The roads leading out of Phnom Penh are chaotic with many traffic sights. Traveling south on the bus I had my camera ready and snapped many pictures, occasionally noticed by subjects who happened to realise what I was up to through the bus window and who without fail responded with an amused smile from their various interesting perches. On the outskirts of the city urban sights began to intersperse with rural paddocks, engines became rarer while hoofed transport increased and loads of boxed and/or processed goods gave way to loads of fresh agricultural produce. Soon the landscape became rice fields with enormous factories scattered amongst them.
The garment industry that I know of in theory is real and busy on this southern highway, and we passed through just as workers were finishing for the day. Remorks, mini buses and trucks were lined up in the hundreds at the gates of many colossal factory complexes, waiting for thousands of passengers to make their way out of these manufacturing plants, where people spend up to 12 hours a day sitting behind machines in order to take home US$70 per month. I’m fascinated in a macabre way, and the grisly impression is exacerbated by the thousands of people standing on crowded trucks, reminiscent of scenes from 1940s Europe.
I hope and plan to always check where my clothes come from in future, but with this many people employed in Cambodia alone in the mass production of cheap clothing, how could you ever be sure that you’re buying from an ethical company? It’s a subject I’d had a vague interest in before seeing these workers in-the-flesh being transported home en-masse in crowded vehicles, or hearing stories from national colleagues about wives and sisters who move away from families in order to earn such small amounts just to assist in the family’s survival. I still know very little, but the deaths of factory workers in Bangladesh in recent times highlighted the exploitation of low paid workers in the third world providing cheap clothes to the first world. This was followed earlier this year by extreme police brutality in Phnom Penh against garment workers protesting for a rise in their salaries which are, even on a Cambodian scale, shamelessly meager.
Meanwhile on the bus, across the aisle from me, gazing out of the opposite window, sat a good friend from Sydney. Her first job on arrival in Kampong Cham was to deliver my requests from Australia. Some of this delivery, she had retrieved from cases waiting for me in the loft of my cousin’s Sydney home, and some she’d shopped for me, not least of all the new pair of decent sunglasses to replace my broken $6 imitations. On her first night in town we had a busy time catching up on each other’s news. The following day I was making a home visit to some patients, one of whom has a particularly woeful story. Upon hearing about this patient my friend boldly and generously announced that instead of repaying her for the consignment she’d just delivered, I should give the money to this needy case.
The next day my colleagues and I sat on the clean and tidy packed earth beneath the wooden floorboards of the patient’s elevated home, as he humbly accepted the envelope from me with my explanation that a friend from Sydney wanted to ease his difficulties and had asked me to deliver this envelope to him. With no way of earning any income, he and three elderly family members rely on the monthly food basket provided by MSF while he is on treatment for DRTB. Treatment is due to cease in a few short months and his main concern is how, in his newly-incapacitated state, he might earn income when the food baskets cease. I know that my friend’s generous donation will make a significant difference to their lives, at least in the short-to-medium term. We then visited a local organisation whose role is to assist the very poorest of Cambodia’s poor in finding ways to generate income. Hopefully measures will be put in place for this gentle and unassuming young man who has been permanently maimed by Tuberculosis.
Back on the bus to Sihanoukville, we drove through rainforests, rice fields and villages for many hours as the landscape became increasingly tropical with wide brown rivers, waterfalls and jungle-covered mountains all passing us by. Arrival in Sihanoukville after dark was marred by tuk tuk drivers quoting us treble the real cost of a trip to our accommodation. Combined with my tired and indignant response this caused a bit of a stir among the many drivers who milled around vying for our custom. While the combination of desperation and “normalised” corruption alongside naiive and wealthy foreign custom make this an understandable gig in the tourist areas, being targeted unscrupulously is still highly irritating! The quiet, humble and amused older man sitting off to the side eventually won our custom and we made it to our beachside bungalow. The bungalows are halfway up a rubbled, pothole-ridden hillside driveway which the driver stopped at the base of, and said “walk”! Laughing at the instructive English, we dragged our cases up the hill, miraculously making it in the dark without injury.
The ongoing issue of brazen tuk tuk drivers in a quiet off-season in the tourist areas (thankfully not in Kampong Cham!) is an interesting experience. In Phnom Penh a few weeks ago I was sitting in a tuk tuk, about to disembark at the bus station when another driver called to me, did I need a tuk tuk? Do I look like I need a tuk tuk I said silently as I tried to ignore him before realsing he required a reply or it would not stop! In Sihanoukville the situation is equally dire. Yesterday as we disembarked from and paid one driver, another driver approached suggesting his tuk tuk services. Walking along the street another driver asked how we were and when we replied in kind, he shouted jovially, his feet hanging over the side of the back seat “not good! No customer!”. His good humour won him our custom but we weren’t ready yet so he quietly kept an eye on us as we window shopped down the hill to the beach, then back up the hill again, occasionally driving by and beaming us a happy smile. Once we were ready we found him and as we were about to board, another driver who neither of us recognised approached, insisting HE had spoken to us first! We insisted we would only go with the man we knew, which elicited a mouthful of Khmer attitude as he walked away in disgust that his bullying had not worked on us.
A bright and sunny day led us to the beach underneath our bungalows where a private strip of white sand and blue ocean kept us content for most of our first day in Sihanoukville, followed by the quick visit into town before cocktails at a bar recommended for it’s sunset views. Most of our conversation throughout the day was dominated by the topic of human interplays when wealth (tourists) meets poverty (locals). Our observations included overbearing and cantankerous tuk tuk drivers, timid and reverent waiters, elderly white men with child-like Asian women, jovial sellers, hotel staff keen to practise their English and tell us their stories of hardship, backpackers and touring westerners of all varieties. This town, where the children don’t seem to notice us, is extremely different to the agriculture-dominated lifestyle of Kampong Cham where westerners are rare enough that the children shout English phrases from afar when they see us, but it is also incredibly beautiful here.
In contrast to yesterday, today is wet and overcast so we have come to The Starfish Project for a late breakfast, and will head to Central Market for a look before probably spending a chunk of time inside a bar or the cinema. Sihanoukville, like other tourist attractions in Cambodia, has many non-government organisations involved in trying to pull marginalised and uneducated people out of their poverty traps. The Starfish Project is one such local organisation, where I am writing this from a lounge chair at their cafe, filled to the brim with a homemade sandwich. They provide employment opportunities for young disabled Cambodians. Their philosophy and name come from a beautiful parable, italicised below, which is very relevant to anyone traveling to a third world country who struggles with the issues that I constantly refer to and struggle with.
A Buddhist monk was on the beach with his apprentice the day after a fierce storm. Thousands of starfish had been washed up and stranded on the shore. Stooping down, the monk carefully lifted a single creature and returned it to the sea. His young apprentice wondered aloud why his master bothered to do this when it made little difference to the mass of helpless creatures. As they walked along, the monk picked up another single starfish and replied, “It makes a difference to just this one.”