to travel in Cambodia. This is a country where we can feel the taste of life. Maybe because the extremes are so close to each others. Maybe because it reminds us who we are and what we are capable of.

The Cambodians reminded me that the simple things in life have to be appreciated, because sometimes they are the only things that remains. I enjoyed interacting with the Khmers.

I have also been irritated to see the gap between the rich and the poor. Even after big dramas, there are still people starting the same cycle, with the same energy that creates disasters.

Cambodia helped me to understand a bit more the Man, from his baseness to his humanity. As I said in the beginning, Cambodia didn't let me indifferent.

See you soon,

Jeremy



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