Let me share with you a story from my trip from Istanbul to Ataturk Airport, and see what you make of it.
As I was standing, minding my own business, at the Aksaray station waiting for the train, a voice behind me spoke in German. As I turned, confused, the voice spoke again, this time in English. “Are you going to the airport?”
I replied that I was. The man asked me where I was going, and I told him California (not true). Then he asked me for some money. I had honestly used my last 6 lira on public transportation (perfect budgeting/stroke of luck on my part), and told him so, minus the specifics.
"I have no money. It’s all gone. I was working in Antalya (I think that’s where he said), and need to get a bus from the airport. I just want to get some coffee. Do you like Turkish coffee?"
And so, we fell into conversation about America, Turkey, the size of Istanbul compared to Paris or London, how many Turks there are in America, and how long it would take him to get a work visa/green card/citizenship. As we talked we went from the station to the train, winding up seated across from one another.
He would talk, I would try to disengage, but fail, and he would mention again how he had no money before suggesting we get coffee at the airport and how long before my flight took off. I told him no, because I had no money and no time before needing to go through passport control. (I had time)
After we got to the airport, we had to go through security to get into the airport, but he wanted me to go a different way to get to the cafe. I said no, got in line for security, and he got in line behind me before checking to make sure he could go through without being on a flight. I went through and walked up to the escalator; he came through right after, but never caught up with me, and I didn’t see him again.
Was he a nice guy who just wanted to be friendly and get some coffee, or, as some friends suggest, was he trying to trick me?
Cambodia is without a doubt the poorest place I have ever been. People live in simple wooden houses without plumbing or electricity. Even in the middle of Siem Reap, where the tourists come and the people with a little bit more money can come to try to find a life with more conveniences, life is hard. The hostel had blackouts a couple times a day. Not enough electricity was coming over from Thailand.
A decent sized meal costs two or three dollars. A large bottle of water is about a dollar (or less if you find the right store). A day’s worth of riding around with a driver can cost less than $20.
Part of the problem is from when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country. They abolished all money, making what there was little more than fuel for the fireplace. Since communication was not great, and warlords or other local leaders were not always on the same page, one province might have some Khmer Rouge money for a while before it was taken away again. Although they began to use the Riel after their problems started to settle, confidence never grew to the old levels. Now people are happier to accept dollars or baht than to use riel. (But I was told that they think Vietnamese dong is just ‘scrap paper.’)
Despite these problems, just about everyone I met in Cambodia was smiling and happy. Everywhere people were friendly and polite. They might have been annoying as they tried to get you to buy this, eat that, or hire them as a guide or driver. But at the same time, they were not rude or angry. Maybe the happy attitude comes from tourism…a guest who feels welcome will be more willing to spend. I’m going to let my optimistic side take over and say that it was all due to genuine good-natured people.
There are now some positive possibilities. The government is still full of red tape, bribery, and corruption, but things are stable. Inflation can be a problem, but the economy is improving. Tourism is increasing. And these tourists come bringing much needed money. The infrastructure is impoving thanks to groups like Artisans d’Angkor and the Landmine Museum. Every day other organizations from around the world donate money to help build schools, houses, and rennovate new areas of the temples. Many nicer houses along the country roads had signs saying what church, school, or person donated the funds. Someday the Khmer won’t need outside help, but until then they receive what they can get with a smiling face.
Korean word of the post: 캄보디아 사람 (kam-bo-di-a sa-ram) Cambodian person
Chinese word of the post: 柬埔寨人 (jian3 pu3 zhai4 ren2) Cambodian person
Khmer word of the post: កម្ពោជិក (kampoocik) Cambodian person