Lake Ton Le Sap, Saturday, October 6th, 2007
Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007
On our last day we visited a school, one of the better ones, because it was sponsored by a small organisation called Caring for Cambodia. En route we stopped to buy some books to donate to the school because the people are so desperately poor they can barely afford to feed the children, never mind buy them books or uniforms.
The other teachers in the group were keen to visit the classrooms, but I hated it. There we were, wasting half an hour of precious learning time of children who only get four hours education per day anyway, while the group was billing and cooing over the cuteness of the children as if they were performing puppy dogs. I caught the eye of one little girl, grave with dignity and a complete lack of comprehension as to why we were there, and my eyes filled with tears. I got out of there and composed myself, and then went and pretended to be interested in the library.
It wasn’t a school library, but rather one for the whole community, and although someone had tried very hard to make the best of it, what a pitiful thing it was! It was mostly filled with cheap paper ‘readers’, some very tatty children’s novels in English much too hard for any child there to read, and a very few adult novels that had seen better days. The man in charge had so much difficulty with English that Bun had to translate my questions for him, and he was the head teacher!
Still, at least the Cambodians have chosen English as their second language so that as their pool of English speakers increases, they can eventually access university exchange programs across the globe, and – of course – the World Wide Web. (This is in marked contrast to the stupidity of the leaders of East Timor choosing Portuguese, a language spoken only in such economically irrelevant places as Andorra, Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese S.A.R. of Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe.)
It was hard, however, to see what Cambodia’s future might be when we took the boat trip on Lake Ton Le Sap. The people who live there are so poor it’s appalling. Their bamboo houses have to be moved up and down the river bank as the water level rises and falls with the monsoon. They have a floating ‘library’, basketball court and various other community facilities, some of them sponsored by the west, but some of them were so small and decrepit, it was dreadful.
I didn’t like being taken to geek at these people and their horrible smelly fish farm, not because it upset me (though it did), but because I felt it was an affront to their dignity to be ‘shown off’ so that we would see how poor they are and then donate. What must they think of us: fat, sleek Westerners, flushed with fine food and awash with money, haggling over $1.00 for some useless souvenir? If they feel resentful of us all, I can quite understand why.
On the way back, Bun told us a little of his own story, one which is emblematic of Cambodia itself. The great age of Angkor was from the 9th to the 15th century and then there was trouble from Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other until the French Colonial period from the 19th century until 1953. In this period some Cambodians were educated, but then came the puppet government of Lon Nol from 1970-1975. After Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were in power…
Pol Pot drew on the worst of three ideologies: Stalinism meant killing dissidents; Maoism meant disastrous agrarian ‘reform’; and French anti-colonialism meant isolation from the rest of the world. So they emptied the cities, killed all the intellectuals (and anyone who wore glasses was considered to be an intellectual), and in secret from the rest of the world sent the city folk to the countryside to work on the farms. There they were resented by the country folk because they were not allowed to carry anything with them and were completely unskilled. Those in the country had to share their scarce land and its harvest and maybe that’s why they too were so cruel, smashing babies’ heads against trees or impaling them on sharp bamboo stakes. Bun himself was a baby at this time, and lost ‘only’ his grandparents to this murderous regime.
After Pol Pot was despatched to the jungles near the Thai border after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, schools re-opened, but Vietnamese was the second language taught and students went to universities in East Germany, Russia, Cuba and Vietnam. Bun, however, was able to learn English from an old man who lived nearby and taught it to supplement his income. He trained as a teacher, but had difficulty controlling classes of up to 62 students (who wouldn’t?!) and so he became a tour guide.
It was all a bit sobering, and not quite how I expected to feel at the end of my holiday. I had seen poverty close-up before, in Indonesia, and in Africa where I grew up but somehow Australia’s more recent affluence seemed more grotesque this time. We boarded our flight back to Saigon with a somewhat heavy heart, and I didn’t shake off my mood of despondency until QANTAS mucked up my boarding pass and lost my luggage and these petty irritations jolted me back into my more usual state of mind.
However, the first thing I did when I got back home was to increase my regular monthly commitment to Oxfam, and I have also made a Christmas donation to Care Australia instead of buying all those meaningless Xmas gifts we feel compelled to buy for friends and colleagues. If you are reading this, then you too are rich enough to have access to a computer and the internet, and I would sincerely recommend that you do the same: donate to a reputable charity like Oxfam which supports long term projects that support independent economic development in poor countries around the world. Don’t just make a one-off feel-good payment; subscribe so that the charity can count on your regular support and really make a difference. After a month or two you won’t notice the difference, but a family somewhere in the world, will. And if you visit these places – spend, spend, and spend again, every bit you can, to encourage foreign investment and a meaningful future for these people who have so little.
Would I recommend a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia? Unhesitatingly, yes. Some aspects of this trip were a bit confronting and the climate is awful, but the people are wonderful, and you will come back a more mature citizen of the world, with a greater awareness of how fortunate we are. Spending your tourist dollar will make a huge difference to so many lives, and you will see so many fascinating sights that you will never forget it.
Pack your bags, take an open mind and a generous heart, and go!