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 for our 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 Fila and left 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 then explained the poverty in Cambodia and how there is no middle class. There are only those who have everything, and those who have 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 color. 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. These were the faces that we quickly looked passed because they made us too uncomfortable. Soon, the feeling of sadness that enveloped the street corners began to strangle us. 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, remaining there for the duration of our trip.
The next day we took a bus to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (or Security Prison 21) while the history was 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 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 the young man in the picture. Our tour guide saw my questioning look. “That’s his intestines,” he explained. We were horrified, 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. 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 when we ignored the children, not one of anger, that is what 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 them to any child that stretched their skeletal hand out towards us.