Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sunshine, 8 years old. HIV positive.
Abandoned at the Orphaned and Disabled Arts orphanage where she now lives with 27 other children.
Cambodia has seen a rise in prostitution among both women and children. A survey by a local human rights NGO estimated that there are up to 55,000 sex workers in the country. This trend combined with the lack of sex education has given rise to the issue of STDs and AIDS.

My trip to Cambodia was phenomenally beautiful and sobering all at the same time. Traveling has opened my eyes to a different sort of world that exists under the surface of a place. In some countries it just takes scratching the surface while in others it requires some hardcore digging. 
On my ride into Siem Reap, I was immediately struck by the flashy, touristy side of the city. The backpacker areas were full of flashing lights, hopping restaurants and bars. My first read on Cambodia was that it was just a Khmer version of Thailand. It seemed to have similar rich natural resources and with an 8th world wonder such as Angkor Wat bringing in a steady stream of tourists, Cambodia seemed to be on the up and up. That was my initial thought until I began working with our partner NGO, an art orphanage run by a Khmer man and began to see the world from his and the children's perspective. 
Trips to the small village schools only 5 minutes out of the city revealed staggering poverty and incredible deprivation. Children running around with no clothes and caked in mud, shacks for homes, water so polluted it was unusable, but the only thing they have to use...corporations seizing land and displacing the people, corruption and brutality passed down like a disease, each person beating down on the person underneath them...It broke my heart. I heard stories of the local govt officials using the orphaned children to get money from the tourists, the school principle stealing their new bikes, the children having lost their parents because of brutality and murder. It made Thailand look like a SAINT!
Cambodia seemed like a country run by a pack of criminal and yet I had never (not even ONCE) heard about this from expats or travelers. Lonely Planet warns you against giving money to the corrupt Burmese regime and yet overlooks this level of corruption?! In a country that sees such a large number of backpackers and tourists whose money is ultimately funding these corrupt officials, I think it's incredibly paramount to find an alternative.
During my trip, I found myself falling in love with the Khmer people and out of love with the state of Cambodia.

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