Have you ever unintentionally eavesdropped on someone’s conversation? I could not help it since this guys was talking on Skype very loudly. He was calling random people in China and always introduced himself as someone traveling in Asia. “I am in Cambodia right now”, he said. “It is a country between Thailand and Vietnam.”
I am in Cambodia, too. And currently reading a book called “The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience” by William Shawcross (1984) It reminds me of our complicated geographies and what it meant for Cambodia to be situated between Thailand and Vietnam. Very complicated story, indeed.
On my third trip to Cambodia, I continue to be amazed by the resilience and inner strength and warmth of these people. The children, of course, are adorable. I want to take photos with all of them as they wave, smile, say “hello” in English and send kisses. The adults smile, too. I cannot speak any Khmer even though (to my ear) it sounds very similar to Thai. I see lots of cultural and religious and linguistic similarities between Thailand and Cambodia.
It is a beautiful land but unfortunately not as beautiful as it used to be. One of the shocking facts is the horrific speed of deforestation. Just a few decades ago in 1969, its land was 70% forests. Now it is around 3% and the forests continue to shrink. In Siem Reap, there is still some green, natural beauty surrounding the national treasure – Angkor Wat. The huge ruins of temples and palaces from the former glory of Khmer kingdom.
But most of the central plains are almost completely void of forests. Which means lots of things… Local people speak as common knowledge that each year gets hotter because of lack of trees. The flooding gets worse since the ground cannot drink it up; the air quality is bad. The wild animals lose their natural habitat and the list of man-made disasters goes on.
One of my friends from Malaysia made this comment about Cambodia. Dusty! Yes, it is very dusty, especially now in the dry season. I want to get one big hose and wash down everything. I also want to pick up all the trash on the ground. And I would like to see that all people have access to clean drinking water. Just yesterday I met with some great Khmer guys who are educating local villagers about the importance of clean water.
Here in Cambodia I hear two things a lot. Economic development and Community development. Often these two collide as money and corruption trumps the community needs. There is pride that this is one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia. Honestly I have very mixed feelings about the’ speed’ and question some of the definitions of ‘development’. Transparency International research about global corruption currently rates Cambodia in 150th place out of 168 countries. So, obviously transparency and rule of law is not something that is developing fast.
Easy to write a blog but what else can I do? I am here as a visitor who is also promoting development. I promote God’s vision of good life… the kind of life that most of us want. Life that is lived in right relationships within the community and the environment. The Hebrews call it ‘Shalom’; the academic Miroslav Volf calls it ‘flourishing life’; the think-tank Legatum Institute calls it ‘prosperity’ but they talk about the same thing.
I am inspired and challenged by Cambodia. Inspired because the country has traveled such a difficult road and has come so far. Challenged because I worry about the direction and many of the advisers. Therefore I am encouraged by our Khmer friends who are determined to learn new ways of ‘development’. They are making a new road. The real beauty of good living that reveals mercy, love, kindness, justice, dignity and honesty…