An Anglo’s View of Cambodia:
By Bob Buchanan
As we boarded the Thai Airlines plane taking us on the first leg of our eighteen-hour journey to Cambodian, I could hardly believe we were really going. My mind was reviewing all the things we had studied in preparation for our immersion into what would prove to be a radically different culture. We had studied about the typical Cambodian lifestyle, how very few would ever use a telephone, or see a television. Little did we realize how rapidly the influence of the United Nations peacekeeping force would invalidate all of our learning. We were soon to discover that there were many more cars than we had been led to believe, that telephones were in abundance, and that in Phnom Penh, at least, television sets were the norm, not the exception.
But I am getting ahead of myself. What led us to make this plunge into potential danger from bandits and warring political factions, to this country of such incredible contrasts of rich and poor, educated and ignorant, healthy and maimed, moral and corrupt?
What drew us to this country, aspects of which, we would soon learn to lave and hate, admire and despise, to people we would adore and never forget, and bureaucrats we would never want to deal with again?
The attraction was very simple, really. It went back to having seen The Killing Fields a number of years before. Knowing that what the movie depicted had actually taken place, created a compassion for this severely abused people. We learned that upwards of 2 million people died at the hands of their own countrymen, many of the executioners being mere lads 14 or 15 years of age, who had been brainwashed by deluded Communists, who believed they could build an ideal society by turning the clock back to the agrarian days of old. To accomplish this all that were educated, wore glasses, or spoke a foreign language were targeted for death. When the experiment failed, the very ones most needed to rebuild the nation were the ones who had been sacrificed, the doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators, and not just them, but their whole families, as well, including tiny babies. The compassion that this film produced, gently simmered in the back recesses of our memories until fanned afresh, by an arresting article off of the Internet, Selling The Innocence Of Cambodian.
This article, based on an interview with a 14 year old girl, documented the existence of one of the most despicable enterprises in the world today, the sexual exploitation of youth. The girl interviewed shared how a relative had sold her to a brothel keeper for $200.00. From that time on she would be the property of her owner, beholden to him for her food, clothes, and lodging. She would be expected to please her customers weirdest perversions of suffer beatings. This horribly degraded existence would often begin with a week of service to a single customer who would pay a premium price for a virgin. I would later see, on one street, at least a mile long, completely given over to this debauchery, hundreds (of the thousands) of these girls, plying their trade. For as little as $2.00 one could buy girls as young as 10 or 11.
As the father of 2 girls of my own, I was horrified at the thought of one of my daughters getting her first introduction into the world of sex, in this traumatic and totally degrading manner. To realize that for the sum of a couple of hundred dollars a parent could sell their most cherished possession, their child, into a situation that would so permanently scar and destroy them, was almost more than I could bear. To learn that around half of these girls would never reach their 20th birthdays because they would contract various STDs., especially AIDs, would forever change me.
In a rash prayer I said to God, "if You can get me to Cambodian to do something about this problem, I will go tomorrow." Three months later we found ourselves on this flight to Cambodia.
Nothing I had studied, though much of it was accurate, nothing I had rehearsed in my brain, could have prepared me for the mental and emotional assault to my psyche, that Cambodian would prove to be.
To begin with, considering that the population of Phnom Penh is over 1 million, the airport took us completely by surprise. In America you would expect to see an airport this size in a city of 20,000 or 30,000. There were only 2 or 3 airplanes on the ground in the
What we were to experience next was so unpleasant that it created thoughts of returning immediately. We assumed that an English speaking person would meet us at the airport and get us through customs and passport hassles. Wrong! In front of us was this crowd of Cambodians jamming their way through a gauntlet of officials who appeared to be enjoying the power they owned and the inconvenience they posed. Friendliness and courtesy was not in their vocabulary. We were required to surrender our passports to this crew, not knowing if we would ever see them again or what the bribe might be to reclaim them if we ever did see them again. Our documents disappeared into a pile of other passports, all of which were being scrutinized by these uncaring magistrates. In what seemed like an eternity, our passports showed up somehow near the end of this bureaucratic queue, where in completely indiscernible grunts, we were being told what we assumed meant that we could continue on the process through customs. Finishing that, we made our way outside the building where another crowd of strange faces and voices were attempting to woo us to their particular means of transportation, be it a moto (small motorcycle), or a taxi, or a bus. In the midst of all this confusion and commerce we finally saw a Cambodian holding up a sign with our names on it. What an incredible relief, and do you suppose that he could speak English? Not!
What he lacked in language skills he more than made up for in driving skill, as he lunged our small pickup through a virtual sea of motos, at a dangerously rapid pace, using the horn and steering wheel in near equal amounts. Before reaching our destination, we were forced to navigate several severely flooded streets with water so deep that youngsters were actually swimming in the deeper portions. Knowing, through my research, what substance would be in that water caused me concern for the health of the unsuspecting children. (We would later walk through flooded streets in water up over our knees, to a meeting, where our hosts had graciously and wisely provided basins of water and soap to wash the residue off of our legs and feet. Failing to do this, we were told, could lead to a nasty rash.)
Over the next 5 weeks, as many times as we hired motos, I never got used to the numbers of other motos that crowded around us as we traveled the roads of Phnom Penh. The threat of accidents, which was very real, the dust in your mouth, nose, and eyes as the weather dried up, and the pungent odor of exhaust mingled with who knows what else, made traveling an experience you prayed would end as soon and as safely as possible. We were luckier than some, narrowly avoiding collisions on numerous occasions. When there are two adults weighing in at around 300 lbs. on the back of a very small vehicle being driven by a man weighing not much more than 100 lbs., jockeying through masses of other similarly laden vehicles, your chances of arriving unscathed are not good. Add to that that there are few laws effecting travel and most of those are ignored.