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Cambodia a tourist's nightmare

Illustration by Mike Padilla
By Keren G. Raz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
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PHNOM PENH - As the sun rises over the Mekong River, life in Phnom Penh begins.

Cambodians fill the streets to relax before the tourists wake up in their hotels.

Families play badminton, groups of men play hackey sack and a large group of women do what looks like aerobics mixed with the electric slide mixed with Cambodian pop.

Walking around and watching all the action, it's hard to believe that Cambodia has a reputation as one of the world's most dangerous travel destinations.

But it does, and from my other experiences, the reputation holds true.

In broad daylight two teenagers tried to mug me.

A policeman and a large group of men stood right across the street and did nothing until the thugs hit me on the head with a blow so hard I was sent to the ground.

Only then did a police whistle blow, sending the teenagers away on their motorbike.

Nary, the manager of an NGO, told me about a girl she knows who was abused as a child. When the girl went to the police, they raped her.

Keren G. Raz

The night before I arrived armed police surrounded the home of Chea Sim, the head of state who was threatening to block a power sharing agreement between two ruling parties.

Rumors swirled that he had been shot.

The government reported that he had a medical emergency.

All that can be confirmed is that he was forced into exile in Thailand.

A corrupt government coupled with a predatory police force is a frightening combination.

And it is controlling how people go about their daily lives.

People are afraid to speak up against a government they no longer trust because government censorship rules with an iron fist.

Because the law isn't around for protection, people are paying more than they can afford for cars so thugs can't shoot them and grab their bikes at night.

Taxi drivers lock all car doors, and hotels have armed guards posted at every gate.

Youths with no hope for a better future resort to petty crime. Girls as young as 11 are tricked or sold into the sex trade.

All these facts would seem to make Cambodia a country that tourists should avoid and that investors should skip over.

Cambodia seems to be a country with no hope.Yet there are those holding on and trying to make a positive difference.

While I was in Cambodia, I met Sarath, the executive director of a Cambodian NGO.

He had his own story to tell.

Sarath's first childhood memory is of 1976, when he saw his father in shackles taken away on a horse cart.

His mother threw dirt over her shoulder, a symbolic gesture to say goodbye, and at that moment he knew he would never see his father again.

His father became one of 3 million victims of Pol Pot's genocidal rampage that left the country without a generation of people to educate the youth.

At the age of eight, Sarath was trained as a child soldier for Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Like many in his generation, he has hardly more than an eighth grade education.

Yet he hasn't resigned himself to the status quo.

As executive director, Sarath is in charge of an organization that teaches young people English and computer skills. It also requires them to volunteer in the community, with the hope that volunteering will re-instill a sense of civic duty, which Cambodia desperately needs in order to rebuild.

Ten years after the organization's inception, it has 30,000 youths among its ranks.

Sarath now wants to sustain the organization and provide jobs for its members by milling rice normally sent to Vietnam and by beginning agricultural co-ops.

Sarath's effort is a small one, but has much potential.

But Sarath, like the others who are trying to turn Cambodia around, needs help.

And he sure can't get much from within his own country.

Keren G. Raz is a political science and English senior. She can be reached at

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