All three of these countries share a similarly dismal past, were ruled by the French a hundred or so years ago and have huge amounts of trauma in living memory. Vietnam was never a particularly powerful country, it was part of China on about four separate occasions, was taken over by France and then dealt with an internal war between the north and south over communism. Because at the time the Americans hated anything even close to having a sickle on it they decided to join the south and bomb the hell out of the border area. The Americans didn’t stop at this as there were sporadic bombings in Cambodia, who I think had been letting the northeners walk down through their land, and blanket bombing in Laos, who as far as I remember had very little to do with anything. Laos is now officially the most bombed country in the world and many areas are scattered with UXO’s (unexploded bomb stuff that kills adults and children regularly, in some provinces as many as one per day).
Although historically Cambodia was a huge ancient power it has a somewhat darker recent history with Polpot, the Khmer Rouge and genocide. In my opinion the main difference is that Cambodians did it all to themselves with no prevailing ideology. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered millions and acted inhumanely and most of those people are now still living in the country, even now only one man has been arrested and he was the one who showed remorse. Before going to Cambodia I had heard many other travellers say how nice and friendly the Cambodian people were. I find it very strange how so many people seem to perceive a link between poverty and friendliness, as if it will make you feel better about yourself; it doesn’t matter that they are poor because they are friendly and content. In my experience this link doesn’t really exist and most friendliness in poor countries is unfortunately because they want your money, call me a cynic. I found this in Cambodia more than I have anywhere else. The level of corruption is astounding as there are more Hummers and Porsches than I have seen anywhere else, every other car is a shiny new pick up. This corruption is to do with politics and ‘charity’ workers alike and makes it seem that the Cambodians are once again screwing themselves over through individual sadism and greed. Having children begging around you on your £15 daily budget as £20,000 cars stream past you really takes the piss and shows the seriousness of class divide in their country.
In the end I only went to three different places in Cambodia because I simply didn’t like it. These places were Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap, perhaps if I had ventured into the middle of nowhere I would have seen a different side of society. In both Phnom Penh and Battambang the accommodation was overpriced and of average quality. Bus journeys cost more than Vietnam but were still reasonable, well they would have been reasonable if they didn’t just stick you in any old van and sell it as VIP. Overall Cambodia was more expensive than Vietnam and this was mainly because of the dollar, they would very rarely ask you for anything in denominations less than a dollar, which seems to me another lack of pride as they could quite easily just use their own currency like Laos and Vietnam do. So streetside snacks and water would often be a dollar because its so much easier for them to get away with rather than 2,000 Riel.
In Siem Reap the tuk tuk drivers charged a fair amount, between $8 and $15 a day but in Battambang even a short 2 hour tour could cost up to $20 as well as being told to pay people at the side of the road. Our tuk tuk driver told us a long story about how long he had had to work to save up for his tuk tuk so he could pay for college, on one level this sounds reasonable and then he said the tuk tuk cost $4000, which is ridiculous as you can get a pretty good truck for that amount. We soon realised after he kept telling us this that he just wanted extra money. This is similar to the begging kids around the Angkor Temples who continually repeat they need money for school, this when school is free. One girl was repeating that she had no money to eat as we sat and had a drink and her friend was helping herself to a box of cakes on the table beside us. It is also very tough to know if giving money will even help as they all have ‘bosses’ who take it from them, all I know is that everyone I saw begging looked fit and healthy. Giving money to organisations, if there are any trustworthy ones, would be much more worthwhile.
Another thing which disturbs me a little bit is the amount of rich tourists with big Nikon cameras taking photos of poor people and children as if poverty itself is an attraction.
Undeniably the Angkor temples were amazing, despite being a fairly pricey $40 for a 3 day pass (pricey compared to other big attractions) they are breath taking and awe inspiring and they themselves make Cambodia worth a visit. From the other places I saw I wouldn’t bother again and the year zero destruction has left the country without anything in the way of an old town. Another observation I had was how many monks there are everywhere, going round in the morning and collecting money from the locals, yet I didn’t see any active community work being done by them and I read that, unlike other countries, the monks do not feed the poor. It all seems a little strange, especially when the monks have smart phones.
There was a definite attitude of self pity amongst the Cambodian people I came accross. When both Laos and Vietnam have put their troubles behind them and are moving on with life with their heads held high many Cambodians are relying on support from tourists rather than make anything for themselves. This was not the rule as there were some touching examples such as the landmine victims who had formed bands playing traditional music by the temples. Also the street kid circus in Battambang was a pro active venture.
I don’t mean to sound to bitter about this but it just seems that poverty is more of a state of mind than a statistic and if the country had a positive attitude or some honest leadership things would be looking up.