If one looks at various socioeconomic statistics, it is easy to conclude how far behind Malaysia Cambodia is.
Yet superficially, if one landed in Siem Reap in north Cambodia, one would find it hard to differentiate rural Cambodia from rural Malaysia, apart from Khmer writing on the billboards and posters as well as the spoken language. The homes appeared Malay and the people themselves looked Malay. There were a number of times when a Cambodian spoke to me in Khmer, only to giggle finding out that I did not speak their tongue.
The substantive difference became clearer only once I was in the town of Siem Reap. Most parts of the town were dusty to present a Wild, Wild West impression. There was clear under investment in infrastructure. The statement on infrastructure was true elsewhere as well. There were not too many cars. Whatever seen on the road would be driven by westerners, or belonged to the government or some aid organizations. The locals would either ride a bicycle or a motorcycle generally instead.
The tuk-tuk and the likes formed the backbone of public transport. A Cambodian tuk-tuk is essentially a small cabin attached to a motorcycle.
In Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh, every single available tuk-tuk driver would hail me and ask if I needed a ride. Sometimes, it appeared almost everybody on the road honked at me to ask plainly, “tuk-tuk?”
A college friend of mine whom I was traveling with me told me that her brother visited Cambodia a few years earlier. She joked that he was traumatized by the tuk-tuks. She went on to buy a tuk-tuk-themed T-shirt for him as a cruel souvenir.
The persistence was noteworthy and it did not end with the tuk-tuks.
As both of us explored the Angkor temple ruins littered throughout the land, children would approach us and beg us to buy something from them. It could be a bottle of cold water, a flute, a book, a piece of cloth, anything. They would beg in the softest of voices that would melt the heart of an untrained traveler. There was a hint of desperation in their voices. And they were persistent.
After a while I became desensitized to the incessant pleas, as many other travelers eventually did. My friend made the desensitization easier. She said we could not possibly help them all by purchasing everything from everybody.
What struck me the most, and informed me the most about the state of Cambodian society beyond the cold statistics, was our guide.
We employed a Cambodian guide, who led us into various ruins. He explained to us in detail the history, the story behind amazing Angkor’s bas-reliefs and shared tidbits about temples for a moment worth of amusement. We thoroughly enjoyed his company.
By the end of the day, we wanted to go to where we wanted to go and he had to go to where he had to go. We parted ways. We paid and thanked him for a splendid day.
He thanked us for the payment, as it is customary to do so. What was unusual was that he exhibited further unnecessary gratitude. He explicitly thanked us for providing him with employment.
It was quite clear that he not only wanted a job. He also needed it.
What I am about to do is an attempt at generalization. There are always perils at doing so but after observing the Cambodian society as a foreigner, I do think Cambodia has a bright future.
It is true that it is poor now, with children working on the streets when they are supposed to be in school.
Yet, I do not believe those rough edges are enough to negate my optimism. I am optimistic because Cambodians in general appeared to have that hunger to move forward and leave the past behind.
Life in the capital Phnom Penh is the symbol of that hunger. The city is not as modern as Kuala Lumpur and it will be many years before the two are at parity.
Nevertheless, Phnom Penh is developing even as it maintains its old colonial charm. One can immediately feel the go-go spirit in the capital as one skyscraper or two slowly inches toward the sky, as the tuk-tuks laze across the city. The newly found Cambodian openness will further aid progress.
For years, Cambodia was held back by inward-looking world views. Judging by what I saw in Cambodia, from the rural north to the urban south, that self-damaging age has come to pass almost fully.
A new Cambodian era introduces its own issues.
Cambodians complain of corruption and suspicious political maneuvering. But as the society matures as it is inevitable with continuous economic progress that was impossible 30 or 40 years ago, chances are these issues will be arrested along the way to a more tolerable level.
I do hope Cambodia progresses to emerge out of its ancient Khmer predecessor’s shadow.
As I was haggling with a merchant at a market in Phnom Penh for an item, an American saw me and smiled. He approached me and said: “They’ll take every penny from you. But they are good people.”
Good things are supposed to happen to good people.