Next Stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia has completely overwhelmed me. In a very positive way. I was prepared to see a very poor country that is still recovering from years and years of civil war and the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge.

But I was not prepared for the incredible warmth and friendliness that embraces me wherever I go. I have been to several Asian countries before, but I have never seen people so quick to smile, so happy to have a conversation, so eager to invite you into their groups despite the fact that they speak almost no English.

Walking through the streets of Phnom Penh feels like a trip back in time, with streets overflowing with all kinds of vehicles and people pulling carts and small motorbikes carrying 3 to 6 people at once dominating the street.

When you come to an intersection there seems to be no apparent rule for priority: once enough motorbikes and vehicles have gathered from one side they push into the crossroad and force the traffic from the other side to stop. The streets are extremely busy, but traffic as a whole moves quite slowly – and gives this small capital city a very pleasant, sleepy feeling.

People set up their little portable hairdresser shops and are roasting pigs right on the sidewalk, and sometimes you can see women carrying precariously balanced baskets on their heads (check out the woman on the left).

One phenomenon that really struck me is that in the early evening you find outdoor dance classes everywhere across the town. Somebody comes with a portable CD player, sets up big loudspeakers and starts teaching a choreography – and everybody joins in! They charge around 30 cents, and obviously – I couldn’t resist…

Wherever we go people pull out little plastic chairs and invite us to sit with them – they normally don’t ask for money, but simply seem to be curious about us. For example, I was asked if people in Germany eat snow – as it seemed just wonderful to them that in my homecountry clean water would just fall from the sky in such an easy to consume form.

This picture was taken after we sat and chatted with this family for a while – in a very poor and neglected-looking side street somewhere in Phnom Penh. I had the idea to make some prints for the family, so the next day we went to a photo store and had 5 prints made of the picture to bring them back to them. When we came there and showed them the prints they called everybody together and within 30 seconds we were surrounded by excited faces and happy exclamations in Khmer language. After a couple of minutes though a little girl looked at me sternly, thought hard for a moment, and then suddenly very shyly said “Thank you”. Thinking back to that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

Seeing the street children everywhere really gets to me – there are over 20,000 children living on the street in Cambodia, and it is hard to understand how one can help. It is both a result of the Khmer Rouge regime and various civil wars – but more and more often their mothers or fathers die because of HIV – and today HIV is already responsible for every fourth orphan.

While we are here we are trying to support local organizations like “Childsafe” and are eating at restaurants that are staffed by former street children, such as “Friends” or “Romdeng”- and by the way – the food they prepare is delicious…

Everybody discourages us from handing out money to children / people on the street, as it is hard to tell who is being controlled by gangs and syndicates that force them to beg – but I find myself giving food and water whenever my intuition tells me the need is real. This little boy for example talked me out of my bottle of water – and then emptied it in one go.

Nevertheless, it feels like not enough.

(Pictures from Phnom Penh follow).

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=71649

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