“How is it to return to a place we called home for nine years?” people ask. And indeed it was a question we asked ourselves as the plane came into land in Cambodia. Would it be the same or would it all be horribly different so that we had to finally let go of our vision of ourselves as people who somehow belonged there? Would people look at us and say “Who?” and would we have become people who are forever bewildering (and boring?) people who now live there with stories of “what used to be”?
Our airport experience began differently – we actually had to queue to hand in our visa applications, and we walked along clearly defined lines to retrieve our passports after they had passed through – then, oh yes, the 5 or 6 pairs of hands, one to look, one to write, one to stamp, one, two, three to pass… but ‘normalcy’ was restored at the other end when we were all encouraged to leave our ordered queue and gather en masse around the man who finally received our visa-ed passports. Cambodians still struggle to pronounce our foreign names (as we do theirs!) and prefer to wave the passports before the gathered crowd and wait for each one to identify his/her own. This feels normal.
This mixture of ‘oh yes we recognise that’ and ‘oh that's different’ became the norm for this visit. When we first arrived we felt everything was astonishingly familiar – crowded streets, masses of people all busy about their business, rich and poor all mixed together, shops and booths spilling their goods all over the pavements. We recognised the crazy traffic patterns with vehicles stuck like sand passing through a timer, barely trickling through any gap that appears; then suddenly there’s an opening and cars and motorbikes surge through in a flood - until the next traffic jam.
But where are all the motorbike taxis? There are private motorbikes aplenty but every street corner no longer has its gathering of men on bikes, watching, alert for a fare, or dozing in the down time after lunch, lying along the seat with feet on the handlebars. There are still tuk tuks, and so many cars, big cars, rich men’s cars, driving, parked, stuck in traffic everywhere. We wondered whether those moto drivers we once used so regularly had missed our custom and moved elsewhere, or had to fund their child’s schooling or find food for the family in labouring work or by returning to the province and the family rice fields?
And who will live in all the buildings? Everywhere, buildings completed or being built – up, up into the once clear skyline. Years ago, PM Hun Sen had returned from an Asian Summit resolved that Phnom Penh should have some skyscrapers. The first venture still sits there, unfinished, failed; but like the traffic flow a blockage seems to have been removed and the flood gates are open. Everywhere these massive concrete structures are emerging. ‘Who will live in them?’ we wondered, and were told the land had been bought by the Chinese, the buildings built by Chinese labourers and built to house the labourers and the immigrants who would follow. A Khmer man said sadly “My children won’t have their own country.”
Vast expansion is going on all around the city also – often in gated communities called “baray,” cloned structures looking a little like the retirement villages of modern NZ being built on what was previously rich rice fields. And also evident is the infrastructure to support this city as it heaves its way out of its past of civil war and desperation and into a 21st century modern-ness. Everywhere we saw overpasses and motorways, glass fronted shops selling furniture that would once have been considered a frivolous luxury and the ubiquitous chains of eating places and coffee shops – the smells of Asia are being overtaken by the smell of fried foods! The poor are still there, though we saw fewer ‘professional beggars’ – mostly they are cleared away to where they can’t be seen by tourists or the growing middle class. Slums now exist just outside the city boundaries – for now – they will be moved when it becomes inconvenient to some rich person for them to remain. We visited one still surrounded by flood waters, temporary hovels barely standing, still with no drains or water supply – just as it was four years ago.
We asked about the Church and were told it is battered after a number of the more charismatic churches were hit badly by a Ponzi scheme that swept vast numbers into its net. Many of the congregations were persuaded into it by church leadership which inevitably has left credibility issues.
Evangelism still goes on; Christianity still attracts many of the modern youth seeking to explore life outside the family as well as offering companionship for many who leave their families to come into the city looking for work. A ‘prosperity gospel’ was pushed in some quarters and has left an inevitable legacy of “rice Christianity.” Many churches remain dependent on funding from outside. Growth has slowed and while new converts join churches there remains an enormous need for quality education for pastors and good discipleship programmes.
So has Cambodia changed? Yes of course. For the better – hmmm – in some ways yes. There is a growing middle class who holds some of the wealth and power. There are credible school exams and more people are receiving education about what police can and can’t do. Orphanages are closing and children are being supported back into families. But Cambodia is still a country of extremes – and particularly extreme wealth and extreme poverty- gaining patronage from someone stronger and more powerful is vital to succeed, loyalty is bought, labour is bonded and slavery is rife. The coming elections – local this year and central next – could well be a violent clash between the young who want change and the old who want to keep the peace at all cost, between those who have money and power and those who want it… that has not changed.
But it is still Cambodia – and we loved being back!