So I asked this guy if Cambodia had a site like craigslist.
What’s a craigslist? he asked.
The guy was bald and had a British accent. He was seated at the bar of my hotel, drinking an Angkor beer and smoking a cigarette.
I told him what a craigslist was and said Thailand had one but not Cambodia.
Well it’s pretty primitive here, he said.
He was a dive instructor, and did repair on boats and air compressors and stuff and said he didn’t know anything about English teaching or teaching English. After a few minutes of back and forth, he proceeded to tell me how much he hated living here and how messed up this place was.
It used to be a French colony, and now most of these businesses are owned by the French, he said. They’re wanted in their own country. But here? That guy up the road, runs a French bakery restaurant whatever, hammered every morning. Smokes a spliff with breakfast. Khmer girlfriend. Baby on the way. Baby delivered, another one on the way. Hammered at breakfast. So he drives down the road and bam! Hits a motorbike, kills this one, injures that one, they shove him in jail. Takes thirty grand, bails himself out, pays off the cops, pays off the family, moves the business to another location, back in business.
The diver went on to explain how sick he was of his life here, the country, and the people, right in front of the bartender, but he had promised the business owner he’d stay on till March. He explained in gruesome detail how corrupt the government was, how money funneled into this town from tourism wasn’t being reinvested into the local infrastructure, how sewage went into the sea, how an island ripe for resort development already has green beaches that used to be white gold, how the power went out for three months until somebody got paid enough money somewhere to get it back on, how the mountains contained some chemical element useful for building nukes that was of interest to foreign powers, and how the tourism industry was stratified by income levels and age and so on.
When I could get a word in edgewise, I told him that the effects of tourism and a corrupt government were sad, but that tourism had helped fuel Thailand’s economy over the past few decades and the same could happen here. He pointed out that the culture, religion, and government had also played major a role in how that money was used. I said that the recent election in Cambodia indicated progress, so long as nothing disastrous happens.
And then the bar closed.
As I wandered into the depths of the hotel I considered the man’s perspective. The man’s tirade was pretty bitter, but he had some valid points. Those that live in this town obviously love it and can overlook the seediness and the corruption, but perhaps that is because they themselves are somewhat seedy and corrupt. I have noticed two predominant types of expats here: kids who party and drink and old people who party and drink. I definitely have some interesting stories from my short time here, but since I am not a seedy partying type, I am feeling the wanderlust take hold once more.
The diver said of expats here, Why would anyone live here? They wouldn’t. Unless they were getting paid good money. The wages are crap here. They’re getting paid European or American wages and living here, and then they’ll go back home with all that money.
I remember how just a few days ago I thought this place was the best thing since sliced bread. After all, there is something highly stimulating and energizing about the constant uber-flow of tourists and hypersocial activities. I had more conversations with strangers walking down the street here in thirty minutes than I would have in a week or more back in Tempe, or several months in Seattle. What most people consider to be social is just not when you compare it to a place like this. And this is the low season.
This morning I met an old Swedish guy — who doesn’t party or drink — who likes Cambodia more than any other country in southeast Asia, because the people are friendlier and more genuine than any other country he’s been to.
So what’s the verdict?
On the wall of my hotel is an advisory telling you not to take too much cash, to be careful of the smiling kids that may pickpocket you, to use the lockers, blah blah etc. It ends with, “Though most Khmer are honest and lovely people — one bad experience can spoil a whole beautiful holiday. We hope you will enjoy your stay in Cambodia and return home with only pleasant stories to tell.”