It’s a holiday in Cambodia, it’s tough kid but it’s life. It’s a holiday in Cambodia, don’t forget to pack a wife.
So sang the Dead Kennedys in 1978, when Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge and the infamous ‘Killing Fields’ earned their awful name. Nowadays Cambodia is very much a holiday destination, on the backpacker trail between Thailand and Vietnam. What to make of it?
If this had been the 1970s, my route would have been very different: I’d have had a lot less trouble getting through the Middle East, whereas now it’s a nightmare (see here for precisely why). Then again, SE Asia would have been embroiled in several wars. Nowadays the whole region is set up for tourists. Vietnam seemingly has more coffee shops than residents, and Thailand has towering hotels galore. Between them lies Cambodia, a smaller, poorer nation than either, where you won’t struggle to find a hotel in Phnom Penh but where the locals, earning on average less than $4k per year, will never hope to afford it. Outside the modern capital, people live basic lives – I’d ridden in on dirt tracks through tumbledown villages, and the high rise of the capital was stark in its contrast.
I’d met inequality in China but this was different in flavour: in China the posh toys had mostly been for rich locals, whereas while those certainly existed in Cambodia, the high life seemed to be largely put on for the rich Western tourists – and the separation between city, honeypot and country was as strong as ever. “There are swimming pools”, my friend Dave suggested as I waited in Phnom Penh for him to finish work, fresh from the dirt of the rural roads. Swimming pools? Oh the luxury! I hadn’t used a swimming pool since … since when? Japan?
Dave and I had known each other since university; he was now working out here with NGOs. (If you’re an NGO in need of a consultant, go on, hire him) Later that evening we talked about something else I’d noticed: how young everyone was. Whether in the country or the towns, children were everywhere, the old were nowhere to be seen.
“Yep, it’s a young population” said Dave, “ Remember, the older generation were around in the 1970s, when a quarter of them got wiped out.”
My stay with Dave and Shannon was all too short, and soon it was time to hit the long, hot road for Thailand, to go back out to face the world every day, to bounce off the cycle tourist’s never-ending stream of fleeting encounters. Here in South East Asia they took the form of seemingly millions of spontaneous smiling hails from the roadside:
“Hello, where you from?!”“Are you going to Siem Reap?”
No I wasn’t. Why? Partly because I was sick of being asked. Partly because I had the bit between my teeth and wanted to get to Singapore; this was a bike ride not a selfie tour, dammit. Mostly though, because everyone seemed to be going there, and I hadn’t yet recovered from the culture shock of being in countries set up to be trodden over by tourists. China, where everything had been secretive, closed and aloof, was still casting its shadow over me; I was still adapting to life outside the wall. The traveller trap was only going to get deeper though as I headed next for Thailand, the most touristed of them all. It would be richer than Cambodia, the poverty in the face of wealth would be less, but the westerners on beaches and all the attendant services would only multiply. How would I cope?
Heck Greg, they’re only having their holiday, just like you’re having yours. Get over it and ride your bike.