Cycling glorious Kampuchea

10 03 2011

There is no greater sign of national insecurity than a country which has its own currency but doesn’t use it. And there is nothing quite as irregular as being dispensed crunchy crisp US dollars from a Cambodian ATM. This quirk raised innumerable questions for us, such as…where are they printed? Do they get shipped over from the US? Are they real US dollars? How does their distribution impact on the US stock market / economy? Are they really printed in China as suggested by one internet cheekster? Questions questions.   Answers on a postcard please?

However using the dollar presents wonderful overcharging opportunities for the canny Khmer. We are in Cambodia after all and as we know (from our Dong Kralor border experience) the Cambodians love a good bit of overcharging. Since that experience we have learnt that this practice is widely engaged in and that it even has its own name; bonjour. As a legacy from the French occupancy, bonjour is the fine art of door opening otherwise known as wide-spread, endemic and institutionalised corruption.   Thus we approached the Prek Chak border with a firmer resolve to not pay bonjour. We simply said we’d actually rather not pay the $2 for a ‘quarantine’ certificate and/or the $2 for the visa stamp, though smiling through gritted teeth we were all set for a confrontation of some sort – but much to our relief and surprise we simply received a shrug instead and were duly sent on our way! We can only assume this has much to do with the other national stricture, the cast-iron necessity to ‘save face’ and avoid conflict at all costs! Which was definitely a super cost saver for us!

Back to the dollar; Cents haven’t been embraced quite as enthusiastically as the dollar thus the minimum charge is generally 1$; Postcards are $1. $1 = 60p. 60p for a postcard in Cambodia!

‘Since the Khmer Rouge rule… then the civil war… and now with the continuing Khmer Rouge influence… no one trusts the Riel… they went to nothing overnight. Your life savings became toilet paper overnight. Now you want to be safe… it’s either gold or dollars… No one trusts the Riel’.  Huoy a 60 year old Khmer woman told us one evening. She was a slight, reserved woman who grew a few fields of lotus flowers and rice, as she and her family had done for generations.  She slowly, thoughtfully, sipped iced coffee as mosquitoes whined hungrily around our ankles and a small   battery of insect life bounced enthusiastically into the naked overhead bulb. ‘In the old days the community would share things, help each other… now everyone looks out for themselves, no one trusts, no one helps, everyone just wants to make money, dollars, keep it safe.’ In the great upheaval of the 1975 – 79 Khmer Rouge agrarian experiment it would seem that a lot more was lost than the inconceivable genocide of a quarter of the population, any industrial or economic advances, and the loss of all land entitlement.  As Huoy sat and gently, quietly, told of children being buried alive in mass graves, just down the road; of the soil that bubbled blue as the gasses of the corpses fought their way to the surface; of the desperate neighbours who scavenged for bounty; and of the long jagged scars of mistrust that fester still, fresh under the surface as Cambodia staggers forward. The young and keen trampling the poor as brutally as ever in this new capitalist democracy. ‘It’s the same the world over’ Heng a 22 year old businessman from Phnom Penh proclaimed cockily while trying to sidle just a little bit closer, his gold rings clinking against his beer glass, ‘that’s Capitalism. If Cambodia wants to grow some people will have to lose’. We made our excuses and left.

‘Development’ Huoy tells us, ‘is a word we fear’. The Cambodian government is selling off great swathes of land to foreign investors and since the Khmer Rouge collectivised all land many of the poorest and most vulnerable have had extreme trouble getting land documentation for farms they may have lived and worked for generations.

The Khmer Rouge national anthem sang its prophecy and legacy of ‘The bright red blood [that was and is] spilled over the towns and over the plain of Kampuchea, our motherland, The blood of our good workers and farmers’. She is a complicated and painful country to cycle through and we can only hope to do her some service by hearing her tales and encouraging others to do the same.

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