CAMBODIA: “I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.” –Buddha

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…along the Mekong.

I’ve been putting off writing about Cambodia for awhile, less because I couldn’t find anything to write about, more because I didn’t quite know where to start.

“Do I just list what I did there, as a memory check-list?” I thought about it, and my favorite memories of the country were always unexpected, random at best. And it’s virtually impossible for me to draw a picture of the Cambodia I know without the random tidbits that picture consists of.

I fully expected nothing more than some volunteer work, a beach or two, some beautiful photo ops, and of course, a trip to Angkor Wat. What I got was something else entirely.

I get asked, “What has been your favorite place you’ve visited so far?” Valid question, and I often compare it to asking parents to choose their favorite child. Impossible, right? Every place in the world is unique, with its own set of memories and path that led you there.

Ok, I’m not sure any parent would ever openly admit it, but I’m 99% sure all of them do have a favorite. And in my set of destination kids, I’d have to say Cambodia wins the title of favorite, hands down. Don’t tell Tahiti; it’d be heartbroken.

I remember my friend M, who now lives in Vietnam, telling me his take on Cambodia: “That place is so impoverished and dirty. It’s just…depressing. I don’t think I’ll be going back.”

He isn’t altogether wrong. It’s very much third-world, has a struggling economy, a strikingly high poverty rate, huge disparity between the haves and the have nots, a corrupt law enforcement system, languishing opportunities for education for many locals. 

But the thing is, when you reflect on the rough history of Cambodia, it looks less like a hopeless third-world country and more like a country that was torn apart, thrown down, and yet struggled on its knees to rise and muster up the will to smile again.

It’s still in its upward struggle, but what draws me most to the country is its underlying charm. Sure, you may have to look past the strange smells and at times, lack of infrastructure, to see it. But it’s there.

Or maybe I just find charm in the oddities I encounter. And there’s plenty to be found in Cambodia…

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You don’t have to walk far–well, just outside the door of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse, really–to see all the kids who, in any better circumstance, would be in school or playing, instead begging for money and food. It might be cliche and I’m sure there’s an immediate reference to Angelina Jolie to be made, but there’s an enormous need for help when it comes to the future of Cambodian children.

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Exploring Phnom Penh, I saw my fair share of kids picking through trash for hours at a time, on an endless search for food or anything of value. Then there were the girls who were clearly preteens, sometimes younger, selling their bodies at night to strangers, foreigners and locals alike. It’s a bit tough to watch, sensing that they don’t have one person who looks out for them or tries to preserve their deserved childhood.

It’d be naive to say the country’s history has nothing to do with its current state. It was once a burgeoning, powerful empire. Then there was the Khmer Rouge, the slaughter of intellectuals and minorities.

Today, there is a seemingly overwhelming lack of opportunity for education, considering the cost and the cultural expectation for even kids to contribute to the financial welfare of the family.

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I remember being out for dinner with friends one night, when a girl skipped over to our table with a basket tied around her neck, the basket overflowing with a rainbow collection of woven bracelets. In what I would call the best kamikaze sale I’ve ever witnessed, she charmed her way into all of us buying a few bracelets, and our friend M buying roses for all the ladies at the table. She had the gung ho attitude of a businesswoman, the sass of ten Tina Fey’s, and a sales pitch that even the most hardened person couldn’t turn down.

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After dinner, I remember seeing her sitting at the steps of a restaurant across from ours, holding a menu, dragging her finger along the words, mouthing the words in English. She was reading the entire menu as if it were a thrilling Hunger Games novel. I think it was then I started to love Cambodia. Strange, how sometimes you try to pinpoint the moment you fall in love with a person or place. I had spent days feeling watching kids in the city being treated like something less than invisible, and it was nice to see nothing more than a bright girl who wanted to learn. 

If you ever have the chance to volunteer in Cambodia, one of my favorite groups is <a href=" https://www.cambodianchildrensfund.org/” title=”CCF” target=”_blank”>The Cambodian Children’s Fund. It provides children in Cambodia a chance at better education, health, and the opportunity for a better future. The way I see it, Cambodia has risen from some pretty bad ashes in the past. It can do it again, with some damn smart kid-phoenixes.

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