Musings Upon Arrival in Siem Reap, Cambodia
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA- Siem Reap is a ridiculous sight to behold after spending eight hours on a bus from Phnom Penh. The entire countryside is filled with poor families on the edge of the road, living in absolute despair. After reading up on the history and current affairs of Cambodia, I was not surprised to find that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and as things stand it really doesn't seem like the country is progressing in the right direction.
The middle class was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge years, and what's replaced a system of governing institutions is a system of over
whelming bribery. Any integration with the government requires bribing an official; even children going to school are required to pay a bribe to the teacher for “extra help” on their “weekly test”, or they risk failing.
Having traveled an overland route through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, the differences between the three countries are stark. Thailand, with its tolls, paved roads, and trucks speeding along might as well be part of the American landscape. There's nothing that gives the hint that it's just a few miles from one of the poorest places on earth. Yet can one really blame a Cambodian for not “wanting” to rise to the level of economic development of their neighbors? It's easy for me to compare, spending 18 days and $1,000 to jet through a path well-worn by foreign travelers ogling at what can be modestly described as sub-standard living conditions, staring at the landscape through a bus window and reading newspaper articles on contemporary politics.
Yet one of every four Cambodians are illiterate. Four out of every five households lack basic access to electricity, and watch television or listen to radio using old, rechargeable car batteries. Even if they had access to media sources, the rapacious ruling party controls everything. It was just in the news this past week that the government is going to grant the opposition an analog TV station. AN ANALOG TV STATION. Think about that. How are Cambodians supposed to realize that they are so far behind the rest of the world, when the opposition party was just granted the use of an ANALOG TV station? What metric do they have to compare their own lives to? They know their lot is grim, but there's really no sense that anyone else has it better, aside from seeing a cavalcade of well-off Western travelers parade through their country to photograph Angkor Wat. It’s a deep-seated quandary that plagued me for the majority of my trip, and there’s still no answer in sight.