I have fallen in love with Cambodia. We have been here for over two weeks and I feel rejuvenated in a way that I find it difficult to understand or articulate. I am trying to work out why Cambodia has enlivened my spirit.
The intense orange and greens of the landscape, the solid temples, mixed with a touch of French colonial culture have captured my heart. Old art, drawings and paintings sit on Cafe walls as a silent testament to an age before the Khmer Rouge. It feels like being dropped into a warm soapy bath that smells of jasmine, but it is not like that at all.
Our trip to South East Asia is for nearly three months. We have met travellers from Australia, China, France and a few Russians and Brits in Siem Reap, the Temple town. We visited Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and we are now in Battambang, a town full of artists it seems. Perhaps being surrounded by free spirits is part of the reason I feel joy.
As we have visited some of the tourist sites, sustainable tourism keeps popping into my mind. Beside the treasures of Cambodia, is plastic, piles of it. We pass by in Tuk-Tuk’s and turn away from the rotting food oozing out of plastic bags by the roadside. Discarded water bottles block shallow rivers and waterways.
Small children beg at temple sites, offering to fan a tourist for a few seconds in return for a Cambodian note that says 1000 (worth about 25 cents). I watched as a few Chinese and Cambodian tourists handed over dollars and other notes to children, perpetuating their dependence on tourists.
The Cambodian people are a mixture of contrasts. Older people willing talk about the Khmer Rouge horrors. Some people I have talked with recognise the older generation is dealing with Post Traumatic Stress without much mental health support. Other people express disappointment in the new generation because of its perceived lack of culture and interest in history. Cell phones sit comfortably with dirt and poverty. What is next for Cambodia is anyone’s guess.
One initiative to help local young people is based in Siem Reap. It is called the Phare circus. Circus performers use theatre, music, dance and circus arts to tell Cambodian stories; historical, folk and modern short dramas.
The show we saw was called “Same Same” and played about with the idea of the foreigner and Cambodian living side by side. Wearing masks and climbing high the performers playfully enact the reactions of the drunk visitor or what happens when the electricity goes off. The show contrasts cultural norms around food, dating and gender roles.
“Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, they took drawing classes and found art to be a powerful tool for healing. When they returned home they began offering free drawing classes to street children. Soon they opened a school, eventually offering formal K-12 education and professional arts training in the areas of visual arts (illustration, painting, graphic design, and animation), theatre music, dance, and circus.”
More than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs. All programs are offered for free.
Cold, shiny, reusable water bottles, advertising the circus are handed out to those who pay for an expensive seat. Along the side of the bottle there is a list of locations where you can refill the water bottle instead of buying non reusable bottles. It seemed to me a useful message, bringing the problem of plastic and youth education together. It is a sort of Eco-tourism that made me feel hopeful about the contrasts. A friend told me recently that being inspired is better than feeling hopeful and I am finding the changing face of Cambodia an inspiration.