Last weekend, a naïve American woman of 60 who wishes to escape the “alarming change in the American psyche” and permanently relocate to the southern province of Kep, based solely on photographs she has seen on the Internet and her desire to sit on her porch and smoke marijuana while soaking in Buddhist energy, sought my advice online.
Here is what I wrote in response to her many questions:
Ten or so years ago before the proliferation of so-called smartphones, Cambodians could find China and Vietnam on a world map, but they would be hard pressed to locate their own country.
Cambodians have been kept purposefully illiterate for well over a century.
As a woman interested in Buddhism, you should also be aware of the inherent misogyny in Cambodian Buddhism. In fact, the exaltation of women in society as well as the elimination of religion were two of the guiding principles of the Khmer Rouge.
This is a fascinatingly ambivalent and complex society.
By agreement with the United Nations, Cambodia does not qualify for developing nation status. It is rightfully considered a least developed country for reasons you must not ignore.
Cambodia is also the most heavily deforested nation on the globe. It surpassed Brazil last year.
The monarch is a impotent figurehead. To say anymore could get me deported. It is best not to discuss the king. The king is Norodom Sihamoni. He is a confirmed bachelor who was trained in classical ballet in France & Poland. Google him. It is all there.
International aid and development agencies estimate as many as 80% of Cambodians of all ages present signs of mental illness very similar to what Americans call post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and explosive personality disorder.
People will listen twice as much to what you do not say about politics as what you do say.
The dictator is Hun Sen. He proudly takes credit for the current condition of Cambodia. You should read up on him. The elections are considered a farce, and they are always potentially violent.
I have lived in Southeast Asia since 1989. When I first arrived in Cambodia, only the very brave or foolhardy visited here. Now we have tens of thousands of North Korean, Russian, Bulgarian, and Chinese money laundering gangsters and foolish backpackers pushing recumbent baby carriages.
This is one of the top three most corrupt nations on Earth. Limited freedom of speech and internet access is only allowed because it is a requirement that generates income for the state in the form of billions of foreign aid dollars.
Cambodia is a country almost exactly the same size and shape as Washington state. It has an approximate population of 15 million people, and yet the number of people that are getting killed here every day by the police is proportionately much higher than in the USA.
I teach at one of the most prestigious universities in Cambodia. Last year, one of my students and her mother were raped and beheaded by the police. It garnered a paragraph in the next day’s newspaper.
For your own protection, the hotel you stay at is responsible to register your presence with the local police force. In the southern provinces, visitors regularly go missing and wind up in the river or bay a week or two later. Here in Siem Reap, suspicious tourist deaths are regularly attributed to “lack of oxygen.” In Phnom Penh and elsewhere, western “suicide victims” are found stuffed between mattresses and in suitcases. It would be funny if it was a joke.
Read the local newspapers, please.
Trust your intuition.
Read David Chandler and the Cambodian newspapers: the Cambodian Daily and the Phnom Penh Post.
If you are lucky, you will return to the United States delighted by how fortunate you are to have maintained your idealism.
Each has our own path. I do not wish to mislead you or give you false impressions.