Cambodia: Thoughts and reflections


“Hey Dylan, how was Cambodia?”


Yep.  I still don’t have a good answer to this question.  It’s getting a little ridiculous actually.  For someone that works in communications to not be able to answer a simple question like “how was your trip?” is a little lame.

However, it’s not as lame as you think... ok, maybe it is.  However, the question is a little more difficult to answer than you might think.  It’s the equivalent of asking “what started World War 1?” or asking “who is to blame for the global economic crisis?” or “why the hell is Australia contemplating picking Simon Katich in its one day team?”  These are all excellent questions that you can give one line answers to (Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, Bill Clinton screwed up, and because Jamie Cox is a muppet are the one line answers) but they don’t do justice to the big picture.

That’s how it is with Cambodia.  I could answer with “It was amazing, and unlike anything I’d ever done before,” which is technically true, short and concise... but it doesn’t quite capture what I want to say. 

Hence – this column.  This one goes out to all the poor people who asked me how my Cambodia trip was and were greeted by the answer, “Amazing.”  So here goes.

I have to say, I came away with three major perception shifts from my Cambodian experience.  But before I go into exactly what they were, I’ll give a one paragraph overview to what the heck I was actually doing there.

I went with 16 other Australians to Siem Reap in central Cambodia for two weeks.  We went as part of a team to work with an organisation called Habitat for Humanity to build a community centre for a local... er... community.  The community centre will be used as a building to teach English lessons to the... er... community, as a homeless shelter for the... er... community, and a meeting hall for the elected officials who represent the... er... community.  Everyone with me?


So, what were your three perceptions, Dylan? I hear you asking.  Well, they were as follows:

1: Cambodia is a country in search of an identity.

I think the best way to explain this point is for a small illustration... with words.  The build site where we were working each day was an hour and a half from Siem Reap.  We travelled by bus each day, and the road we took was, without a doubt, the bumpiest and least maintained road in the history of eastern civilisation.  Every three seconds the bus dipped more than the first drop on the Corkscrew rollercoaster at Sea World, and as a result we were involuntarily leaping out of our chairs more than Leslie Nielsen in Wrongfully Accused when he tries to steal a hydraulic car.

Nearby the work site was a small local market.  There were about six or seven shops and the people who operated them were obviously not earning executive salaries.  These were families who all lived in tiny houses, probably all sharing the same bedroom, and running water was a luxury foreign to each of them.  So, what do you think they were selling?  Keep in mind that this was an hour and a half from the tourist area, and it is doubtful that more than 16 tourists visit here in a year, let alone in a single day.

What did they sell?

Mobile phones.

Not just mobile phones though!  They sold DVDs, t-shirts with gangster expressions on them and other things that the people selling them would have no practical use of.  This illustration sums Cambodia up in a nutshell.

When the Khmer Rouge destroyed most of the country and killed thousands of native Cambodians, more than just lives were lost.  A culture with rich history was also harmed in a most profound way.  With their local economy and most of the local infrastructure destroyed beyond relief, there was only one way to catch back up.

In a region where the economic powerhouses are Singapore, Japan and China, the only way Cambodia was going to find some sort of ‘quick fix’ was to sell its soul.  Suddenly, the only way locals seem to survive is by peddling cheap merchandise to tourists.  This is immensely sad, but there seems a hint of inevitability about it.

I’d always thought that globalisation was, well, overrated.  I thought the only people who had problems with it were hippies and the sort of people you see protesting at forums like APEC.  In other words; uneducated muppets.  However, I’d never really bothered to contemplate the notion that maybe, just maybe, some of the garbage they were pushing may have an... *gulp*... element of truth to it.  Seeing the personification of globalisation in Cambodia, I have stared the worst parts of capitalism in the eye – and it wasn’t pretty.

However, before you start protesting that Dylan’s suddenly enrolling in the Communist Party and has taken out a subscription to Bob Brown Monthly, I have to say that the solutions people are offering about this ‘problem’ are massively inferior.  Some people might say “Let’s make everything fair trade, that’ll solve it!”  Uh, no.  No it won’t.

Others will say, let’s make the Government see reason and understand that they can’t allow foreign companies in to use slave labour.  Uh, that’s not going to happen.

If there’s anything I learnt from Cambodia, it’s that there are no easy solutions to the relentless pull of capitalism and Americanisation.  While the USA is the world’s only superpower, there is no solution in sight to the way the world currently operates.  The people who elected Barack Obama in a fanfare (where he only got 53% of the vote by the way) thinking that the world would suddenly become a ‘nice’ place, they were wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not Obama’s fault!  He’s simply a nice guy in a system that is terribly broken.  And unfortunately, it will be quite some time until it’s fixed.  And until then, the poor child who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from will still be selling counterfeit DVDs to anyone who will buy them.  It’s sad... very sad... but that’s just the way things are.

2: Actually visiting those who are less fortunate than you isn’t a waste of money.  It’s good.  Real good.

I sponsor a child in Rwanda and his name is Alphonse.

Yep, Alphonse.   What an awesome sponsor kid name.

Truth be told, that’s why I chose him.  I was young and stupid and I didn’t bother looking where he was from, what his issues were, or how old he was.  I simply saw the name and thought, “Yep, this kid rocks.”  So I sponsor him through an organisation called Compassion.  It works well, the money gets automatically debited out of my account each month and Compassion give me detailed statements on what each cent pays for.  It’s legit.

Now, I know plenty of people who sponsor children, and some of them decide that, after a while, they’ll travel overseas and go to meet their sponsor child.  I’ve always approached this with a hint of scepticism.

Oh who am I kidding?  I’ve been absurdly sceptical!  Why spend thousands of dollars to go and say ‘hi’ for 24 hours when you could use all that money to buy practical things to help improve his life circumstances???  Well, I finally got my answer on this trip.

No, I didn’t visit my kid – he’s in Africa, not South East Asia, haven’t you been reading carefully?  No, what I did see though was the way in which our team’s visit brought absolute joy to the kids that lived in the local community. 

All you had to do was smile at them, and it was as if it was the greatest moment of their life.  The kids on the build site were so happy to see us every day.  They would be waiting out the front of the half constructed house each morning and run along beside the bus as we arrived.  They would be eager to help us perform whatever work was required because they were just so happy to have us around.  Each day when we left the site, it was like the kids were saying goodbye to Santa Claus, only Santa Claus was also taking all his presents back with him too.  However, in their sadness was also joy, because they knew we’d be back the next day, and they’d be there waiting with smiles a mile wide.

My perceptions have definitely shifted in regards to how much of a difference it can make in someone’s life simply to be with them.  With a simple smile, it was as if their lives had been brightened like never before.  On the last day when we left, the kids had no idea what to do.  Some wanted to hold onto us to prevent us from going, some people cried (mainly the girls on the team though), and some simply wouldn’t stop smiling while hugging us so tightly that you felt like you were going to pass out – like one of those corsets that Keira Knightly wears near the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean... *ahem*

So, my message to those of you reading (yep, all two of you... including me) is that if you sponsor a child and there is a chance you can go and visit them; go.  Go!  You won’t regret it, and the difference you make to someone’s life will be more than money can buy.

3: Doing practical work to help a community is also good.  Real good.

I guess I should add a 3a, though.  If I were to add a 3a section I suppose the title would be something like “Construction work is damn hard, and Cambodia is damn hot!”

Yep.  When it was time to go back to Siem Reap each day, I was sore.  I was tired.  I have never worked so hard in my life.  It was completely physically exhausting.

Within 20 minutes of starting work each day, the sweat was like a waterfall cascading from my forehead.  I drank about 10 bottles of water each day and I barely went to the bathroom once.  The heat, combined with exhausting work was seriously intense.  So, what was the construction work?

Well, it consisted of; digging, sifting soil, mixing mortar, carrying heavy loads, measuring, weighing, sawing, brick throwing, telling bad jokes (that was me), more digging, wheelbarrowing heavy loads, getting water from the well, more digging, more bad jokes and a little more digging.  Hard work – all of it.

The question that remains, however, is: did it actually do anything?

The answer is: kind of, but mostly yes.

I’ll explain.  While we didn’t get the community centre finished (we got halfway), we got a heck of a lot done and it wasn’t just the centre that was being built.  We also made bricks.  Lots of bricks.  A hell of a lot of bricks.  We averaged over 100 per day by the end of the two weeks. 

These bricks will be used for future building projects and will make a tangible difference to the ability of Cambodian construction workers to build other structures in the area.  Also, the fact that we got half of the centre built is still a mighty achievement for just two weeks work.  The tools we were using were hardly what one would call, good.  The language barrier between the on-site engineer, the Cambodian workers and us Habitat folk was more difficult than we imagined (as they didn’t speak any English), and none of us Habitat folk were anything close to being construction workers (aside from Deano and Andrew – you guys are awesome).  So, when you consider these factors, the trip can’t be classified as anything else than a resounding success.

As such, I think that going to another country to do something practical to help others is definitely a good thing.  I know that sounds clichéd, but bury your cynicism for a moment.  Each day when I woke up, I knew that, for today anyway, I was going to do something practical to help make someone’s life a little bit better.

I can’t explain what that does to you, but let’s just say the dread of a Monday morning when you head off to your desk job is the complete opposite of waking up knowing that you’ll be doing something good for someone that day.  And if you don’t know what I mean, well, you’ll just have to try something like this.  Cause then you’ll know what I mean.  And you won’t get the grin off your face for quite a while.

So they were my three perception shifts from my Cambodian experience.  It would be remiss of me though to let this column slip by without a passing mention of Bangkok though, as I spent two nights there (one on either side of the trip).

Bangkok is awesome.  I have to go back.  For starters, it has the coolest airport I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a lot of airports around the world).  It’s surrounded by superhighways just like the one that Optimus and Bonecrusher fight on near the end of Transformers.  Plus, the Thai people are incredible.  They are the friendliest, kind, and loving people you will ever meet.  I’m going back to Thailand sometime, and I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

That said, the Cambodian people were lovely as well – but different.  There was a hint of conservatism about their joy – the adults anyway.  Even if I didn’t know that the Khmer Rouge conducted one of modern history’s worst genocides there, I would still be able to tell that something was up.

Don’t get me wrong, they were friendly, smiling and lovely.  But I couldn’t help but feel that they were all a little bit sad on the inside.  Whether this is from the Khmer Rouge, or simply that capitalism is destroying their country, who knows?  All I do know is that I have a special affinity for the Cambodian people now.  If I do more ‘mission’ work, I think there’s a good chance I’ll go back to Cambodia.   They’ve left quite an impression on me, as has the country itself.

For all its faults, Cambodia has a special place in my heart.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but all I can say from this trip is that I’ve changed a little bit.

I’ve changed for the better.

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Dylan hard at work
From day one I was hard at work.

A typical sight out the bus window - oxen.
Bob Brown
I'll never buy into anything
Bob Brown is selling
The kids were always happy to see us.
Yep, that's me sawing whilst wearing
a high visibility shirt
The team
The team - me in the high visibility yellow.