29.01.2012 30 °C
So we are on our way from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (Cambodia’s capital) by ‘luxury limousine’ coach – you even get little snack boxes and cold water. It’s official - Cambodian roads have more potholes than Manchester’s roads. The bus driver skilfully swerves from one side of the road to the other to avoid them. In many ways I’d prefer just to drive through them on the right side of the road, especially when we end up on a headlong collision course with another vehicle (usually a petrol truck or moto with two adults and five children hanging on for dear life).
I’m watching some over dramatised karaoke videos (YouTube Mr Seng if you want to treat yourself), followed by Ronan Keatings greatest hits video…. only ten hours to go.
We’re staying at a youth hostel in central Phnom Penh. A good stagnant smell wafts out of our room as the receptionist opens the door, but that stay is short and they do a mean Vietnamese coffee (tastes like chocolate coffee) and fruit muesli so we aren’t too bothered.
We spend our first hour wandering around Wat Phnom, which sits on the city’s highest point (a hefty 27 meters high). It’s a popular place to come and pray for good luck and as it’s Chinese New Year the temple is busy and the air is thick with incense. We then head onto the main walk along the Tonle Sap.
Phnom Penh is rammed with cars, buses, tuk tuks and overcrowded motos in every orifice of the road system. Crossing the road is an art of walking very slowly to allow moto drivers to drive around you and keeping your eyes firmly closed.
Phnom Penh is also dirty. Rubbish bags line the alleyway. Children and women wearing flimsy masks rip the bags apart and scour the contents for anything to sell. On the other side of the road is a shiny regeneration project along the waterfront along which cruise expensive looking cars.
There is a gaping chasm here between the rich and the poor. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with approximately 30% of the population living on less than $1 a day. One-third of the population has no access to clean water and more than two thirds have no access to clean toilets.
We wander over to the top floor of the Foreign Correspondents Club to watch the sun go down. There are amazing photographs of the 1970's and 80's conflict lining the walls. There are no recent press shots of a Cambodia rebuilding. It makes Cambodia feel like a long forgotten country.
We spend the evening drinking way too many beers with a local expat who has been visited Cambodia and the surrounding region since the 1980’s. He tells us of his first visit to Angkor Wat when he was the only person there apart from the military personnel accompanying him. He hasn’t been back since and we suggest he doesn’t go back. We doubt he’d enjoy Angkor Wat as much when surrounded by over 4,000 tourists!
We pass the evening discussing anything and everything. We mention the large number of non-government organisations (NGOs). They are literally on every street corner running orphanages, schools, training centres, massage centres, restaurants and craft stalls. It feels like they are all jostling for the tourist dollar rather than trying to work together to ensure as much money as possible is being ploughed into local projects and people. Our expat guide talks about the scepticism surrounding a number of NGOs, particularly the ones where the staff drive around in expensive cars.
We’ve tried to visit a few projects recommended by guesthouses, but we’ve also heard about scam orphanages where the children are kept in poor conditions to ensure more money is raised from tourists. I've really enjoyed visiting projects that work with families (yes – I’m still in family poverty mode for any work colleagues reading this!). They focus on supporting the parents of street children into skilled employment so that their children can go to school. Primary school is compulsory for six years in Cambodia – although many children living on the street will not attend because they go out to work. These organisations also tackle wider issues caused by poverty and working on the street (e.g. http://mloptapang.org for info on one local project).
We have been constantly approached by children working on the streets begging for money to go to school (“If you don’t buy my postcard miss then I don’t go to school tomorrow”). The first few days of saying no were heartbreaking, but the more we read the more we understood the impact tourism is having in keeping children away from school. Giving to and buying from children perpetuates the cycle.