Cambodia is a land that got lost in time. A dictator came along and declared Year Zero and tried to recalibrate the society into an agrarian socialist utopia. The ‘new people’, teachers, artists and intellectuals were purged and tortured in the genocide that followed. After years of bombing from the Americans and bitter civil war Cambodia decided to inflict even more lasting damage upon itself. The aftermath is apparent but I feel powerless to help because I’m not sure what I can do.
Cities were deserted and the people were returned to the land. Those that weren’t tortured faced starvation or hard labour and in two years about a quarter of the population were dead. Mass graves, horror and destruction were left as the Khmer Rouge were pushed back from the capital by the advancing Vietnamese liberators.
Now Cambodia faces new challenges. A prime minister who has been in power for decades and whose role in the Khmer Rouge is still vague, rules a country that is lurching into the twenty first century. Rapid urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation carry on seemingly unregulated. Any attempts to preserve habitats and cultures are hindered by corruption at all levels. In Cambodia there are many complex and conflicting needs which are failing to be met. Sadly many of Cambodia’s population are as poor now as they ever were.
One the legacies of this newly democratic kingdom is waste. You see it everywhere. In a country with so many issues is it a liberal European concern that Cambodia is choking to death on plastic. Perhaps it is, but I am as liberal and European as they come. Plastic Free Cambodia launches today and I will do my bit. This country could be a jewel in Asia’s crown with its diverse habitats and amazing ecosystems. Mighty lakes and rivers dominate the country but, if they end up polluted and choking, Cambodia could find its still largely agricultural population falling victim once again to a leadership whose primary concern is not the welfare of its people.
While I am here, just a visitor passing through, I can ensure I inflict as little damage as possible. I can’t stop illegal logging or palm oil plantations but I can say no thank you when I’m offered a plastic bag.
I met a man the other day who blew away the cobwebs that had gathered in forgotten corners of my mind. Through his conversation he gently reminded me of lost passions and interests that have lain, unvoiced, in the hinterland of my consciousness. He was travelling at light speed through South East Asia. However this cosmic hare paused for breath before zipping past me, the earth-bound sluggish tortoise.
We talked of things from home mostly. A trip back to the familiar which was less memory lane than a base touch with my own culture. The politics of the left and the left out was discussed over one too many beers and the world unable to righted was dispaired over. We shifted our focus to love and relationships and discovered much in common. We both believed in the openness and flexibility of love. Seemingly polar opposites, the more we discussed the broader out common ground became.
When he left I knew that I would never see him again. I wish he were a tortoise because I could have travelled and talked with him forever. How easy life would be but I don’t fall in love with tortoises. I fall in love with hares and so I wake up with spiders rebuilding their homes in forgotten corners.
It’s not so much that one conversation can entirely change the course of my life. At fifty I am probably no longer open to that sense of immediacy and change. However, as I travel languidly through life, I meet people and there is a connection and it’s like a fresh breeze blowing through my cognitive cobwebs.
On the Asperger Path my small talk is rarely small. The little social niceties are often over looked as I dive headlong into conversations. I enjoy people with something to say and love an evening happily squandered over food and beer sharing thoughts about the thorny issues of life, love, death and god.
I would love to say I am open minded enough to share my table with the full range of human ideology. I am not. I like to discuss things with people who may have similar core beliefs but see the world from another perspective. I find it best when my core foundations are left stable but questions are poised that make me question what I have been constructing.
My life is simple. I don’t believe in much except myself. And it is this simplicity which becomes complex. To build a moral framework from scratch without the church, party or the state offering you a blueprint. So I would like to thank the architects and the engineers, the thinkers and the dreamers who have shared their time and thoughts with me. I am who I am today because of a thousand big conversations and no small talk .
She sat down on the bus and asked me if I had liked the town. She was Dutch and had spent a couple of nights in Battambang and was heading back to Siem Reap. She had done everything in Cambodia and was about to fly home but hoped to return to Asia next year. She politely enquired where I was headed next. I explained that I was working here for a while and would return tomorrow. She immediately asked if I felt comfortable working in a country that is so clearly not a democracy. My answer was a disappointment.
I cannot vote here and I live on a visa which needs regular renewal. I cannot claim total disinterest in the politics here but they do not really impact on me. Yes, I know there is corruption here but I teach English to children and so I spend my working life talking about teddies, dolls and lost pencil sharpeners. My new found travel companion wanted more outrage and less resignation. She was just passing through but surely I should be more aware. She had read a lot about the situation here and had come here now as there might be a war next year.
Culture and politics are not to be treated lightly especially in a country whose history is so tragic and complex . Both require an understanding and an investment of time. Saying please and thank you is a great thing to learn in a language but demonstrates nothing more than good manners. Culture and politics, like language, are nuanced and subtle and require years of study to truly understand their finer points. I realise that I understand mere fragments of the culture and language of the country I am living in. I am not submerged in Khmer culture, it happens around me more than to me. If anything, I am submerged in a culture of well read travellers who are ticking countries and cultures of a list.
By the time of the 2018 elections here in Cambodia I will be somewhere else . If there is war like my fellow traveller predicts I, like she, will be far away. I may stay more than a day or two but l have an itinerary too. I am a traveller and I am just passing through.