Down to earth – in Cambodia

Cambodia brought me right back to life, and down to earth.

At home, they live on the floor. To sleep they put a very thin mat on the floor, all next to each other, very often sharing the room. Sleeping, but also cooking, eating, bathing, all there. Most houses are made of wood, still, sometimes brick and often do not have any door, nor any furniture. Cambodia is developing and some middle class is emerging, some wealth transformed in huge mansions too. These ones are locked behind tall walls and you can only see big trucks coming in and out of them. Cars, that is also very important in the Cambodian lifestyle. It all measures on the road: the bigger the better. Trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, people, is the new chain of life. The road is a mess: noisy, smelly, busy – but that’s just the way it is in Phnom Penh. In Siem Raep, there is a bit more peace and in the countryside it is another world, agrarian. Cambodians go from home, to the road, to work. Many vendors in the streets, they sell food, clothes, mechanic pieces, in short: everything! They are garages, shops, spas, restaurants, hotels, one next to the other. Companies develop too and it has become a highlight to work in an office, behind a computer and all kids dream of being managers: a secure job with not much to do since you are managing, hence not doing much. Managing here as a completely definition from ours in the western world. The sense of responsibility and engagement is different. In Cambodia you commit to you family first, then men with men often, women with the children and the rest of the family. Cambodians do not share much, they is like an invisible door to their souls. What most strokes me is their sole focus on the present: negate the past, can not think of the future. That is something very interesting, they live for now. They first make sure to deal with basic necessities: food, roof, not even health. They work but when the necessities are met for the day, they stop. Only few think ahead, or maybe they do but in a completely different way from us, they won’t tell. Their history influenced it that way: Cambodians are not allowed to dream. It is amazing to see that they are incapable of reading a map, of abstracting things and visualizing them in their minds. Nothing. To indicate you the way on the road they would say “turn right after the gas station”, only they do not know from where you will be arriving so turning right makes no sense. No planning ahead. And the consequences are huge on their daily lives. Pollution, dirt, the misery cycle is harder to break.

Their sense of community is very interesting though. It is hard for them to be alone in an office, they need others, they are used to sharing the plate, and yet they do not really care for community. Family first, you can see them pile up on motorcycles – the father, the mother, the two kids and the baby, all on one -. But the picture isn’t always bright obviously and domestic violence reaches very high rates. Women are numerous to be at risk, of being beaten, of being prostitutes. Because ngos usually fight against “white consumption” but the first clients for hookers are the Cambodians and many policemen even manage businesses. Just have a look at all the KTVs on the road to Phnom Penh airport, like I said, back to life, down to earth. Corruption rules. The political past of Cambodia is very troubled and sequels are visible everywhere.  No need to mention the Khmers Rouge episode, but they are the same ones in power now after a trip to Vietnam and back under new covers. Cambodians now have a new opposition party encouraging them to strike and disagree. The problem is, it is the respect that goes and the revenge and entitlement that stay. Some want to fight, especially the young, and they are clearly the majority as it is very hard to see elderlies, but they do not have the right enlightenment, tools and vision for the future to fight for. If they become richer, they will focus on spending their money and completely forget about their compatriots. The poor help the poor, the rich corrupt the rich. The economy is opening a bit, but there are two parallel ones.

Sometimes they have fun, they love karaoke, going to beer gardens, watching television and eat. That’s the second question they will always ask you “did you eat rice?” – because in Khmer the word “eat” translates into “eat rice”.  Of course first you will see this amazing smile and the famous “hello”. Why do all children instantly look at you with a smile and a hello? Many say that the UN taught them how to properly greet foreigners when they came after the war… no comment. The first question Cambodian always ask is “where are you going?”. It always makes me want to answer back “Where are you going?” – and I did, many answered with a smile.

Smile is always an option, smile is an open door. I came here not knowing what to expect and I found life in its essentials. I guess by always thinking about our future we forget the necessities and how the future is necessarily bound to them. In our worlds, what are the necessities, what is reality, what lies under the cover and now, how do we build. For once let’s not start with the dreams but with the fundamentals. Thank you Cambodia.

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