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The "Real" Cambodia

People talk about the "Real" Cambodia, implying of course that there is a fake one. They talk about the countryside, the generations of rice farmers still working the way they always have. They talk about the provinces where the impact of tourism is less pronounced or even allegedly non-existent. They talk about the traditional dishes, prepared using traditional ingredients, in traditional ways. They talk about these things and more, somehow completely ignoring the fact that the country is changing.

It usually seems to come from an understandable desire for adventure and novelty, seeing something rare or unusual, and it sometimes comes from a place of nostalgia for the way things were, but it also comes from a self righteous place of pity, where the culprit wants a country to remain undeveloped purely for their own amusement.

There's no denying the beauty of a traditional way of life. The apparent simplicity, the obvious hierarchy, the beautiful rituals and customs. There's none of the complexities of modern day life. No Facebook or Instagram to keep up to date, no mobiles ringing, no leaf blowers roaring.

But there's more to modern day life than the alleged complexity, and to claim that this traditional way of life is the only "Real" Cambodia, or Thailand, or India, or Tanzania, or Tajikistan, is denying these countries their colourful and rich present, and their potential in the future.

When I first visited Thailand in 2004 there was already a Starbucks just off Khaosan Road. There was already the BTS sky train. There was already Internet cafe's everywhere. (Remember them?!) It was disappointing in some ways, but it offered creature comforts when I'd had enough of sweetened condensed milk in my coffee, wanted to get somewhere without arguing with a tuk tuk, or needed to let my family know I was still alive and well.

The statistics on Wikipedia don't go back as far as 2004 but tourism was already a monstrous industry in Thailand, with a good percentage of the Thai people making their livelihood from travellers. This was across the board and trickles down to every sector of society, from travel agents behind the desk at their agencies to tuk tuk drivers to tour boat operators to restaurant owners and the staff that work there. Certain areas of Bangkok, and entire regions of Thailand from Phuket, to Pattaya, to Ko Pha Ngan catered to tourists almost exclusively, and had been doing so for decades.

Thailand wasn't just 'growing up' because of Tourism either. It was modernising with the rest of the world, just in a different way. It had its own economic strengths and as certain industries boomed Thailand became world leaders in others. Its unique history contributing to its particular take on the present, which in turn forecasts its future.

I talk about Thailand because I know a little more about it, but Cambodia's story, whilst being vastly different, is still very much the same. It's coming of age in a different time, and the circumstances of its recent history are very different to neighbouring Thailand, but like any country its present is informed by its past and predicts its future.

I obviously can't speak for Cambodia and its people, but my experience is that although there is huge diversity in terms of education, and a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, there does seem to be a growing middle class who sits in modern air conditioned cafes studying for university, organising photoshoots, and brokering business deals. A lot of them speak fluent English, many have travelled, and all of them have access to the Internet. This is as much the "Real" Cambodia as the food hall over the road, and these people are "Real" Cambodians, just like the rice farmers.

Best believe this guy has a smart phone. Some "Real" Cambodian's work at the hotel across the river too. Photo © Lee Nutter.

This is 2016 and modern day life is messy and complex, but how selfish of someone to imply that a country, and especially one as deeply and recently ravaged as Cambodia, should remain quaint and destitute and immune to modernity simply so they have a cool travel tale for their friends back home...

I know it is important to document and even preserve these traditional ways of life, and although somewhat melancholy, it is a privilege to see things being done as they once were before the practices are rendered obsolete, but to suggest that these people and their practices are more "real" than those of their fellow countrymen is short-sighted and naive. What's more, these traditional methods have and will inform the ones that replace them.

Don't worry about Cambodia. Its story is unique, and its people are resilient. They are proud to be Cambodian, and their particular way of doing things is not about to disappear. There might be less people living 'traditional' ways of life, but their educated offspring bring their Cambodian way of looking at and being in the world to everything they do. If you want to see the "Real" Cambodia, you are just as likely to find it in a Browns Cafe in Phnom Penh as you are in a rice field in the provinces, and that "real" Cambodian you want so desperately to befriend might well be a dentist or mathematician, or a chef who specialises in French/Khmer fusion.


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