If you refer to the statistics on Cambodia – poverty is widespread, as is AIDS, the country is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge (and has yet to put anyone on trial for war crimes), corruption is institutionalized and entrenched, health care is lacking, there are still an estimated 6 million unexploded land mines, indentured sex workers are common (children too), and the list could go on – it seems like a pretty hellish place. Yet, why is it that for many of the travelers we talked to, they (and we) put Cambodia at the top of the list of favorite countries visited?
Perhaps it's because the people are real. They don't hide. We found it easy to make connections with them in most places. The smiles, especially in more more remote areas, were warm and genuine. We were just as much of a novelty to them as they were to us. There is a healthy dose of curiosity on both sides. The country feels like it’s trying to turn itself around. There's a hopeful determination and positive attitude in the midst of poverty and in spite of its recent violent history.
Of course, the rose-colored glasses come off from time to time. In touristy areas like Siem Reap, many locals are caught up in the swirl of tourism dollars and are as happy to connect to you as they'd be to connect to your wallet. We learned that the hotel where we were staying in Battambang had a motorbike mafia – none of the other drivers in town would get close to us once we told them the name of our hotel. They said they’d get beat up. We changed hotels. The stories we heard about corruption in government and police were also depressing.
That said, when we think back to Cambodia, we think of the warmth of the people. As the country develops, we hope it doesn’t lose this infectious spirit.