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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson - Page 3

Written by Kristen Hamill
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"From riding my bike to work and being chased in the street by smiling children screaming “HELLO!!!” to seeing those same children play in a sewage canal around the corner from my house, my experience in Cambodia was a total emotional roller coaster. Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing."

 

INTRAVEL: What did you learn about the country’s recent and tragic past?

Cambodia has had a particularly tragic last 50 years. The most obvious example of this difficult history is that of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979 and the genocide that happened during that time. During this time, a totalitarian dictatorship took over the country led by a French-educated math teacher named Pol Pot. The regime’s intention was to launch Cambodia to the heights of civilization through an agricultural revolution facilitated by a purge of all individuals considered tainted by foreign, religious, educated or wealthy influences, and a massive relocation of all citizens to agricultural communes in the countryside. Anyone with any kind of education was killed, including those who knew how to farm rice. Consequently, a massive famine ensued.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillAs for the genocide museum, there were actually two. Tuol Sleng was a high school that was turned into a prison for traitors. Some 12,000 people passed through Tuol Sleng and only seven were not killed. Tuol Sleng was essentially a torture center where prisoners were electrocuted, water boarded, interrogated and coerced to confess to state treason. They were then transferred to Choeung Ek, aka the Killing Fields, a mass grave about 15 kilometers outside the city. People were led to the edge of giant holes, asked to kneel facing the holes and then bashed in the skull by a shovel or metal pipe, causing them to fall in the holes and eventually die. I went to both sites to learn about the Khmer Rouge and the way in which they operated.

I found the contents of the museums shocking and sobering, but what almost seemed more shocking to me was what was happening outside them. Genocide has become a foreigner tourist attraction in Cambodia. Outside Tuol Sleng, there are a few particularly pathetic characters who try to guilt tourists into giving them money. At Choeung Ek I saw people picnicking in the grounds that were still being explored for skeletons; children treated the place like a play ground. This illustrates perfectly the lack of reconciliation that occurred after the genocide. People are encouraged to continue their lives as if nothing had happened, which is understandable considering that the Prime Minister and many other people in the government are ex-Khmer Rouge. I found Cambodian society to be very violent behind its peaceful Buddhist façade.

INTRAVEL: What were you most surprised to learn during your time there?

I was surprised to see how willing older people were to talk about their experience during the Khmer Rouge, and amazed at the generosity and hospitality of Cambodians of all social classes. People were willing to share everything with me, especially food, regardless of how much they had for themselves. I was always treated as a guest of honor where ever I went, which was not necessarily what I expected to encounter.

I was shocked to learn about the level of corruption within the government that then trickles down to every level of society— teachers demanding bribes from their students for grades, police demanding bribes from motorists for using the road, forest rangers poaching endangered species and cutting down trees in protected areas.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillI was appalled to see the living conditions of poor people in urban areas, who frequently lived in garbage dumps, over sewage canals or mosquito swamps festering with infectious diseases. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a 30-storey building being supported by bamboo scaffolding. I was impressed and sometimes horrified to see what people transported via motos (piglets in rattan cages, ten geese tied by the feet draped over the backseat of a moto, people with IVs riding down the road, women breastfeeding their children on the back of a moto, up to seven people on a motorbike, everything from mattresses to mirrors to gas cans).

Every day I would think that I’d seen it all, and the next day something else would happen that would make me say the same thing.

INTRAVEL: Where else did you travel in Asia? What were some of your experiences in the places you visited and how did they compare to Cambodia?

I went to an island off the coast of Malaysia called Pulau Tioman. I went to Singapore, Bangkok and spent about three weeks in Vietnam. All of these places were leaps and bounds ahead of Cambodia in terms of just about everything – technology, roads, electrical infrastructure, agricultural techniques, education, medical facilities, law enforcement, you name it.

Building a Sustainable Cambodia: An Interview with Lauren Dickerson, Volunteering in Cambodia, volunteering with a small, grassroots Cambodian organization in Phnom Penh, Kristen HamillAt the same time, since Cambodia is less developed, I found it to be more charming and more beautiful as there are still places in Cambodia that have yet to be touched by human hands.

 

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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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