Cambodians Are Pioneering – Despite the ‘Weight’ They Carry
Interview by Ryan van Velzer… Jack Bartholomew, Khiri Travel General Manager for Cambodia, has spent the last three years working and travelling throughout Southeast Asia. In the last year, Jack moved from being Operations Manager for Khiri Travel Laos in Luang Prabang to take on the leading role in Khiri Cambodia, restructuring and growing tour operations throughout the country.Currently residing in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, Jack sat down with Ryan van Velzer to share his thoughts on Cambodia and its people.
What’s special about Cambodia that differentiates it from other countries in the region?
The people have had such a tough time. It’s incredibly rewarding working with people who in spite of all that, rather than give up, work much harder than other countries. They’re trying to play catch up and they know it. They are really focused, really hard working and I would go as far as to say they have a natural capacity to take on new ideas and skills quickly.
As a country, I think it’s a country that is really looking forward. While working in Laos I found it to be a quite inward looking country. Whereas Cambodia is pioneering in the region; Cambodia is trend setting. There’s just so much happening here.
Why should people visit Cambodia?
There’s the heritage, the history, the Angkor temples. I think that’s all fantastic and fascinating and that is a reason why people should com. But I really think the key is that when people come here they’re seeing a great example of a group of people who are bouncing back. In spite of what happened, these people are the happiest and kindest people you’ll meet. I’ve never seen people with so little give so much. They really want people to experience their country. There are so many great opportunities to interact with the local people and learn about their culture and lifestyle — but also how those people have taken all the negative things and turned them into something really positive.
On that, what is unique about Cambodian culture compared to the West?
It’s one of the oldest cultures in Southeast Asia. One-thousand years ago the Khmer empire spanned most of Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and large swathes of Vietnam. So the history is deep. The Khmer people are passionate about their history and how great their culture once was and the mark that was left in so many other countries. Cambodian people know that their history played a large part in the region.
What were some of the biggest challenges the Cambodian people faced after the end of the Khmer Rouge?
I think there was just a massive displacement. They had to restart their country from scratch. There was nothing. There wasn’t even any money. Even some of my staff, they were born in refugee camps on the border of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. You know they didn’t get birth certificates until they were in their teens. The challenges are endless really. They’ve had to learn all these skills again, learn these languages, learn to re-identify with their culture and promote tourism. It’s a part of their history now and the younger generation is taking that and turning it into something positive.
What should tourists know about Cambodia before coming?
I think there’s this tendency to sort of look at Cambodia as a ‘plus one’ country. I think it shouldn’t be perceived like that. It’s a destination in its own right. There is so much to see and do here. It has so much to offer. I think people should know a little bit about the history. I think that can help explain some of the puzzling things about Cambodia.
What is one thing tourists should see in Cambodia?
I think there is a really diverse set of things to see. It’s got such a mix of cultures. I mean in the last hundred years you’ve had the French influence, the Khmer Rouge, and the current struggle for the transition into democracy. There are so many different building styles, food styles, cultures that are here now. When people come to Cambodia, they should also come to Phnom Penh, see the architecture, try the food.
What’s your favorite local food?
The one everybody talks about, Amok. Fish Amok particularly, which is sort of a slightly thick curry. It’s quite expensive and it’s not eaten everyday by Khmer people. It’s sort of seen as a special dish. That is probably my favourite.
Why does Cambodia use the US dollar?
Post-Khmer Rouge the monetary system was totally nullified. In the early 90s the United Nations came in set up the United Nations Temporary Authority Command Control. In Cambodia it was the largest UN launched operation in UN history. So for a four to five year period there were Americans, Europeans, everybody here rebuilding and reconstructing the society. They were all using US dollars. So it kind of hung over from then. Unlike in Laos, which several years ago switched from the use of the dollar, here they’re still using it. It’s basically levelled out at 4,000 riel to USD 1.
What’s your favourite place in Cambodia?
That’s tough. Angkor, Sambor Prei Kuk, the Cardamom Mountains, the southern beaches, there’s a lot to do in quite a small space. I love living in Phnom Penh because this city has seen so much. It’s the commercial hub. You can see it’s really growing. There are new buildings going up all the time. I find that really exciting and I think it’s my favourite place. Unlike other Southeast Asian cities it’s got a very unique feeling. In some respects, it’s very dark. You can feel the weight on some days, especially if you visit the Killing Fields and that area. You still see people carrying a lot of weight from that time. But I think also you have a younger generation really pushing things forward. There’s a real desire for people to grow, push forward and create their own identity and that’s coming from the capital.
If you were traveling to Cambodia for the first time, what is one thing you would bring with you?
An open mind. Try the food. Some people come here and don’t want to see things like the Killing Fields because they’re too depressing. I think you should see it. Put the time in at Angkor Wat, set aside a few days and really see it. Go to the beaches in the South. And don’t be afraid to eat the fried spiders.