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Cambodia Travels

April 30 – May 5, 2006

Phnom Penh
The Road to Thailand

Cambodia was so hot and humid that I could barely drink enough water to keep up with my sweat. It’s like it was raining, but the rain was coming from inside of me instead of the outside.  The humidity of an Ohio summer ain’t got nothin’ on Cambodia right before the monsoons.

Nevertheless, Zac and I survived Cambodia (as in: we DIDN’T rent bikes and get lost and get blown up by a land mine).  We strictly stayed on the well trodden tourist path here.  This kept us from losing limbs, but unfortunately, it also threw us in the path of an intense beggar gauntlet that we had to go through on our daily rounds to the sites.

My first impression of Cambodia was that it was totally different from anything I’d seen before.   We were on the main (only) road for the primary Vietnam-Cambodia border crossing, but the road was pretty bad.  It was about a four hour bus ride from the border to the capital.  At first, the road was flanked by fallow rice fields as far as the eye could see, then later it turned to dense banana tree jungle.  Cambodia also seemed much poorer, as the vast majority of houses were built of wood (not concrete) and tended to resemble shacks.  The houses were also all built up on stilts, presumably because the Mekong delta floods frequently.

Another Cambodian quirk is that they use American dollars more than their own currency.  It’s so bizarre to be in Cambodia and see prices in dollars and everybody using dollars.  Dirty beggar kids followed us down the street asking for an ambitious “one hundred dollar” or claimed they need $20 for school tomorrow.  This is the hard part of traveling: your tourist dollars support the local economy, but they also attract beggars and con artists.

Although the children represent a gray area, Zac and I pretty much classify them as con artists.  We’ve researched this issue and gathered the following evidence: Tourists are much more likely to buy from children because they’re cute and everyone has innate sympathy for children.  So here is what happens: a person “rents” children from willing parents for a small sum of money.  The children then sell junk to tourists under the assumption that giving them money will help out their families.  While this is true, in part, the middle man takes most of the profits, while providing only nominal care for the children he employs.  Although these children speak English pretty well, it is clear that they are not attending school.  So in effect, tourists who buy from children are supporting child labor.  If children didn’t make lucrative sales representatives, they’d probably be allowed to stay home and go to school.

The beggars are more intense and pitiful in Cambodia.  This is mainly because a lot of the beggars are victims of land mines.  We have infinite sympathy for the landmine victims, and tried to support their more sustainable efforts by buying a music CD and hand painted cards at inflated prices, but alas, buying from one victim does not give you a free pass with all the others.  Many tourists end up donating money to them, which does more to assuage our own guilt for being so rich and having all of our limbs, than actual help.  But knowing Cambodia’s tragic recent history, it is impossible not to be sympathetic.

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