Sabaidee from Cambodia

Trip Start Jan 13, 2013
Trip End Feb 05, 2013

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which has embraced tourism with wild enthusiasm. It is a study in contrasts between old and new, poverty and wealth, tradition and change.  It is impossible to be in these cities without wondering about the benefits and costs of tourism on the culture and the environment.

Visited Ta Prohm temple, which is being restored as a joint project between Cambodia and India.  It is one of many temples within the huge ancient city of Angkor, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Angkor Wat is another temple in the ancient city, which covered an area of 155 square miles.  It was the capital of the Khmer Empire which ruled  Cambodia and parts of Laos, Thailand, southern Vietname, Malaysia and Mynamar from the 9th though the 13th centuries.

Ta Prohm subsumed by the jungle, and then "rediscovered" in 1994.  The plan is to return it to a partially restored state while maintaining some elements of the jungle (so taking down trees and vegetation that are pose dangers to tourists or the basic building structure, but leaving those that pose no danger). Restoration is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle.  It is hard to imagine the logistics of the project.  Also a bit hard to justify the resource allocation in a country with so many human needs.  But the temples are important for tourism and for the culture.

Next  to a village for a visit and lecture by a French social archeologist who came to Cambodia 19 years ago to work on her PhD and then remained.  She is clearly well-know and liked in the community.  One family “adopted” her and allowed her to build a home on their land in the village.  They laughed because she put a western style toilet in the bathroom (she also put in a septic tank, which no one else has).   It is a traditional Cambodia home, with the bedroom and living area upstairs (house is on stilts) and the kitchen and bathroom in the open area underneath.   The culture is very different from ours in terms of privacy – much more sense of community and interaction among families and neighbors.  People sit and children play in the open areas under the houses and so just naturally tend to interact.  I suppose this sense of community will be lost as it has in the west as more development occurs.

We are told that this village is more prosperous than most because they are relatively close to the temples and make money from tourism.  They make small crafts and trinkets to sell and also sell palm sugar and produce in the city.  The village has a well for water, which is not very common, and some families have been able to build new houses.  One family got a World Bank small business loan and opened a grocery store in the village.  They also have generator and sell electricity.  The grocery store sells small plastic bags with enough cooking oil for one day since most families cannot afford to buy anything in larger quantities.  They also sell one egg, one cigarette and other items in very small quantities.

Here are some statistics on Cambodia:

Gross national income per capita:  $760 (US dollars)

Maternal mortality rate:  470.100,00 

Infant mortality rate:   43/1000 live births    (was 87 in 1990)

Under 5YO child mortality rate:  51/1000 live births

Adult literacy rate:  78%

UN HDI:  141 out of 187 countries

It is the least developed and poorest country in SE Asia, primarily due to the effects of the Khmer Rouge. One of their actions was to systematically murder all educated people in the country.  As a result 50% of the population is under 15YO and an entire generation of those with the intellect, knowledge and skills to help the country develop are gone.  It is going to take several generations and tremendous help from the developed world to bring them to a better place – and that is assuming that the country remains stable and without too much government corruption.
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