Sunday, March 12, we arrived in Sihanoukville (Cambodia). We were greeted by our driver, “Mr. Temple” and our guide, “Mr. Lucky”.
Mr. Lucky was a sweet guy who told us a great deal about Cambodia’s history, present, and his life. The kind of guide you always hope to get, but seldom do.
Mr. Lucky was the youngest of 4 brothers. His other 3 brothers died during the Khmer Rouge regime. Fortunately he survived (hence his nickname). He taught himself English and became a travel guide. Now he supports his mother, and he’s engaged.
Mr. Lucky’s story is like a metaphor for Cambodia’s own recent history: without asking for it, it became entangled in the so called (by us) “Vietnam War” when the North Vietnamese used Cambodia’s jungle to smuggle into the South, to attack the South’s regime and later America’s troops. So the USA decided, without declaring war or any warning, to bomb the hell out of Cambodia, throwing the country and its people into chaos, which was seized by the shrewd and criminal Pol Pot, who enlisted young boys and teenagers from the countryside, many of them orphans after the American bombings, to create an army of violent children who were ordered to take people our of cities and into forced labor in the rice fields. The book and movie “The Killing Fields” does a great job telling the story, and there is a new one coming out this year.[Tears run down my cheeks as I write these lines. Too many people have suffered too much because delusional egomaniacs decided to put themselves and their “cause” ahead of human lives and common good. Until when? When will we learn?]
That “experiment” cost the lives of over 2 million people. Those who were seen as part of the “ruling elite” (including doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc) were shot on the spot. Others followed: anyone who wore glasses, anyone who could read… But three years later Pol Pot realized the plan was unsustainable and people, those who did not starve, died of disease, or of overworking, were allowed to return to their cities and their previous lives.
Like Spain after Franco’s coup and the Civil War, Cambodia was sent back in time by the murderous campaign of a psychopath. And it’s still lagging behind Thailand or Vietnam, although the Cambodian people are resilient, and with over 50% of the population under 25 years of age, it has a good future ahead… if politics permits (more about that later).
We drove into Ream National Park: 210 Km2 (81 sq mi) with mangrove forest, freshwater wetlands, sea-grass beds, evergreen forest, beaches, rivers, and islands.
First we stopped at the Golden Silver Gulf and Bathing Beach. A beautiful beach that was full of trash. Which is what happens when your people are hungry and your priority is “survival”, rather than “conservation”.
After the walk on the beach we went to the rice fields, where women carried large baskets of cashews on their head, and men plowed the fields with the help of water buffalos, while tourists walked in a line, in the distance.
With a little effort and investment, that could be a paradise. But here is where politics get in the way: the Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1998, Hun Sen, is a very corrupt former Khmer Rouge member.
By controlling the media and violently suppressing the opposition, he has been in power for decades.
International aid and investment has been offered to Cambodia from many countries, but while almost all of them require the Cambodian government to agree to certain measures in return (advancement of democracy, openness, fight against corruption, etc), the Chinese offer their aid and investment without any requirement. So obviously the corrupt Cambodian government takes the Chinese money and pockets it without any qualms. Which means the Chinese influence is growing uncontrollably. For example: they just bought a beach in the Ream National Park to build a hotel and casino.
I was there to document the deforestation in the Ream National Park. It’s occurring in the “second row”, behind a first row of trees that hides the view of what’s happening behind it. You can’t see it from the roads, which are blocked by Chinese security guards. So we took a boat through the mangroves, from where I captured images (DSC_1271 and DSC_1274) of the deforestation.
When the international community denounced the deforestation, the Prime Minister denied it as “lies”. Then the UK ambassador obtained aerial pictures proving it, and met with the Prime Minister, who said: “we will look into it”. But as my pictures prove, nothing short of international sanctions will stop the corrupt Cambodian government and the Chinese from spoiling a beautiful natural treasure.
It’s a very common and sad story: poor countries, led by corrupt politicians, sell the only things they have, for short-term personal gains, leaving the country and its people stranded back in time and creating more long-term poverty that only leads to more instability and violence… Here’s one example: Cambodia’s land is very fertile. Vietnam’s was too, but the war savaged the country so much, that they need to make it fertile again. So Vietnam, with money made from rapid industrialization helped by both Chinese and Western countries, has bought land worms from Cambodia to make its land fertile… which is leaving Cambodia’s land less and less fertile.
Of course, the fauna is also suffering this deforestation. In order to document it, we went with the boat through the jungle into a wooden watchtower to look for endangered bird species from above.
The long and narrow boardwalk, with several boards broken, and others about to, leads to the most precarious man-made structure I have ever climbed. A slight wind breeze made the four-story tower sway quite noticeably. With every step the wood screeched letting you know that its days are counted and you could be the last one climbing it. Obviously, it was all worth it and the views from above were amazing. But also sad. We could only find a few endangered birds and nests when not long ago there were many.
After our visit to Ream National Park, we drove to Psar Ler market, where we saw many “exotic” (to us) fruits and foods. Some old ladies were cooking different dishes in the middle of the corridors, and following the suggestion of our guide, we had very interesting “cooked in shell” eggs, but could not stomach trying the 14-week gestated egg. He did.
We said goodbye to Cambodia by having late lunch on the beach: delicious vegetable “crepes” and glass noodles with king crab.
The beach was a big, public beach, frequented by both locals and increasingly low-budget tourist from China, Korea, and Europe. I could not help but notice the many “sexual predators” lurking. Middle aged Europeans walking up and down the beach, taking very young Cambodian girls (or boys) to dinner… it reminded me the case of the Russian oligarch who bought an island and was recently arrested for having 20 minors locked up in his room. His luxury yacht can still be seen in the Sihanoukville port, and access to his island by land bridge has been closed down, the crime being so horrific nobody knows what to do with that island.
We left Cambodia happy to have met wonderful people and visited amazing places… but sad that their past and current circumstances are so terrible, with a future that does not look too promising. Unless the international community does something about it. Which it won’t (as it won’t in Syria, Congo… and too many other places with even more tragic realities).
Back onboard luxury and safety, we attended a traditional music and dance performance by members of the Cambodian Fine Arts School, went out on deck to see Cambodia’s serene sunset one last time, while many colorful fishing boats and ferries kept the waters busy, and had a succulent dinner at Prego, the Italian specialty restaurant.
Hypocrisy? Not caring? Hardly. We have become aware. We already were, from books and movies, from TV and the news. But nothing like first-hand accounts to plant a seed of conscience that one day will turn into action. Even if remotely. As so many things are done today.
Thank you, Mr. Lucky. We will not forget.