My November visit to the United World Schools we have built in NE Cambodia inspired me to do something tangible to make a difference to the children’s impoverished lives in these remote villages, where our schools are a beacon of hope for their future.
So a group of friends got together and we collected over 100kgs of Duplo, puzzles and learning games to take up to Phnom Penh for onward transmission to the schools. And this is the perfect excuse for a girls’ trip to Phnom Penh – sadly not all those who were instrumental in the collection could come…
I don’t know how I get all my stuff into the taxi and to the airport – over 50kgs – two large checkered ‘launderette’ bags, a suitcase and a canvas bagged stuffed full of Duplo. I meet my friend Sabiha at the airport and she has her 30 kgs – and we are overweight! A bit of adjustment and we get away with it…
We arrive at the delightful Kabiki Hotel in good time for some well-earned alcoholic refreshment, and are joined by third team member, Arin. We set out boldly on foot to find our dinner restaurant, Malis (high-end Cambodian food but a bit pricey). Crossing the road here is a nightmare, playing chicken with oncoming scooters, but by employing the ‘to boldly go’ method, we manage unscathed, though resort to a tuk tuk for the return journey.
Arin used to be a journalist for Radio Free Asia and has already visited the Tuol Sleng or S-21 prison, so after a meeting with UWS local representative, Leakhana, Sabiha and I set off. It is 40 C and stifling emotionally as well as physically in the horrific monument to the Pol Pot regime’s sadistic inhumanity to its fellow humans.
The audio guide is both excellent and harrowing with its survivor testimonies and, in fit of guilt-driven humility, I succumb and buy books from each of the survivors who, as a friend said, must make a fortune.
However, I believe they are owed for what they have been through, while the west stood by and did nothing – indeed allowed it to happen if you consider the Vietnam war as the catalyst. A visit to the elegant and beautiful Royal Palace complex in the afternoon – it is the King’s birthday – restores a sense of balance to our mood.
Cambodia is a tiny country, only 15 m people compared to 80m or so in Vietnam; in fact greater Ho Chi Minh city has a larger population than the whole of Cambodia. I guess the effects of murdering 2 million of your population in the 1970s have been far-reaching. Nevertheless for a small city there is much development: Chinese, Japanese and Korean investment includes spanking new monstrosities of hotels, a huge Casino, Nagaworld, where Cambodians thankfully have to pay a large entrance fee, as this is aimed at Chinese and Vietnamese customers. In between all these edifices, the victory statues and communist-style regimental squares are delightful old French colonial buildings, often ministries (we liked the Ministry of Cult and Religion), écoles and biblioteques, as well as the charming British Ambassador’s residence nestled in between some other fine houses on Street 240.
The politics of Cambodia is such the Hun Sen regime has a stranglehold on power – he has ruled for over 25 years and is Asia’s longest-serving Prime Minster, rising from the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. The King occupies a nominal position, ineffectual but respected by the Cambodians, who see him as a unifying force between the two warring political parties, now working together towards the 2018 election, which people hope will be more democratic. It does not stop the land stealing, whether urban to make way for ‘investment’ or rural, as we know from the rubber plantations in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng (where Hun Sen comes from).
So our three days consist of cultural visits interspersed with shopping and eating: the Russian market still boasts a fine collection of silk for the discerning shopper; there are numerous NGO-sponsored silk weaving and craft shops where you get a feel-good warmth as you part with your money (Tabitha, Friends ‘n’ Stuff); and surprisingly lovely places to eat like the Farm to Table cafe, the Friends café, and the Foreign Correspondents Club, with its journalistic happy hour, offers splendid views over the Tonle Sap River and the food is pretty OK too.
One evening we take the sunset cruise; it’s so relaxed here they are oblivious to the bottle of Veuve Cliquot we bring to toast the dying of the day, as well as the unfinished bottle no 1 which is decanted into a water bottle! In search of dinner, we stumble across a local wedding and crash the photos in style.
Arin takes us to visit Radio Free Asia, a US-sponsored station, same stable atas Radio Free Europe. It is good to meet the highly-charged and enthusiastic journalists who care deeply about freedom and democracy in their country.
On our last morning, Sabiha and I climb the Wat Phnom, built by the city’s founder – a woman no less – and then cruise around the city in a tuk tuk, to the vast wastelands that are being built up into colonnaded French-style townhouses, ‘La Seine’ it’s euphemistically called, abutting another development, Elite City. Who can possibly afford this standard of living, we ask ourselves. Meanwhile, adjacent is a huge new ‘fun city’ and market area, bulldozed and treeless, and shimmering in the heat. It looks anything but fun and is all in huge contradiction to the villages where we build schools, where a water pump and solar panels are considered luxuries; and books to read, Duplo and building blocks are a child’s idea of heaven.
You can donate to United World Schools here.