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Cambodia’s compassion trap


When we got off of the bus that had taken us from Vietnam to Cambodia we were only looking for a good time. We were there as tourists; to see the sights and meet the people, but only in a superficial way that did not hinder our enjoyment of the trip. Our Vietnamese guide had followed these wishes and we hoped that our new guide would do the same.

We had only met our Cambodian guide a few hours previously. He was a tall, wiry man with a dandelion-like afro who had named himself ‘Fila’, a nickname based on the sports brand. He was covered head to toe in faux Fila products which filled him with immense pride. I remember asking a few times, but he never did tell me his real name.

The second we stepped off of the bus we were swept away by a throng of starving people begging for money. This annoyed us, and we quickly pushed through them, looking around for our tour guide to help us. But Fila was nowhere to be found. We huddled in a group, glaring around at the dusty place we had been thrown into; shrinking from its dusty inhabitants and clutching our purses and wallets as tightly as we could. We did eventually find our tour guide and leave that place, heading into the city away from the outskirts that had, despite our best efforts, made us feel something other than the excitement we had expected as tourists in a country we believed only existed for our entertainment.

There was an aura of sadness that gave the air we were breathing a bitter taste. Fila confirmed this. “Phnom Penh might look big and fancy to you, but it is full of corruption” He spat. “Only the rich live here, leaving the rest of us to rot on the outskirts.” He told us then about the poverty in Cambodia and about how there was no middle class. There were only those who had everything, and those who had nothing. “Most people here have nothing”, he continued. “Not even water.” We nodded sympathetically, but were too focused on taking in the new surroundings to really listen.

Phnom Penh was busy, new, and exciting. Buildings were going up before our eyes. There were many restaurants here, with tourists gorging themselves on a variety of traditional dishes. It was a vibrant place, full of life and colour. But in each corner of the busy streets were the faces of the real Cambodia. Those that lived the reality of poverty, showing it to us in their gaunt and unhappy expressions. The unhappy expressions that we quickly looked passed because looking at them made us too uncomfortable. Soon the feeling of sadness that enveloped the street corners began to strangle us and we went back to our hotels early. Much of what we had seen so far was wealth and prosperity, but the aura of unhappiness that cloaked the shadows and the people within them soon stuck to our skin as well, staying there for the duration of our trip.

Tuol Sleng fence; pic Jack Barker

Tuol Sleng fence; pic Jack Barker

The next day we took a bus to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or Security Prison 21) with the history being explained to us along the way. We giggled and chattered amongst ourselves; only half listening as we were absorbed in our card games. Fila whispered when he spoke about it, looking around before letting us know that some of the people involved were still in charge today. “You never know who is listening”, he informed us, casting his eyes to the world outside the bus. We ignored him, continuing with our game.

When we got off the bus we met up with a tour guide who ran the English tours around the prison. He told us horror stories there. We saw the places where women had been raped and where men had been killed for fun. Tortures were described to us in such vivid detail I could almost see it all happening in front of me.

Pictures of bodies that had been found in the prison when it was liberated were stuck onto the cell walls. I stared at one, unsure of what to make of the strange shadow next to one young man in the picture. He saw my questioning look. “That’s his intestines”, he explained. We were horrified, as one would expect. But our compassion, real compassion, was not evoked until our guide turned to us in tears. “They killed my family” was all he said, but in that moment we felt for every man, woman and child who had been senselessly murdered. We all left shortly after that, choosing to sit in the café rather than listen to more stories that would make us hurt.

The next day we ventured out of the city into the outskirts. Poverty was in the very dirt that most of the people were sleeping on as we drove past. We had lunch in a small town, cringing when some children came up to us. We ignored them, just as we had ignored everyone who asked us for money. After all, we had been specifically told not to give the children anything as their parents would take them out of school if they made any money off tourists; and we clung to that idea, our consciences clean.

But Fila gave us a look. It was not one of anger; I think that is what has stuck with me the most. He gave the small family of children, so slim they seemed only mere shadows of what they could have been, the rest of his food and began talking with them. They lovingly spoke of their mother and father, and tried to impress us with knowledge that they had learned from school. We looked at each other in horror, before quickly rushing to give them our food too. We were so concerned with following the guide book and holding onto our money that we had forgotten that they were human and that they were starving. After that day we carried around bottles of water and extra food, giving it to any children that stretched their skeletal hands out towards us.

On one of our last days of the tour, while we were in Siem Reap, Fila took us to his home village. We were honoured to be invited; excited to steer off the travel brochures path and into the unknown. Seeing how our simple gifts of food and water had brought such hope into the children’s faces, we pooled our funds together and bought piles of toys for the children of the village.

Fila’s town had a bit more money than most that we had driven passed; the people had some shelter over their heads in the form of rotten wood badly nailed together. They even had clean water, as Fila had installed it using the money he had gotten from other tour groups. Among the group there was a woman with a baby. She had eight children, each leaner than the last. Her baby had a cleft lip and palette and was unable to eat. Like a sick game of Chinese whispers, the phrase went around our circle of travellers and into my ear: the baby is going to die. We started a collection for the baby at Fila’s request. We raised over $200, hoping it was enough to pay for an operation at the local hospital.

It wasn’t until our last day in Cambodia that I learned from another guide that the Angkor Hospital for Children, only fifteen minutes away from the village, would have collected the woman’s baby and performed the surgery for free. Fila and the woman had done the same thing with all of the other tour groups; using the dying baby to provoke enough sympathy to feed the town. I did not tell the others, feeling foolish and angry. At first I was disgusted that this woman would sacrifice her baby for money. But on the plane flight home I realised that I could not bring myself to condemn her.

The town needed money. The tiny people that had laughed as they tried out our gifts, taking it in turns to learn how to hula hoop and playing soccer with us into the soft dusk light, were slowly fading away with each meal that passed without any more than a crumb. The adults were working in the rice fields from dawn until sundown every day to provide those crumbs, with the risk of dying of heat stroke or of snake bite working just as fiercely along beside them.

tourist-board Cambdia; pic Jack Barker

My heart broke that moment on the plane when I realised that the mother had to choose between another mouth to feed or more food for the already starving village. And made me realise that the people that we stepped over and walked around in the narrow dry streets were just as worthy of my compassion, because they too were facing similar decisions every day. And suddenly I was ashamed. Ashamed of shrinking when sun-damaged hands were trying to push wares into my own smooth ones. Ashamed that I hadn’t listened to Fila when we had tried to tell us about the corruption and poverty that held the country in its tight grasp. And ashamed that I had chosen to sit in a café rather than continue the tour and honour all of the people that had been killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

I told myself that I had gained compassion; that I would never forget the tour guide who lost his family, the starving children who knew more about Australia than I did, or the woman who had to make the hardest decision in the world. But until I wrote this piece I did. I forgot all about them. I forgot to care.

Cambodia surprised me. I had never expected to go through such a personal journey in a place I had only visited for fun. I learned a lot on my trip back in 2009 and I found out a lot I did not know about myself.

The only problem is, it wasn’t what I was hoping to find.

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