Wednesday, 3 September 2008

On the road!

Its been hard to update now that I am on the road - expect lots of retroactive postings! Im in Phnom Phen at the moment, but let me give you some basic background and reflection.

I came to Cambodia before a weekend so that I could spend time in Siem Reap, in the north, before starting work. I have seen many beautiful man-made places - Jerusalem, Petra, the Coliseum and many cathedrals, but I have never seen anything like the Ankor Temples. I really only had one full day to soak them up, but I was completely overwhelmed by their artistry. Huge temples, somehow majestic but not vain. In varying states of disrepair, but always dignified. Though it is heavily touristed, even in the most crowded temples it is possible to take a moment for solitude.

After seeing so many churches in my life, I was impressed by the modesty of the Buddhist shrines - lovingly draped in orange cloth, with incense and gifts offered by passersby. Many of the temples are pre-Buddhist, and are heavily decorated with traditional Khemer designs. The shrines are usually tucked away in far corners and up long, steep flights of stairs.

My favorite of the temples was the least restored - the trees, moss and animals re-ingesting the fallen stones made it all the more accessible and eerie. The contrast between the magnificent, serine temples and the world outside is harrowing - as soon as you leave the gates you are mobbed by hordes of people, usually children, trying to sell you souvenirs. They begin by trying to sell you things that they think you want (bracelets, flutes, etc), then resort to trying to guilt a purchase. I bought a bottle of water from one girl only to be harshly chastised by another for not buying from her as well. Some of the adults were very polite and kind, and I was happy to buy a few small things from them. I wonder about the future for all the children running up to me shouting "one dolla, one dolla". I only hope one day their parents will be able to send them to school instead of relying on them for income. I also know that selling trinkets to tourists, though harsh and limiting, is far better than being sucked into the horrifying pedophilia trade that is rife in much of this country.

After Seim Reap, I took the bus to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Phen. Its a city where you can feel the third worldliness in every breath - terrifying drivers, most of them on overburdened motorbikes, constant hassling and begging, spotty electricity, cheep clothes (some stolen from the local GAP factory, some faked), fake DVDs, bizarre food, over-the-counter access to loads of drugs, tragic sex workers, shows of wealth by the lucky few and NGOs of every kind in every direction. It's fascinating, distracting and dramatic.

I'm here to help our country office write a budget (and proposal) for a possibly massive grant. The results could be amazing and do so much for Cambodia. The country office is under lots of stress - recent elections have thrown our vital relationship with the government into question and various other problems have sprouted up along with it. As an organization that runs clinics, we really do have a huge responsibility to those we serve. I visited two of the clinics yesterday - though simple, they were immaculately clean and cheerfully staffed.

The other great exposure of this trip was the chance to peak into a hardcore NGO worker community. My current boss lived here for 5 years as part of her previous job, so she had friends to visit and experience living here. Among the whole community there is a strange mix of optimism and despair – its hard to believe that things will get better when everything is so difficult and subject to so many setbacks. Cambodia is rather monolithic ethnically, and even after years here westerners rarely have Khemer friends or speak more than a few sentences in the language. It's an inspiring but realistic group of people – and one that I can see becoming a part of as my life progresses.

Much more, including the other half of this blog, the books, on its way in the coming days!


Anonymous said...

Very nice entry, brilliant indeed. Reminds me of my wondering days is South East Asia. Wish I was there with you. It would be interestin to see if there was any progress since I was there. Back then, the impression i got lead me to wrtie a story titled: "requim to Cambodia" - meaning I did not see much hope, though as it is Cambodia has many charms and hidden charachter and beauty. As you know now...

Chup-Chup said...

loved the post...take care and enjoy!