Sunday, 22 September 2013

Culture shock

Since I returned to Cambodia with GMTP I've been quite culture shocked. This feeling keeps revisiting me as I realise Cambodia has changed in so many ways yet, in others, it is much the same.

It first hit me flying into Phnom Penh in May. Looking down over the city I wondered if the plane had flown mistakenly to Kuala Lumpur. All those brick houses with tiled roofs, tall multi-storey buildings and just such a big place. Surely this was not Cambodia? Last time I visited in 1999 the airport was little more than a shack and was some way out of the small city of Phnom Penh, separated by acres of rice paddies. Now it's one continuous sprawl of new houses and factories.  Before, we rode pillion on 'motodups' (motorbike taxis) or pedalled cyclos. Now there are tuk-tuks and the streets are full of air conditioned top-of-the-range 4 wheel drives, many with government plates...

A new wave of culture shock hit me this time as I came directly from Nepal. Kathmandu is the most polluted city in the world; it's full of dirt and dust, clapped out taxis with zero suspension, bumpy roads, dirt and smells, mangy dogs and people everywhere. It's also vibrant, colourful, genteel and exciting.

Driving from Phnom Penh airport to the hotel late at night, the roads were smooth as a baby's bottom as I sat comfortably in a new, air conditioned taxi. The road were quiet. We passed streets of brand new flood lit buildings and complexes, tree-lined boulevards and ornate, shiny gates. There are air-conditioned coffee shops on every corner. The hotel, with pool, is a tranquil oasis next to an elegant temple. There is bacon for breakfast.

Yet I know this is not the real Cambodia and that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider as the relatively few elite profit from land-grabbing and other practices the poor have no power to redress.  I am looking forward to my trip to Prey Veng to reconnect with a Cambodia that is more familiar. To staying in a traditional Khmer house without a western bathroom; eating traditional Khmer food (though I hear Barb is planning chicken and chips this evening!) and resting my eyes on green rice fields scattered with sugar-palm trees.

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