Postcards to my baby: Cambodia

Dear Jellyfish,

I don’t think I will ever go back to Cambodia unless it changes enormously. It’s taken me three years to gain some perspective on my time there and to be able to actually write about it.

There’s an elephant in the room which no naive, bright-eyed twentysomething travel blogger seems able to write about.

Cambodia is grotesque. I’m sorry, but it is.

The whole thing is a manufactured tourist trap designed (presumably by organized criminals) to appeal to the American “white saviour” complex that gets American tourists parting with as much money as possible at every point in their journey. I’m not American, by the way, so I know this will offend those who are.

I don’t think I had a single genuine interaction the whole time I was there. Every word people spoke was patter. The child selling postcards for one dollar apiece, that would have cost 20p in England. The museum, expensively decked out in stark contrast to the unpaved roads to Angkor Wat. The museum gift shop, full of $40 crocheted bags that you could pick up for $10 in Thailand. It was all purposely designed to appeal to fortysomething and fiftysomething Americans. The people with the money.

One thing that deeply bothered me was the fact no locals can afford in a million years to go and see Angkor Wat, despite the fact it’s their heritage that’s being exploited, sacrificed in a sickening cargo cult designed to lure in rich American tourists. It’s only full of tourists.

The entire country is just scam after scam. Looking around at all the people begging, and all the American tourists blithely handing over money thinking they were helping the poor, I wanted to vomit, because they’re making things worse.

Stop thinking with your heart and think with your head.

Let’s look at the floating village.

A bag of rice doesn’t cost $50 and neither does a 24 pack of pencils for the school.

But let’s imagine it does. How many dozens of American tourists on boats get whizzed past the same floating village, told the same tale of woe, and hand over $50 or $100 for a $5 bag of rice in ONE day? Why, then, have the villagers still not got any rice? Americans have been going there for about 15 years, now, and you’re telling me these people are still hungry? Why?

Because the money isn’t going to them. It’s going to organized criminal gangs.

How much money does the child flogging $1 postcards actually get? Nothing. He hands it over to his master.

How much does the taxi driver get when you give him a tip? Or the beggar when you give them money (and be sure, they’re not begging from other Cambodians, they’re begging from tourists)? Where is the museum entry fee going? Why are there still no paved roads outside the cities?

I am in no doubt the poverty you see in Cambodia is genuine, but everything about the way it is presented to you, the way it is exploited, and the way you are told you can “help” is fake. People who get drawn into the lie are not helping, they are part of the problem. Every time someone hands over $50 for a bag of rice or $1 for a 20p postcard, this justifies in the minds of the sellers that their scam has worked, so they keep doing it.

It’s painfully awkward being in Cambodia, seeing the scams, having to engage with people who see you as a big target. Whatever the country’s identity was going to be, tourism has ravaged it. I’ve seen scams before, but never anything on this scale. It’s just so well-orchestrated.

Tourism is a huge and very busy industry, but none of that money is going back into the local community, it’s being siphoned off.

Something in Cambodia needs to change massively at an organizational level.

I hope, little one, that by the time you grow up, Cambodia has sorted out its problems and works properly for the people who live there. But while “white saviours” are busy doing bad deeds to ease their own consciences, that’s not going to happen.

Postcards to my baby: Kathmandu

August 2018

Little one,

In 2015, there was an earthquake that destroyed large parts of Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal. When we visited, they were still rebuilding.

The side-by-side of rich and poor had never been so stark. Beside a luxury boutique hotel, a single wall, three storeys high, was being rebuilt by a dust-covered family when they finished work each night. They moved bricks until 2am, then they went out to work 4 hours later. Dhal Bhat Power, 24 Hour.

One of the best days of my life was spent on a makeshift rooftop terrace above a cafe, drinking Coca Cola with your daddy and watching the world go by, five storeys below. One of the worst days of my life was spent on the bathroom floor, then in a private hospital, where compassionate and efficient doctors gave me the news that I had lost my baby (caused by a very nasty fall in Xi’an, China). You were conceived exactly three months and several rivers of tears later, but the journey began here, for reasons I’ll explain some other time.

Visit Nepal for the food. The momos are crisp, the dhal bhat is smooth, everything is a unique fusion of Chinese and Indian, with extra cilantro (coriander). Visit Nepal for the monuments, breathtaking and almost Tibetan… but not quite. Visit Nepal for the people, so friendly and eager to show you their wonderful country. Visit Nepal for the bargains. Visit Nepal to do yoga and meditation with the masters. Visit Nepal to see Mount Everest (I’ll write you a separate postcard on that one).

But do me a favor, little one. Don’t come home with some cheap, badly-woven “angora wool”. It’s almost certainly ordinary wool woven in China, fluffed up with a hairbrush and imported. If you want stuff like that, go to Shanghai, instead. It’s cheaper. And there’s so many more things to spend time on when you see Kathmandu.

And whatever you do, don’t hire a car. Yes, your license is valid in Nepal. But 70% of the roads have literally no road surface. Leave the driving to the taxis. They will overcharge you. But we will teach you how to haggle before we let you go to Asia.

Mama Adventure xxx

New to this series? Start here.

Postcards to my baby: Pattaya

Christmas Day 2017. Twenty-four degrees celsius, if you can believe it. Blue, cloudless sky, punctuated only by palm trees. The sound of the sea, gently rising up the clean sand, leaving gifts of shells for me to find. The calls of men selling hats, water bottles and street food on long bamboo poles or hand-carts as they amble up and down the beach.

For our Christmas dinner, we went to the Hard Rock Café Pattaya, and had a delicious English-style Christmas dinner complete with turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy and all the trimmings. After four months in East Asia, it was like coming home, without having to actually go back to England with all its problems.

After we had eaten, a group of twenty or so children arrived and took to the stage, singing Christmas carols they had learned in their English lessons, and their teacher explained how the school had been set up for them. Education is widely seen as the key to ending poverty, and in countries where literacy is low, getting schools built and teachers trained is very important.

I hope by the time you are old enough to see Thailand for yourself, those children are out changing the world and teaching the next generation.

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This is part 2 of my Postcards to my Baby series. Part 1 here. All photos copyright MamaAdventure.

Postcards to my Baby: Shanghai’s Old Town

Dear A.

One day, you’ll see China for yourself and understand why I can’t describe it very well in one postcard. It is a land of opposites, complications, and yet… simplicity.

On one hand, the bureaucracy to do anything at all is intense, and often requires an app which only mostly works in English, until you’re trying to do anything complicated. On the other, in rural areas, life has never been burdened with problems like technology, literacy, money or germ theory. Truly.

The nuances across this vast land are stark. This postcard is of the old quarter of Shanghai. It might not be a quarter. Vendors sell whole fried squid on a stick and tourists line up down the street to buy them. In the narrowest alleys, people hang their washing on the electrical wires and they look like a canopy of multicoloured trees above a rusty rainforest of decay, but no birds venture here. The sky is white with pollution.

What no photo can ever convey is the smell. This area stinks of fermented pig urine. In the distance, skyscrapers loom. The clean, sleek future, eclipsing the murky past. Even during the Mid-Autumn lunar festival, few tourists venture down these side streets, funneled away by mapping apps and official, approved guides.

When you get here, this urban wilderness might be gone; replaced by more skyscrapers filled with things China wants to be known for, instead of what it is. A land leaving its winter, its identity is as changeable as the tide. I hope you will see it in Spring, once the sakura blossoms.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, you will see me in my Springtime, too.

Lots of love,

Mama Adventure

This is part one in a series of postcards I have written to my baby while I was still pregnant, telling them about what we did before they were born.

Part 2 is here.