Matthew Oxley recounts one of his strongest memories from a three month trip across South East Asia.
For the past 100 years Cambodia has been synonymous with suffering and war and despite being a country still gripped by corruption at its highest levels, the Khmer people continue to hope for a better future.
This hope is most evident in Cambodia’s next generation, its children; some of the happiest, uninhibited and free spirited people I have ever encountered.
Statistics for Cambodian children are not good. They read similarly along the lines of a drought stricken country with almost half of all Cambodian children being malnourished and one in eight dying before their fifth birthday (largely due to preventable causes). In the height of Pol Pot’s regime during the 70s, life expectancy in Cambodia was 31 years of age. Lower than any other country in the world. This has increased steadily since then but is still just 61 (Britain has a life expectancy of 81).
The western world has poured aid into the country over the past decade, although recently this has begun to decrease. The majority of it seems to find its way faster into government pockets than to the Khmer people to whom it was originally intended.
Everywhere you visit, including the capital Phnom Penh, is glaringly lacking in infrastructure. There are more dirt roads than tarmac, piles of rubbish and rubble brandish the landscape and many of its residents are lucky to have more than two or three walls in their places of business or abode. Four walls appeared to be a luxury.
The Khmer people however, and the youth in particular, are a beacon of light in this devastated land. As visitors, we were greeted by hordes of happy and playful children, whether it was in the streets of the dusty capital, the back streets of tiny villages or amidst the magical ruins of Angkor Wat. Here they lay in wait to sell you whatever they had that day in order to earn money for their families. Parents encouraged and welcomed the interaction between their children and foreigners, grooming them to become open to the changes that lay ahead.
The strongest memory though came at the Killing Fields just outside the capital city, the location where thousands of innocent Cambodians were taken to be murdered. Men, women and children were bashed over the head with poles and axes in order to save money on bullets, and then buried in pits, often still alive.
Today, you can visit the Killing Fields where the broken skulls of the victims are piled high in a memorial tower. The fields themselves are open for visitors to walk around and the clothing and bones of the victims that have yet to be relieved from their death pits can still be seen protruding from the earth.
It was just a few feet away from this harrowing sight where two local girls on the steps of a toilet block practised their maths homework with their mother, who in between educating her daughters, earned her living by cleaning the toilets for foreigners. Spending just a few minutes with these girls, who greeted me (a complete stranger) by hugging my legs, running around giggling and posing for my camera, took me from a place of war, murder and devastation and into a world filled with joy, happiness and hope.