Despite the amount of poverty that pervades my observations here, there is a charisma to Cambodia which is steeped in characteristics such as humour, dignity, respect and sense of community. Recently, in three separate visits, I spent a chunk of time in the bustling centre of Cambodia’s tourism hub Siem Reap, observing the world. My perceptions of the place may not be correct but I think they might be.
The tuk tuk drivers are a sub-culture unto their own, competing for business in all kinds of often-hilarious ways. Rav says he’s one of a thousand or more in town, he knows about 60% of his fellow drivers and more of them “just to look at”. The low season is about to begin so with times about to get even tougher the pursuits for custom appear more conspicuous and a lot of comedic charm and wit is coming out of the woodwork. At my restaurant on the corner oneday, drivers were calling to any foreigner who stood up from their chair or came within a certain radius of their watchful eyes.
The tuk tuks seem to have regular corners where they park and scout for custom, where friends meet, hang out together and look out for each other while they wait and hawk. I was walking through town one afternoon and Rav was parked at his usual intersection, sound asleep in the carriage of his trusty vehicle, a couple of hours before my pick-up time. On other days I observed groups of drivers milling around a single tuk-tuk, their own parked nearby, talking animatedly with each other and with street vendors who pass by. On a couple of evenings we drove past a police convoy on a corner, blowing whistles and pulling over vehicles seen to be breaking the law, eg motorcyclists and tuk-tuk drivers without helmets. We passed through without incident and each time, a short distance up the road Rav waved out to a fellow tuk-tuk driver heading towards the checkpoint, pointing to his helmet in warning at what lay ahead. One driver slowed down and reached around for his helmet from the platform behind, while the other pulled over to get his from the passenger seats in the carriage.
They are not only friends with each other, they also seem to know the various street vendors and beggars who share the town centre with them, which is after all, how Kim came to choose Rav the first time we met, as our driver and translator. It had appeared to be a random pick the day it happened, but I now realise it was a gesture of friendship that Kim asked, and that Rav agreed. It has become clear that they know each other well and see each other on a semi-regular basis. From a repeat observer’s point of view, it seems to be a close-knit community of locals all sharing a reliance on the tourists for income.
As well as thousands of tuk-tuk drivers, Cambodia is also home to many motorbike drivers who work as taxis. When public buses pull into the small dusty market towns scattered throughout the country, these drivers run towards the bus in unison, never pushing or shoving each other, with the code appearing to be that the first to touch the front door of the bus with their hand gets first option of any custom. It always seems a jovial event, watching from the seat of the bus as they laugh and race each other.
In today’s news alone violence and injustice abounds. A Dutch woman stabbed in her Phnom Penh home, a mob of 600-strong in Takeo Province beating and stoning a traditional healer to death after accusing him of sorcery, a family home attacked by arsonists thought to be connected to a real estate tycoon who wants their land in Phnom Penh. Land grabbing by government supported tycoons, or the government itself, is a particularly common theme in the experiences Cambodians relay to me. Recently a local I was talking with said that his family had purchased and were paying off a section of land 15m2 x 6m2. Since purchasing this tiny patch of land, the government had sliced through it with a new road, subdividing it into a third of it’s previous size, without any discussion, warning or form of compensation. Real estate is clearly not a reliable form of investment as it is considered to be where I come from! Many thousands of families have been forcibly removed from their homes with no alternative and no restitution, at the hands of wealthy “developers”. This includes one company funded by the Australian New Zealand (ANZ) Bank who are under fire in current media reports for funding an activity which led to the eviction of almost 500 poor village families left homeless with no redress.
Robbery is reportedly a common problem, particularly in the rural villages where 80% of the population live. Yesterday a colleague was late to work because he had gone home for lunch and hung his work pants outside to air, which by the time he returned to put them back on had been stealthily removed! This morning another colleague was lamenting the loss of his chicken which had disappeared overnight. The police attended his home to ask if he had lost any chickens because it appeared that overnight all of the village chickens had been burgled! The profiteering chicken thief is estimated to have taken around 40 chickens, at about US$4 a piece. US$160 from a single night’s thieving is a big deal in a country where the average income amounts to $750pa and many villagers make far less than this. The loss of a valued food source is also significant.
During my most recent trip to Siem Reap I got to know my tuk tuk driver friend Rav a little more. It became apparent after some (typical language-related) miscommunication over a payment, that he had some financial stress. With the low season looming I determined to help his family out a little extra as a gesture of appreciation for his driving, translating, assisting and general friendship. On the morning of my departure he arrived to take me to the bus stop. By way of expressing his gratitude for the bonus I’d paid the previous afternoon, he brought his pride-and-joy with him – a beautiful 5yo son, as well as a big bag of homemade food from his wife. Entrusted with the care of this tiny button boy on the back of Dad’s tuk tuk while he babbled away to me in Khmer as Dad drove us through the busy streets, is one of the richest experiences of my time in Cambodia yet.
There is certainly truth to the idea that when we help others, we are significantly happier. The purpose of my application to MSF was to try and give something back to the world in return for my charmed life. Six months of life-changing experience in Cambodia has been more enriching than I could ever have envisioned. I have received far more from Cambodia than any of the small offerings I have given. What was intended to be an experience of giving, has inverted on itself into an experience of receiving. Thanks, Cambodia!