Life Amidst the Ruin(s)

Life Amidst the Ruin(s)

My reason for going to Cambodia was simple enough. What I came away with, however, was so far from simple that I’m still having difficulty processing it.

This week marks three months since I’ve been in Thailand, and (reasonably enough, I suppose) foreigners are expected to check-in with Thai immigration officials every ninety days. As I had already purchased a multiple-entry visa before leaving the U.S., the check-in process was fairly straight-forward: leave the country for a short period of time… and come back (bounce over the border and bounce back, ya dig?). Get another stamp in your passport, and you’re good to go. (Once you’ve been working long enough, there’s also the option of a work permit and check-ins at the local immigration offices within Thailand, but—long story short—a work permit doesn’t seem to be in the cards for me).

My friend Stef and I decided to travel to Cambodia to accomplish this (seemingly) straight-forward process, as it is the closest border to Bangkok, we could travel overland as compared to an expensive flight, and we could spend a day exploring the Angkor temples. From Bangkok, we took a taxi to Mo Chit bus terminal and then a 5am bus to Poipet (the border between Thailand and Cambodia), where we were gruffly shoved off the bus and aggressively told to hand your passports over right now by three Cambodian men. Thankfully, I had read about the abundance of scams the night before and shook my head no with raised eyebrows. For anyone traveling across a border (and for countries with visas on-arrival), you must get stamped out of your current country before you buy an official visa for the next country. If you do fall for the scam artists, however, the visas are still valid (albeit more expensive and you run the risk of losing your passport).

Here’s how it ultimately went down: we stumbled exhaustedly through the line to get stamped out of Thailand, bought a Cambodian tourist visa (valid for thirty days) for $20 in the next unassuming building, and then waited in line (in yet another building) for a hot twenty minutes until we could get stamped into Cambodia. Overall, the process took about half an hour, and you are basically left up to your own devices. There are no officials telling you where to go, and signs are few and far between. Safe to say, I was thankful I had someone with me for my first overland border crossing.

All the while, as you walk from building to building, your eyes are greeted with some of the most painful sights. Every few feet, mothers and families sit in the oppressive heat holding small bowls begging for one dollar, please… just one dollar. Children, who are obviously trained to do so, run up to you and cling onto your arm, staring up at you with their beautiful, longing brown eyes that you fear have seen far more pain and destruction than you ever will. They can’t be shaken off, but you don’t try very hard. You just shake your head no—sorry I don’t have a dollar—afraid to even open your purse for fear of your passport being stolen, all the while feeling their grip tighten just a little bit harder before they finally let go.

Never have I seen so many people in one place so blatantly in need. In need of money, in need of clothing. In need of food. In need of shelter from the hot sun, in need of a job that doesn’t involve selling bamboo bracelets from a basket. In need of clean, fresh water. In need of things that no one person—no one outsider—can even hope to understand or afford.

As I walked down the street, my heart cracked wide open, and I let the tears stream down my face, running in hot trails down my dusty cheeks. I couldn’t believe my naivety. I’ve read about extreme poverty, and I’ve watched documentaries on extreme poverty, but—until this point—I had never witnessed extreme poverty in a developing country. Not once during my three months in Thailand have I been greeted by a street full of people so direly in need, and yet, I’ve still been affected by the way many of my Thai neighbors live. My first glimpse at this street, lined with uncountable, beautiful, in-need humans searching for something that feels and appears so unattainable to me, will be an image that stays with me (and haunts me) forever.

From there, Stef and I took the free shuttle bus from Poipet to the tourist center. There, we split a taxi to Siem Reap with a couple from Malaysia we had just met; the taxi cost $12 (the most expensive taxi I’ve taken thus far in Asia), and it took two hours. We drove through some of the most rural areas I’ve ever seen (as in cows roaming everywhere with no fences to be found), on a one-lane highway that would rival some of the back roads in my hometown. Every ten minutes or so, we would pass through another small village, and each time, I was struck by the lack of solid-looking infrastructure. I was strongly reminded of the more rural neighborhoods around Chiang Mai, and in comparison to my neighborhood in Bangkaeo, these villages appeared to be about twenty or thirty years behind. Around noon, we passed numerous children riding on bicycles away from dilapidated schools in their identical uniforms, and more than once, we drove past large fires in the brush and litter lining the highway.

Although the taxi driver promised (multiple times) to take us all the way to our hostel, he decided instead to drop us off about three miles away with a large group of tuk-tuk drivers (with whom the taxi driver was very clearly in cahoots with). The tuk-tuk drivers promised to bring us to our hostel for free that day as long as we agreed to hire them to take us around the temples the next day for $20 between the two of us. This was also something I had read about (and was warned against), but at that point, we were ready to be done traveling, and so we agreed to a ride to our hostel for $10 and scheduled a pick-up for 5am the next day in order to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

After arriving at our hostel, it was still too early to check-in, and so Stef and I dropped our backpacks and wandered through the streets of Siem Reap. In comparison to the towns we had just driven through, Siem Reap was much more developed: full of hostels and resorts, restaurants with air conditioning, massage parlors and bars. There was an evident European twist on much of the architecture and the layout of the streets, and many restaurants boasted of French and Khmer fusion cuisine. We wandered through the Old Market (where I bought a few postcards) and ate lunch before wandering back to our hostel for a quick nap. That night, we explored the night market and Pub Street and ate dinner at a local restaurant (where frog was promoted as the specialty—don’t worry, I stayed far away from that) before calling it an early night in preparation for our 4:30am wake-up call the next morning.

(Not shockingly) 4:30am came much too quickly, and we met our tuk-tuk driver from the day before outside of our hostel at 5:15am (fifteen anxiety-filled minutes late, thank you very much). We began our day at Angkor Wat, where we watched the sunrise with hundreds of other people. It was one of the most serene and spiritual things I have ever witnessed (aside from the abundance of selfie-sticks and iPhones), and the temple ruins were just as incredible and extravagant as promised. We spent a solid four hours exploring Angkor Wat before we moved on to Bayon, Takeao, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei. If you have more time in Siem Reap than one day, I strongly recommend buying a three day pass, as there are thousands of temples, and each one is intriguing and unique in its own ways.

That night, as we explored more of Siem Reap, I was approached yet again by a young boy (probably ten or twelve years old) asking for milk. The night before, I had turned him down as he had snuck up on me and growled, turning his eyelids inside out, attempting to scare me into action. Please, he had said (in very coherent English) after I had jumped back startled. I just want milk. I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just playing. I told him I didn’t appreciate the way he had treated me (and I didn’t trust going into the grocery store he was trying to drag me into), and so when I said no, he responded with a (very lovely) f*ck you. Clearly, this was an interaction he was accustomed to. Following our interaction, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about this boy and his desire for something as simple as milk. I would be lying if I said I didn’t replay our interaction over and over and over. As scary as he was, I had lain in my bed at the hostel and couldn’t believe that I had turned him down.

When he approached me this time, however, I was prepared, and he clearly remembered me from the night before. Hello, he said, I promise I didn’t mean to scare you last night. I just want milk. Please come with me to the grocery store. When I attempted to hand him a few dollars and some riel, he tilted his head and stared at me. Please, he said again. I do not have any shoes, and they will not let me buy milk. For whatever reason, I took a deep breath and put my faith in this boy and his need for something that I could provide, and walked across the busy street with him (as he proceeded to hold up his hand in the middle of the road and halt traffic). I proceeded to buy him a container of $7 powdered milk and he graciously thanked me before running off.

The next day (after waking up much too early yet again to catch a bus back to Bangkok), I met a woman and we began talking about our experiences in Cambodia. We spoke of all of the children on the streets, and she mentioned how she had bought a canister of milk for a young mother and her baby on her streets. As soon as she said the words “canister of milk,” alarms went off in my head, and I immediately googled powdered milk Siem Reap. Scam. Don’t buy anyone powdered milk. Scam. Huge scam. As it turns out, this is a fairly well-documented scam that occurs often in developing areas. Children or young mothers often ask tourists to buy them powdered milk as they have cut a deal with the local grocers. They can return the canisters of milk and both they and the supermarket will turn a profit. This, however, is not the worst part, as the children and young mothers appear to be part of a larger, mafia-type organization who control the proceeds. As I read this, I didn’t feel an ounce of anger or regret. Rather, I felt my heart crack open just a little bit wider.

Corruption. Scams. Greed. Convolution. Desperation. Pain. Hunger. Violence. Manipulation. Three days in Cambodia, and each of these had become entirely apparent to me, while basic essentials like healthcare, education, and proper waste management appeared to be entirely lacking. As I continue reading about Cambodia post-travels, I read Angkor Wat is at risk due to under-regulated tourism; I read Cambodia ranked 99th out of 102 countries in regards to its law enforcement (or lack thereof). Don’t buy anything from children on the street… that only keeps them on the street. The people I witnessed this weekend are stuck in their ways. They don’t know any other way, and (as a huge proponent of education), I believe education is the only path forward. Can one girl teaching English make any sort of difference? How can outsiders make a worthwhile contribution?

We live in a world of such abundance and excess, and yet there are so many people who starve. How is anyone expected or even able to move forward under the oppressive thumb of such a corrupted government? I tell everyone: everything happens for a reason, but what is the reason for people suffering inconsolably day in and day out? Is the magic of the world only applicable to those who are privileged and educated enough to access it? I read the negatives, I reflect on the negatives, and I tend to lose sight of the positives. Sure, Angkor Wat at sunrise at 22 years old was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I can’t seem to care about it right now. Instead, all I see are big brown eyes staring up at me and dirty, barefoot toes at the threshold of a grocery store.

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