Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Cambodia — March 2008

Cambodia March 2008

I decided to return to Cambodia for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is an interesting country. While very poor, and still recovering from the effects of decades of conflict, it is also a dynamic and exciting nation with a people determined to improve their lot in life. It is this dynamism, combined with the (to me) exotic flavour of this small SE Asian nation, that makes it appealing.

Thus, in January I departed from the fair but dull shores of Australia, arriving in Phnom Penh a mere 12 hours later, after a brief stop over in that most miniature of cities—Changi airport.

PP had not changed much since I was last there 6 months ago, it was still dusty, noisy, dirty and poor: beggars sat on street corners, samloar (rickshaw) drivers hustled for fares, broken (or non-existent) footpaths tempted fate, a continual honking of horns—Ahhhh, paradise!

My self-imposed mission was to hook up with a UN sponsored ‘convoy’, which was to carry needed supplies to the poorer areas of Cambodia. Let me explain. It is a complicated process (like most things in Cambo), but one with a relatively simple outcome—to give food to people in need. By way of background the UN oversees much of the international aid distributed in Cambodia–here is where it gets complicated–while the UN ‘oversees’ it does not possess a great deal of direct authority. Much of the money spent is ‘tied’ to specific purposes, places or things, by the grant giving bodies, be they governments, NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations), other supra-national bodies, or ‘other’. Additionally, many of these organisations work in conjunction or independently, but still rely on the UN for support or backup. One more complication is that many of the people who do the actual work ‘on the ground’ are volunteers or one sort or another, with time, salaries and interests not affiliated with the UN.

To put this into perspective, there are in excess of 800 NGOs operating in Cambodia. These organisations do much good work, but some are moribund and others are very small (perhaps no more than an excuse for the people involved to hang out in a 3rd world country).

So, what does this have to do with a convoy of trucks heading into the wilderness of rural Cambo? Bottomline—the trucks are provided by a variety of agencies, the personnel are a mix from all over the western world, the contents provided by a plethora of sources, the actual route taken organised by the people doing the work (with a great deal of informality based upon experience ‘on the ground’—not withstanding a great deal of paperwork sent ‘back home’ as needs be). All blessed by the UN, with a modicum of UN funds and expertise.

The reason that these convoys (and other assistance exists) is that, apart from Phnom Penh (the capital) and Siem Reap (the Angkor Wat town, home to 1,001 hotels and countless tourists), Cambodia is a poor poor country. A decade ago the food supply was unstable, and people often went hungry. Things are better now, but that is merely a relative term. In the business press there is much discussion of the economic boom in Cambodia (and other SE Asia countries), but this boom has not yet trickled down to the majority of the population, and in fact, has made many worse off as traditional economic behaviour has been disrupted.

To put financial matters into perspective, a ‘good’ wage in Phnom Penh (PP) for a Cambodian is us$100 a month. This is sufficient to rent a small room, and to feed oneself, but things like medical care are another story, and many Cambodians earn far less than the magic figure of $100. For example a sergeant in the Cambodian army told me he earns $35 a month. He supplements his income by working as a tuk-tuk driver. In rural areas the situation is both better and worse. Here there is little cash money, however, most people grow their own food, and barter for whatever else they need.

By way of background Cambodia is an agrarian culture. There are only three cities of note: PP (~2m), Siem Reap (~250k), and Battambang (~150k). Batt is the only ‘real’ Cambo town on the list. It is in the centre of a major rice growing area. The remainder of the ~15m Cambodians live in towns and villages scattered across the country. Agriculturally, Cambodia is relatively prosperous, yet, some areas of Cambodia suffer from poor rainfall and mediocre agriculture. It is to these areas that the UN convoys travel on a semi-regular basis.

The area ‘my’ convoy visited was Koh Kong province. This is in south western Cambodia, abutting the Thai border. It is a relatively dry and infertile region, populated by small towns and villages.

My convoy left PP on the 2nd February for an estimated 2 week trip. Along the way we did a variety of things. Principal among these was the delivery of food. As we trekked along once or even sometimes twice a day we would stop at a village of a few thousand people and drop off bags of rice. We would then be entertained by the village bigwigs, with most of the village people hanging out in the village ‘square’ (there is always a central area somewhere where people can congregate, drink, eat and socialise). As I was told in several countries by many different people, life on the farm is boring, with a capital ‘B’.

Interesting historical sidebar: Poetry (and other forms of art) are littered with references to life on the land and ‘pastoral bliss’. These magni opi are invariably penned by those who are well distanced from farm life and insulated from the same by wads of cash.

In addition to delivering food and then helping eat it, we also helped in other ways. Each convoy has at least one nurse and, when possible (which is most of the time) a physician. We setup in a gov office or some other vacant space, and give free medical checks, and answer questions. In some ways the range of ailments is surprising, in some ways only to be expected. What surprised me (and I have seen this elsewhere) is the number of psychological illnesses present in the population.

This originates from a number of factors. One of the most obvious is alcoholism, drinking is rife in Cambodia. There is cheap beer and Cambodian whisky (an Australian expat said that in Australia the name of this beverage was “methylated spirits”) readily available. The motive for this rate of consumption is easily discerned, people lead hard lives. They have injuries, aches and pains, and little medical help. Also, their lives are confined to a small group of people with little prospect of escape, and, contrary to cliched belief, families are not always happy environments. To escape this life people turn to drink. Look down an alley way in any town in Cambodia and you will see a few drunk or semi-drunk people leaning against a wall. Multiply this number on a holiday.

To add to the misfortunes of the population they live in a harsh physical environment. The air is filled with dust and smoke from the common means of disposing of rubbish—fire. Communal incinerators (large clay pots) are located on most street corners, and they are in continual use, smoldering away with a odorous melange seeping into the air. The dust arises from unpaved roads and dry soil. Add to this the faint aroma of dung, and the occasional heavy rain storm, and you have your archetypical 3rd world village. A scene far removed from the idealised version found in Hollywood movies. To this list can be added the sun. In the tropics it is bright and strong—and few people where sun glasses. Most people over thirty years of age have difficulty reading, there eyesight has deteriorated to that extent.

The goal of the medical staff is to alleviate these problems and to provide medical advice.

I found my participation in this process rewarding. I did not do a great deal, I fixed computers at local internet cafes (there are always internet cafes). The extent of internet take up in the 3rd world is amazing, however, when considered a clear and present need can be discerned. One of which is simply to stay in touch. People travel all over Cambo in search of work, husbands leave families, children parents. The traditional mail is spotty (at best), while email is quick and easy. Also, information. Everything from Hollywood movies to farm commodity prices is eagerly sought.

I taught a little English, helped others do their thing, and chit chatted with the other volunteers. Many of these people are university graduates who have decided to take a year or two from the ‘rat race’ to success ‘back home’ to do something useful. This work can be much fun, creates a little ‘character’, and opens a whole new doorway into ‘networking’. Many young people go on from volunteering to new jobs and careers far removed from their home country.

The only real problem I encountered was sleep. I found it very difficult to sleep in a humid environment without aircon. This, combined with the other less than pleasant aspects of life in the 3rd world made the trip a challenge for this aging social critic.

The most dramatic aspect of our journey was the removal of landmines. In the good old days thousands upon thousands of landmines were used in Cambodia. Now, decades later, there are still thousands upon thousands of landmines still present, but most are non-functional and buried deep down, however, from time to time villages find landmines in potentially dangerous locations.

We had with us a ‘volunteer’, a chappie from the Norwegan army, who knew a few skills, including how to dispose of landmines. The easiest and safest means is to stand a long way away and blow them up. Easy, but sometimes this is not feasible. Then this guy slowly digs up the mine, and either pulls it apart or carries it somewhere where it can be safely blown. In one sense not overly dangerous, most mines will not explode, but.....?

I do not have any pics of this trip, my camera and a few other things were lost in a minor mishap on the way back. Sorry, next time. I will do this again, but not right away :).

I would recommend to any young person (maybe not so much to old foggies) that they consider donating a year of their lives to do some good work. You will directly help people, have a lot of fun, and make contacts and gain experiences you will never find in Australia or any other 1st world country.

Bye until next time.

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