Cambodia is a country most people know a bit about, usually from memory fragments of news reports. We were the same so unsure just what to expect when we arrived in Phnom Penh. It wasn’t the greatest welcome as the visa officer ‘áccidentally’ gave me the wrong change for our visas, luckily I noticed I was $10 short and he never blinked an eyelid while compensating me. In contrast everyone else we met was really helpful, the hotel we stayed in was probably the friendliest so far, they greeted us by name every time we saw them and asked what we were going to do or if there was anything they could help us with, They pride themselves on treating guests like family and it certainly felt that way, we even got a gift when leaving of a krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf. A lot of my time here was unfortunately taken up with dental work, luckily we had a recommended dentist (thanks Michaela!) who was excellent.
We visited the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. I think the most troubling aspects of these places is that they took place within our lifetimes. Somehow it seems easier to deal with mass slaughter and genocide with the distance of time. However this happened to people our age and younger. We met a survivor who only escaped killing because he could repair a typewriter. At the Killing Fields (we were at the main one, there are actually dozens of them across Cambodia) bones, teeth and scraps of clothes constantly rise to the surface and are visible to those walking around. Many of the memorials such as this are quite harrowing and make difficult viewing, but what happened was unbelievably horrific and they are correct in ensuring it is not forgotten by diluting the acts of the Khmer Rouge.
The past may overshadow our view of Cambodia and obviously has some influence on their lives today but what we saw was a city moving on, not forgetting, but embracing the future. We spoke to one of the hotel workers one night in the pub across the street. His hopes for the future for himself and his family were similar to those you would hope to hear from anyone but he was amazingly determined, at 12 he had told his parents he wanted to stay on at school to make something of his life, for various reasons he didn’t finish high school until he was 22 but he then worked to save money to pay for his university degree. He now managed the hotel but had plans for the future to open a restaurant with his wife. At the same time he was looking after his parents, who he described as poor farmers (they wanted to sell a piece of their land and their cow to send him to college but he wouldn’t let them). He was also encouraging his younger siblings and their children to work at their education to make something more of themselves. I would like to put him in front of every class I’ve ever taught as an example of why education is important!
On that theme we also visited, through a friend, an international school in Phnom Penh. I think the main thing we took from the visit was that schools and pupils don’t differ much wherever you are in the world. We have similar challenges and rewards albeit the context can be very different.