So Cambodia, one of the poorest Asian countries, if not the poorest (at least in South East Asia). Probably sparring in top ten with Burma, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Nepal, Mongolia and the bloody North Korea. Here are some round facts fished out from various Internet sources:
Maternal mortality over 200 deaths per 100,000 live births
Infant mortality around 40 per 1000 births.
Life expectancy about 63 years.
Literacy rate less than 80%
Almost 50% don’t complete secondary education.
About 35% Cambodians live under the poverty lane.
Usual yearly income from 0 to 600 dollars.
Urban population just a bit over 20%
Access to safe drinking water under 40% of population.
Almost 60% of the labor is occupied with agriculture.
Less than 50% of the roads are paved.
I think that’s enough numbers to realize how poor a country we are talking about here. Can you imagine a yearly income less than 600 dollars? My view is that there are a few big cities where the tourist go and the rest of the land where no one goes, undeveloped, dirty, wild, ridden with diseases and poverty. To top it all there are still, God knows how many. land mines waiting for someone to step on them and blow a part of their body. The west. or America in general, could FOR ONCE be responsible and actually do one good deed, remove those deadly little traps they planted themselves.
It’s my fifth day in Cambodia and I am having mixed feelings about everything. I want to say I definitely hate this poor damned country but I can’t really. I know I will come back to explore the countryside, and only then I can say for sure if I like it here or not. Then again, to go somewhere where people suffer from malnutrition and live in poor dirty conditions, see starvation and disease, smell death and despair, to walk around, take pictures and then write an arrogant blog post about my mixed feelings of pity, disgust and hate – would that be fun? I doubt.
So far it’s been good and bad, overall like a little Thailand (like Thai people write on forums; “They stole our temples”). The first impression wasn’t too flattering, rip off tuk tuk rides in the late night, cheating soldiers at the border, 2 years old children ‘power selling’ magnets, poverty everywhere, arrogant tourists, stench and dirt, petty fights with peddlers. They say Cambodia is cheap, bullshit. Just to enter and leave you need to pay up 50 dollars (the international airport tax is 25 dollars for foreigners). All the hostel rooms have air con but only if you pay extra you get the remote for it. Two dollars here, three there and five somewhere else, suddenly it’s 50 dollars per day. Compared to China, everywhere is expensive.
I understand this land is poor and that I am seen as a rich person in here but I am not really rich and have a mentality of a poor student, it’s impossible to, suddenly, step into the shoes of an indifferent millionaire and throw money around without bargaining. If I pay more the next tourist pays more, the one after pays more and then the locals pay more as well. Why should I pay more, anyway? Mainly it’s about 1 dollar, petty I know, but still… So many tuk tuk drivers hate me right now.
If I was a Cambodian, a poor one, I’d hate westerners. They come here, bargain for little indifferent (for them) sums, sustain the illegal sex industry, don’t respect local culture, are petty, rude and greedy, take pictures of my pitiful life and as I am striving to earn an extra 0,25 dollars to get even some kind of dinner for my children they hang out at bar street, drunk and ignorant, eating and leaving food behind. And here am I, unable to send my kids to school. I want them to be educated but I have to send them to streets to beg and sell all kind of odds and sods just to barely come by.
But as a westerner I hate those “price for foreigner and price for Cambodian or only foreigners have to pay”, I hate being cheated out of my money even if it’s just 5 dollars, I hate petty peddlers who call me names just because I don’t want to buy anything, I hate the barbarian lifestyle, I hate it when they use me when I am helpless, I hate it when they think I am super rich when I have to book a cheaper room in a hostel and can’t afford the air con, I hate it when they approach me with a smile and flattering words just because they want something from me, I hate how due to hard life they become like animals, no, even worse, selling their kids to pimps and such. I totally hate all the scam going on around me. I was reading this blog post and lolling all the time, unable to disagree with many opinions.
And yet I pity all those tuk tuk drivers who have to lower themselves and beg for people to take their rides then be petty about some 0.50 dollars just because they desperately need it, I pity those 5 years old kids selling stuff by the roadside because they have no other opinion, I hate seeing young girls working instead of being sent to school, I hate seeing middle aged western men with local whores, I pity those who die from hunger and at the same time are forced to watch lavish lifestyles of foreigners, I pity them all just too much. It’s all way too complex and in the end so many of us would prefer to just escape, go home from all this shit and forget, just remember the good times and feelings. We forget, they die. But that’s just life and nothing can be changed overnight, nothing at all. Even if we cane save some, poverty will exist like it always did. The end.
Border crossing from Vietnam
In the afternoon we took motos from my friend’s house. Her family helped us to arrange rides for a cheap price with reliable Vietnamese men. Though, we paid some extra because our luggage was heavy. First ride was until a ferry and from there we got another reliable Vietnamese men to take us to the border. They were so cute, wanted to take us trough the border all the way to Phnom Den but the officials wouldn’t allow them to cross, we didn’t think about tipping them but should have!
Everything went so well till the border. Small paved roads with palm threes and wooden houses on both sides with locals chilling on hammocks, drying grains at the road side and kids running around. A funeral, little shops, fresh fruits, water buffalos, more and more scooters everywhere. It was a hot day and my hand burned in the sun, but not much. I felt kind of sad leaving safety of my Vietnamese friends behind to enter one of the poorest South East Asian countries and my “suspect everything and everyone” switch turned on.
Actually, a few years ago people told me it was the best time to go to Cambodia because there weren’t many tourists yet and it was somewhat “unspoiled” land. Why did I believe them? Maybe two years ago everything was different?
I have to confess I knew nothing about Cambodia before entering. My view was somehow idyllic post card style: colorful and unspoiled, temples by small lakes with awesome reflections on the water during good weather. Sunsets splashing colors all over the sky, local farmers working on their green rice fields. Well, this was just an idea, and I wasn’t even surprised to see that the reality was a total opposite from a tropic paradise. I should have at least checked out the tuk tuk prices in advance. All I knew we had to get to Phnom Penh and take a bus to Siem Reap where we had booked a hostel. I skimmed trough Lonely Planet and that was all.
At the Vietnamese border they looked trough our passports and then told us to go and get stamps at the near by building. Meanwhile people were walking back and forth, throwing money trough the little window on the desk of the official and no passports were in sight.
After we walked some hundred meters to the place where we were supposed to get stamps there was no one, I joked about stealing something or stamping our passports ourselves but then a man in uniform appeared out of nowhere and took his sweet time going trough our passports as if it was something rare. We finally got our stamps and had to hand our passports for inspection once more before crossing to Cambodia’s side.
Oh man, goodbye reliable Vietnam and welcome… Cambodia. I thought I hated Vietnam but then this day finally came and I realized how much I actually like Vietnam now. I want to go back there, really.
On Cambodian side no one was wearing their uniforms, from one window we were guided to a building where we filled the visa forms and paid 25 dollars, meanwhile men in their casual clothes hung around and joked with each other. Didn’t seem like a border at all and I wonder if it was the first time they even saw passports. The real price for visa is 20 dollars but we weren’t sure if bargaining at the border was a good idea…
The man who handled our visas reeked of alcohol. When we asked about a bus to Phnom Penh they said there is no bus but “luckily” there was a moto driver hanging around, he promised to take us to Phnom Den for 3 dollars, and from there we were to take a taxi to Phnom Phen. After getting our visas we headed to the first place to get stamps and fill another form, then we went to quarantine office to fill the third form and pay up 1 dollar each. For what? Who knows? After asking around for bus everyone just said there is no bus, yeah right… Smelled like a big fat scam. (Later I checked it online and true, there are no direct buses to Phnom Phen from there and we didn’t have enough time to lose some nights. Anyway, this border crossing was categorized in ‘other crossings’ which means foreigners rarely even pass there, I couldn’t find even one single blog post about anyone crossing there).
After about 10 minutes drive we were in Phnom Den, the moto drivers stopped right next to black taxis and one of the drivers was already putting my bag in the trunk when I stopped him and asked about the price. He wanted 45 dollars and I declined right away. We started bargaining with men who hardly knew English and for soem reason they were yelling at each other in their own language.
When we finally managed to bargain the price to 35 dollars the man threw our bags in the trunk. I didn’t realize that one of the men was offering 30 dollars and when I was about to get in the car he exclaimed “NO! 30 dollars!” So I went out and started demanding for them to open the trunk to change the car, but do you think they opened it? Not in the million years, they just joked: “We have your bags now and the trunk is locked, ha ha”. Protesting was no help at all and I felt so cheated, those scammers. I think the business is pretty bad so the men do their everything to get customers. They literally wouldn’t allow us to leave anywhere from the spot. Also the competition between the drivers was fierce, they were yelling at each other like crazy.
In the end, finally giving up, we got in the car and noticed there was a woman sitting on the front seat. It’s a pity we didn’t notice her earlier, could have used her as a tool in our bargaining session. Anyway, the taxi driver didn’t get in so I opened the door and yelled at him to go. After a while he got in and started driving, suddenly made a turn to the left on some shady small unpaved road, stopped and took in another man who squeezed on the front seat with the woman. Why? I seriously don’t get it…
Then the moto drives from before came after us and started yelling at the driver, he got out from the car and started yelling back at them, after 5 minutes of arguing some money changed the owner and we FINALLY departed. I realized I wasn’t really surprised about anything, typical Asia. My friend joked we were in a car with a whore and a drug dealer on our way to be raped, killed and robbed. If I saw the scene from TV it could be even scary but there, that moment, I was just feeling annoyed “Let’s go already!” In fact, I felt like a CIA agent on the way to my mission in a shiny black car with leather seats, outside there were just palms, fields and once in a while dirty, poor neighborhood. My friend commented: “Except CIA agents don’t have bananas and dragon fruits in their bags.”
On the way we tried to ask how long does it take to Phnom Penh and would the driver take us to the bus station. After some gestures we got our answer, it would take us 3 hours to arrive but where, there was no answer. On the way we stopped at some busy road and our taxi driver sold something in black bag to a shady looking guy. Boy, what a start. I finally realized that there is no bus station where to buy tickets, the buses are all independent companies and you have to choose one to buy tickets from their offices. Probably there is like a big bus station or something but of course, no one wanted to let us off cheap or easy.
In Phnom Penh we arrived somewhere and there was a bunch of tuk tuk drivers welcoming us. They said it would be 3 dollars to go to the bus station but we managed to bargain to 1 dollar per person. So 1 dollar discount. I scolded our taxi driver for not taking us to a bus station and refused to give 5 dollars trying to lower the price to 30, but it failed… so sad.
We ended up at the bar street, bought the bus tickets and went off to get some dinner. On the way we stopped at an ATM to withdraw money, it said dollars on the screen but for some reason I thought I would get riels and started wondering how much would be 100 dollars, ended up withdrawing hundred dollars and got dollars… I see, only dollars from ATM and I lose. Can’t be helped. We stopped at a small grocery store which mainly sold alcohol, lotions and condoms, to buy a sim card. I can’t be too sure but there were whores all around.
In the end we managed to exchange some dollars for riels just because it was easier to bargain. 1 dollar is about 4000 riel but coke from street vendor cost either 2000 riels or 1 dollar so we figured out we must have local money. Cambodians use 1 dollar and up but not down and if you want to bargain a cheap tuk tuk, the cheapest we got was 6000 riels for two. The driver had a sexy back.
It was a very unsteady 5 hours bus trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. At some point there was no paved road and dust was everywhere, it was hard to breathe so I wore my Asian dust mask for the most of the way. The bus was an old shit but the driver was driving as fast as he wanted, didn’t really bother me just that the seats were very uncomfortable and they sold us 8 dollar quality for 10! At some point I went to the back of the bus and lied on two seats, stretching my legs across the walkway on the opposite seats. That way I could catch some sleep before we arrived in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
I wanted to take a picture in the bus but something went wrong and it looks like we are on our way to hell, haha.
Again, tuk tuk and moto drivers attacked us and we started bargaining for a ride but he wanted 6 dollars first, the last price was 4 dollars, 2 each. When I said 1 dollar he exclaimed: “This is not Vietnam!” Pointless, so we waked to another tuk tuk but the man with whom we had bargained just now followed us and started yelling at this other tuk tuk driver. I told him he was a bad man for intimidating the other driver, it might sound like going overboard but Cambodian peddlers told us we were bad too, for not buying anything. It was a war all again. I randomly asked the guy in the tuk tuk how much he was paying and he said 3 dollars “Which is probably a total rip off” I just mumbled a tired “yeah…” and turned around to bargain with the moto drivers. Like in Vietnam, I finally accepted there must be a special night price so we ended up paying 2 dollars each. But it felt less like a rip off because we both got our own moto.
The ride was about 5 minutes or a bit more and we finally got to our hotel/hostel. The receptionist urged us to change for an air con room without telling the price, after asking a few times he said air con room is 7 dollars, but the room with fan was 3. Screw the air con, that’s what we thought. The first night was kind of chilly but the two other nights were too hot without the air con. However, we survived to another even hotter room with a fan, in Phnom Penh, an now at 2 am I finally finished writing this post.
More about Cambodia coming soon.