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“This is the most beautiful people that I know, but the Khmer live in a broken society’

Journalists Pascal Laureyn and Kris Janssens withdrew in 2016 to Phnom Penh, “the charming but chaotic capital of Cambodia to live and work. Their story of a year in a rough wonderland. ‘In spite of everything continue to Cambodians laugh’

© Pascal Laureyn

My husband Kris and I have Belgium exactly a year ago to leave. Not because we’re tax refugees, riotous bon vivants or heimat-hating volksverraders – recriminations that we have really heard, because we would like to learn about the world and the people who live in it.

It is not our first time. Three years ago, we have three months in Mumbai to look, the largest city of India. We don’t go on short time as much as possible, visiting places, but we are stuck. The wider your experience uitsmeert on the geographical level, the thinner and betekenislozer it is. That knows each and every child that choco lust. With a hectic life ‘on the road’ you cannot build a local knowledge.

This time, we chose a place that often gets overlooked. Tucked between Thailand and Vietnam is a shy country, mysterious and a little rough. Ideal for two curious adventurers. Our work fits in a backpack. And the journey is a part of our work. Because together, we are a journalist, copywriter, translator, radio producer, filmmaker, and interesting companion for wealthy widows. We diversify our risks to spread.

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This is the most beautiful people that I know, but the Khmer live in a broken society

Here it is pleasant to live in. Phnom Penh is a Antwerp to the Mekong, provincial, despite everything. It is not a metropolis, but a city on a human scale, with vibrant street life. The years of violence and chaos behind. The economy is thriving, and Phnom Penh is in full transformation. The decay is replaced by glass and steel, a heritage building is being renovated or offered for prestigious projects. The new middle class and the ever-increasing group of expats cross each other in the many trendy bars. And that radiant smile of the Cambodians gives everything an extra sheen.

Relief

It is easy to fall in love with ‘the Wild West of the Far East. The endearing Cambodians and the lack of rules were a relief after forty years of Flanders. I slept always in the same bed, always took the same road, and talked with the same people and frequented the same toilet. It made the world small, details were an astronomical weight. In Cambodia, I am happy when there is water from the tap, the color of the bathroom is not important. Here, I live lighter.

A straatpicknick with friends, Phnom Penh © Pascal Laureyn

And there are the unforgettable experiences. Sometimes our new friends to a wedding in the countryside. The whole village comes together for a three-day feast with good food, loud music and ice cold beer. At noon, everyone is drunk and is dancing. in the Evenings there is live music, and the tent demolished. In between a couple married in a traditional ceremony with lots of bling. in the Morning everything starts again. A delicious tradition.

But the festivities in the countryside were also an introduction to the brutal reality, our comfortable life in Phnom Penh had sand in our eyes interspersed. When it gets dark in the countryside, maintains a diesel generator is also party to the talks. Because in the villages, far away from the modern capital, there is no flow.

New wealth

85 percent of 15.5 million Cambodians live in rural areas. Barely 18 percent of villages have electricity. Most of the Cambodians living in darkness. Houses are lit with firewood, kerosene, car batteries or a flashlight on the ceiling. This is still a very poor country, despite the economic growth and the promising skyline of Phnom Penh. The new wealth trickles down to ordinary Cambodians.

The confrontation with poverty changes our perspective. Some things are not important anymore. The electricity is frequently off, and the bus sometimes has a two hour delay. That’s not all bad, because that’s going to be over. But the children that we the whole day (and night sometimes) on the street to work and not to school, that is very. I’m not used to the barefoot boys and girls who trash sell. My heart cramped still, when I see them.

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We don’t want to be blind to the reality. Therefore, we live in an authentic Cambodian neighborhood and not in a expatbubbel

We don’t want to be blind to the reality. Therefore, we live in an authentic Cambodian neighborhood and not in a expatbubbel. Therefore, we also learn the language. Cambodians appreciate it if we have a few words in Khmer speak, then doors will open and the corners of the mouth even further up.

Young monks in Roka, the province of Battambang. © Pascal Laureyn

Maybe that last one is the most beautiful gift of this country: always a smiling face. I bots on disbelieving stares of Belgian friends when I tell them that people are never unkind, that everyone is always well disposed, and that even the (rare) files with the cheerful and lively events to look forward to.

We have no luxury needed, we get on the street enough gifts. The monks in saffron robes and their songs. The temples with gold spirals to the sky pointing. The fragrant markets with the best of nature. Between the floundering fish and wait-and-see chickens, a blind man on one leg, karaoke singing, very false. A walk in Phnom Penh never gets old.

Paradise with a dark monster

It is easy to Cambodia as a paradise to paint. They do not call their country ‘the Kingdom of Wonder’. But there is a dark monster in wonderland. That we have discovered thanks to our reports. Journalism is the best excuse to have your nose in someone’s dirty laundry out. And that stinks here to corruption and zakkenvullerij.

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Journalism is the best excuse to have your nose in someone’s dirty laundry out. And that stinks here to corruption and zakkenvullerij

For the local elections of last June we made a reportage in Takeo. That is the home town of Kem Ley, the critical journalist who a year ago in Phnom Penh was murdered. The perpetrator was apprehended, but here suspects everyone that he was helped by the government. We spoke with Kems mother, brother, and fellow citizens. Openly about politics talk, no one dares, but between the lines was clear to everyone: the expiration date of the regime is far exceeded. To understand what goes wrong in this country, Kris and I are not in the centre of power to go around. A clear answer we found deep in the jungle of Cambodia.

For a report on deforestation in the protected nature reserve of Aoral Wildlife Sanctuary went looking for loggers. While timber felling is prohibited here, drag one after the other tractor a cargo strains the reserve. The poachers with whom we spoke, all of them are poor farmers who barely $ 500 a year to earn. In the jungle, they get $ 50 extra for a few days of wood chopping. Sometimes sheets they are rare trees such as rosewood. In Shanghai are rosewood beds of 1 million dollars in the window.

Who profits from this illegal world market and why the government is doing nothing? We had not far to search. Poachers in Aoral deliver wood to LHL Agriculture, a maniokplantage of 10,000 hectares inside the protected area. Reciprocal agricultural concessions like this are the real engines of deforestation. But protest has no meaning. The director of LHL is Their Seng Ny, the sister of hun Sen, already 32 years prime minister of Cambodia.

People who illegally harvested wood transport. © Pascal Laureyn

And it doesn’t stop there. In the province of Tbong Khmum, we saw how the illegal timber to Vietnam is smuggled in. At the checkpoint of Daun Roath reason SUVS uncontrolled across the border. We asked a neighbor who is sitting behind the wheel: minions of Their Ayn, the brother of prime minister hun Sen. In the lawn of an army base in Snuol and near the border, we found dozens of beams rosewood. And again on the grounds of a police chief.

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Here we have seen that the plundering of Cambodia’s natural resources not be incidental, but the cornerstone of a cleptocratie

Here we have seen that the plundering of Cambodia’s natural resources not be incidental, but the cornerstone of a cleptocratie. “The proceeds of the timber trade is the glue that the corrupt system of this regime stay together,” writes Australian journalist Sebastian Strangio in his book “hun Sen’s Cambodia’. “This allows the government the loyalty of the elite to purchase which they need to be in the saddle.” Friends get concessions, beggars get crumbs.

Beer and drugs

These and other reports have us trampling on the spot. We attract not around along exotic beaches, but slogging through the mud in the jungle in search of poachers and their truth. Although we have less life, we get more satisfaction from our work. Cambodia is a laboratory for new thoughts and feelings. And sometimes they come unwanted.

As with my funny encounter with John. He had a well paid job for me as I pretty advertisements wanted to write. He invited me for a first conversation, but that went differently than expected. John turned out to actually Am to be called and was drunk. The company had no name, it existed not. I had no one to say where it was, and that I would work.

Only after two cans of beer he wanted to say something about my job description. His company sells worldwide commercial texts for pharmaceutical products, for imaginary drugs. I had delusions of writing about pills that do not exist. The whole thing was probably illegal. I have refused and even laughed loud.

John/Ben, unfortunately, is not alone. Entrepreneurs of dubious reputation to take advantage of the lack of control. You stumble here about witwasrestaurants without customers but with a lot of black money (North Korea has three in Phnom Penh). Lost souls come for cheap drugs and sex (sexpats). And then there are washed-up backpackers that have their money and themselves are lost (the brokepackers). They give Cambodia a bad name.

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Lost souls come for cheap drugs and sex (sexpats). And then there are washed-up backpackers that have their money and themselves are lost (the brokepackers). They give Cambodia a bad name.

Fortunately it is a minority, most of the foreigners are extraordinary. The few Belgians who here have met, are not average Belgians. The are optimistic plantrekkers with original brain, people who inspire. Foreigners whining is not about inconveniences in the host country, but also complain not about the homeland. I have been in Cambodia never been a Belgian something else to say than: “Belgium is a fantastic country”.

Children in the slums of Stung Meanchey, Phnom Penh. © Pascal Laureyn

That is logical when you here a while lives and the country better get to know. This is the most beautiful people that I know, but the Khmer live in a broken society. That was for the first time clearly, when I on a night and walked home along Norodom Boulevard, the central avenue of Phnom Penh. I crossed a group of about fifteen people.

In the middle sat a young man dazed on the curb. I recognized him immediately, it was a friend. He was hit and bled on the face and legs; he was clearly in shock. But why was he not helped? Nobody said anything or did anything. A policeman stood there listlessly. There was an ambulance arrived, but the two nurses did not turn out.

It was only when I ambulanciers promised to pay, they came into action. In the hospital I had to first (a lot) to pay for the doctor my friend wanted to help. Also, this is Cambodia, a country where ordinary people have no access to basic care. But what I like most everything, was the passive crowd that fascinated to my helpless friend was watching. Cambodians love that kind of spectacle, the newspapers are filled with gory close-ups of fatalities. But someone in need will not be helped.

Justice for the elite

Kris and I have this lack of empathy also noticed with our report on Roka, in the western part of Cambodia. In this village were 300 people become infected with hiv by one nepdokter that are always the same dirty needle used. A society was destroyed. But elsewhere in Cambodia understand nobody why we find it interesting for a report.

Researchers point to two causes that reinforce each other: a collective trauma combined with large-scale corruption. Justice is not a reliable judge but a corrupt tool. Cambodians realize that there is only righteousness exists for the elite. Social injustice is inherent in the society, so there is no sense of civic responsibility. No one is helping my injured friend, because no one recognizes the value of legitimate assistance to a person in need.

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This is a peace-loving, generous and honest people. These people deserve a lot better.

And Cambodia is still suffering from the psychological consequences of the Khmer rouge. This violent regime wanted to be in the years ’70 an agrarian Utopia create, and changed the country in a big gulag. Two million people (a quarter of the population) did not survive. All survivors have mental damage. But this collective trauma has never been processed. Talk about it is politically too sensitive, the former Khmer rouge leaders (including the prime minister) control the country.

An unresolved trauma creates fear, distrust, avoidance, and denial. Therefore, felt no one feels responsible for an injured young man on the street. There is improvement, trust and empathy can be restored. But to really make progress, there must be about the past.

This is the big contrast of Cambodia that me continues to fascinate. In spite of everything, continue to Cambodians laugh. This is a peace-loving, generous and honest people. These people deserve a lot better. Therefore, Kris and I reports continue to make, about the ugly and beautiful things. That is the only payback we can give for all the lovely gifts that friends, neighbors, and strangers have gotten. Thank you, Cambodia, for a wonderful year.

The beach of Kep. © Pascal Laureyn

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