Christina and I took a break from writing for a couple weeks. Since our last post we went down to the 4000 islands in the very South of Laos, then crossed the border and spent a couple weeks in Cambodia.
It was very exciting to come back to Cambodia after teaching here 5 years ago. A lot has changed in this short time. Siem Reap has exploded with development and tourism and areas of Phnom Penh have become much more developed as well. I am not sure yet how I feel about these changes. Some pros are the Cambodians in these areas have better roads, more jobs and cleaner streets. Some cons are the development of rampant sex tourism and the deterioration of the beautiful Khmer culture to a more hardened, global one.
When we travel and meet other westerners, people often ask each other what countries they’ve been to and what these countries are like. Based on who you talk to you can get a number of different responses. Usually you get generalized responses about a place: Vietnam is beautiful but the people are mean, Thailand is very touristy, Laos is how Thailand was 30 years ago, and besides Angkor Wat Cambodia does not have much to see.
When people ask me about Cambodia I usually respond with something like this: What Cambodia lacks in tourist attractions, it makes up for in human interaction. If you want to rock climb, trek, kayak, sight see, or other self-gratifying activity this might not be the country for you. If you want to see the human spirit at its best (and sometimes it’s worse), if you want to learn about life at its rawest, feeling both gratitude and sadness, if you want to experience the joy of giving, if you want to be both confused and amazed, and if you want to immerse yourself with the friendliest people on earth then go to Cambodia.
From the first time I came to Cambodia I felt these things, and it is ultimately one of my favorite places to visit. Ten years after 40 years of almost uninterrupted war and genocide, Cambodians live a life of gratitude and happiness. The kind that is both ubiquitous and infectious. From the moment we stepped foot in the country I could feel all the cultural norms slipping back into my mind and body. Starting with the bus breaking down only minutes across the border.
Luckily every Cambodian male over 16 years old is an expert Mcguyver mechanic. After 2 hours broken down in the heat with a faulty clutch, 5 Cambodian mcguyvers came up with an elaborate fluid transmission scheme using garden hoses and pvc piping that allowed us to continue the rest of our 4 hour journey in 3 gears. Five miles outside our destination the bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for a very late lunch. We were starving and didn’t care about our proximity to the destination, so we ate anyway. Why didn’t the bus just wait for town? The answer is that Cambodians take care of each other, the bus driver stopped at a rural restaurant that didn’t get much business because, they are friends or family, they don’t get much business or he gets a free meal.
Cambodia is called “the Kingdom of Wonder”. This is well suited for the country because everyday I spend at least a few hours wondering why people do things the way they do. Why did we stop off 5 miles before town? Why are the sinks on the ground? Why is it illegal to have your headlights on during the day but legal to have them off at night? Why is Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge general, their democratically-elected president for the past 30 years? Why does saying yes often mean no? Why do people prefer politeness over correctness?
Laos and Communism
Laos is one of the last 5 communist countries on earth, which made it very intriguing to visit and get to know the culture. There are some experiences I had that fully embody westerns views of communism, while other experiences were very unexpected. In general, the Laos people lack a lot of freedoms that we have in the west. They do not have freedom to vote or freedom of speech.
That being said, most of the people of Laos are very entrepreneurial, industrious and enterprising. They have access to buy and sell almost all of the modern products sold in the west and more. They can sell what they want, buy what they want, eat steak, drink beer, wear what they want, etc. They usually pay high taxes on products and small businesses, kind of like we do in the west. One welcomed change is they don’t have many big corporations and advertisements in your face telling you what to buy, how to dress and how to think. The majority of the time when you pay for a product or service in Laos that money is going directly to the small business vendor which can make the buyer feel really good about contributing to the income of a local family.
Another thing I noticed is the country does not have nearly as much propaganda as I expected. In my opinion, they actually have less propaganda than the United States and more news that is worldly and objective. I was very surprised by this. The Laos people do have very little freedom to travel and leave the country unless they have a significant amount of money, which many people do not have. (The more money you have the more freedom you have…but the same can be said for the US) The crime rate in Laos is very low. There are hardly any murders and very few robberies. This does not mean Laos is safe though. There is a high rate of motorbike and traffic accidents.
Laos healthcare system is horrible. If you are ever seriously hurt in Laos the protocol is to get to Thailand as fast as possible. The use of traditional and modern medicine is widespread and effective for the most basic ailments, but it will not help if you break your leg or contract malaria.
The people of Laos are undoubtedly impoverished and war torn. I’m not sure if this is more because of their misfortune of being a battle zone for so many wars or if it is systemic but it is a sad truth. The majority of people within the country remain very happy and generous.
From my experience, I believe the differences between a capitalist country like the United States and a communist country like Laos are not black and white. What works for some does not always work for others and people from both systems can be very good, very bad, and everything in between. The systems seem very similar in a lot of ways. They both work in theory but have many problems in practice.
When I taught in Cambodia I used to ask my students what is more important, money or happiness? Knowing there is no black and white answer (and that the answer is different to each individual because people are different). Most everyone in Cambodia said money was more important. I asked this question a lot in the United States and the majority of people say happiness is more important. This is interesting because I think it speaks for what is harder to attain in each country. For most Cambodians happiness is often easier to attain than wealth and in the US wealth is often easier to attain than happiness.
Portraits of Laos & Cambodia