Khmer Project in Cambodia – Jordan Isham
Traffics blurs, with only near misses causing my heart rate to skip a beat. Colors zoom by and people move about. Smells transform every few meters, from the dampness of littered alleyways one moment to the sweet smoke of grilled meats the next. Music bellows for a second and then rain joins for the ride. Palaces and escalades are elegantly built on one street while a build-up of dirt and trash are found on an adjacent street. Might I add, all of this can be seen on the seat of a tuk tuk, and my short visit to Cambodia could easily be described from one of these moped driven carriages.
Despite the country being engulfed by a blanket of poverty, with a few small pockets of wealth, I was able to witness how the Cambodian heart still sings. After seeing happiness pump through the veins of these local people, I asked myself how Westerners might exercise this same spirit of living. In Cambodia, communities work together. The honor system thrives. Buddha sits at the pedestal of life. Culture and history are cherished while tradition remains at the forefront of family values.
At the site of the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, where the Pol Pot led genocide slaughtered nearly two million of the country’s population, I stood by the killing tree and gazed out at the torn clothes and old bones of families from the Khmer Rouge murders. I stood over the edge of the pit and couldn’t help but imagine those innocent families being piled up after they were smashed against the killing tree. To many outsiders, these victims become mere statistics, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a country could bounce back from such atrocities so quickly. More so, how had I never learned about this terrible genocide before.
Perhaps most extraordinary about the trip was witnessing the smiling faces amidst such impoverished lifestyles. Even with the Khmer Rouge, still forty years fresh in this nation’s memory, its inspiring that progress has accelerated at the rate which recent years boast. The smiles tell me that local communities don’t place emphasis on the standard of living, rather, the spirit of living. As Buddhist Monks still teach, “contentment is wealth” with both status and material possessions being irrelevant. Perhaps this describes the reason that, even in the last few decades, Cambodia has lived with the same methods as four hundred years ago.
The beautiful community
Ultimately, when stripped down to surviving on less than even the bare necessities, the people of a community begin to rely on one another. I saw this first-hand when visiting a local farming area in the mountains. Here, farmers spend their days hacking away at the earth’s clay for sales to the local pottery villages. In the hot sun and with little food or water, I was struggling after about ten minutes of help. I couldn’t imagine living that way for my entire life. Still worse, three days of digging means one truckload of clay. One truckload of clay means about fifteen to twenty US dollars. Split that with the truck driver and you average only a few dollars a day. Now provide for your family.
Yet, after each pile of clay was ready to be loaded on the truck, all the farmers from the mountain would come together and help the family with the work, with everyone shoveling and laughing until the truck is loaded. Some might look at these acts of kindness and question whether circumstances encourage otherwise.
Community comes first, whether that means staying loyal to your family or taking care of your neighbor in need. Here, poverty isn’t the seed for selfishness to grow and, until visiting Cambodia, I had never seen a people with so little give so much. Building a garden around the outskirts of the city was an eye opening experience. Trash littered the ground as we drove our sedan through an alleyway that a small Cambodian community called home. We were told that locals got mandated by the government to relocate from the city and were given minimal compensation to do so. Makeshift homes consisted of tarps and wooden pallets. Skinny goats, cows, and dogs wandered the streets trying to scavenge any food they could. The parents, when leaving to work at the factory, had to lock their children indoors to keep them safe.
Yet, as we pulled away from our days’ work at the local charity school, within a two minutes’ drive we reached a ‘rich’ zone where a luxurious golf course stretched nearby a lake and where palaces sported stallion statues and reeked of wealth and greed. Angered by the unfairness of the disparities in wealth, I had to be reminded how much progress the country has made since the 1970’s and how new elections offered hope to many Cambodians for the next several years to come.
Learning about Cambodia
In Siem Reap, home of the Angkor Wat temples, our tour guide was explaining the engravings on the rock. He pleaded, “It’s important for me to tell you the history of Cambodia. I am very proud of it. Many people don’t know it. Some people look at this rock and see nothing. But it comes alive. The rock sings. The rock dances. The rock cries and laughs and fights. The rock teaches.” At that moment I stopped to reflect on everything I had seen in Cambodia. I realized how meaningless the temples would have been without a deep understanding of the stories of the people that I had discovered off the beaten path, both in small villages and bustling cities. That is, without witnessing the children struggling for education, the poverty of clay farmers, relocated neighborhoods, silk weavers, or the killing fields; my experience would have been that of a mere outsider stopping by for a tour through the “top 10” found in any travelers’ guide magazine.
These people have so little, need so much and yet give so much to others. Only through international travel to developing countries can you understand how I, and you will too, be forever changed. I hope to see you out there someday.
Read more about the Khmer Project in Cambodia