An Examination of Conscience

[Note: This blog post is not about fun adventures we’ve been having, but rather difficult things we have seen. While it is depressing, it is reality here and as travelers we feel an obligation to share and educate those around us.]

While in Laos and Cambodia, the subject of economics and inequality has been on our minds a lot. We have frequent discussions about the situation in Laos and Cambodia, and to a lesser extent Thailand and the rest of South East Asia. This post is modeled after a discussion we had on the way to dinner after helping some Lao students practice their English at Big Brother Mouse, a Laos non-profit that works to improve literacy in Laos through book distribution, as well as English learning.

Laos is a mixture of beautiful scenery and a terrible past

Jenny: I love it here in Luang Prabang. It is super gorgeous, with nice people, beautiful buildings, and delicious food. But on the other hand, I feel really torn because I know this is one of the poorest countries on the planet.

David: Right. What we see here in town is not what this country is really like. People that live here don’t stay in these beautiful French villas and eat croissants and expensive food. They live outside the city without access to clean water, eating rice and whatever vegetables they grow.

Jenny: I feel guilty haggling over a dollar or two at the market, even though that’s what you’re supposed to do. Those extra few dollars won’t make a huge difference to me, compared to someone who lives on just a few dollars a day.

Jenny: Also, the lack of health care is terrifying. The other night we saw a toddler get hit by a van. There was no ambulance to come. Did that child die? Does that family just accept that as the way of life?

David: Remember when you were sick with a fever? If it had turned into something serious we could have flown to Thailand where there is good healthcare. For the people here, they can’t just evacuate to another country.

Fancy car
There is a huge wealth gap in Laos.

David: I’m glad you printed out those pictures of Boston and your family. Those kids at Big Brother Mouse were really excited to see the photos. I thought about taking out my iPhone and showing them pictures on there, but it seemed weird. I didn’t want to be like “oh look at me, a rich American with a fancy phone.”

Jenny: Yeah, that would have been awkward. What did you say when they asked about your job?

David: Well I told them that I work with computers. They said “wow, we wish we had computers.” They don’t even have access to computers at school or the library. Think about it, I work in an industry doesn’t even exist in their country.

Jenny: Life here seems a lot more simple than at home, yet a lot more complicated at the same time.  Extended families all live and eat together and there aren’t all the complications and nonsense of computers and stress that seem so strong in the modern world. It seems nice to romanticize such a simple lifestyle, but on the flip side, their stress and worry is do we have enough food to eat? Do we have access to clean water? Is my family safe and healthy? Their concerns are about basic human survival, while at home we worry about making deadlines or what someone said. It’s such a different world and makes so many of the stresses at home seem so unimportant.

David: One question I got was “if you already have everything, why do you want to travel here?” Deep question.

Jenny: That is interesting. We were looking at a map of the world, and I asked some of those kids if they could go anywhere in the world, where would they go? They answered Vientienne. That’s the capitol of their own country! You can drive there in a day. They said they heard there were tall buildings in Vientienne. And here we are, having flown 25+ hours to get to them. However, I’m glad that we got to chat with some local kids for a few hours. It makes the barriers seem like a lot less – we are all people, wanting to learn more, thrive, and be happy.

We are millionaires here. 1 million kip = $125

Jenny: What do you think it will take to clean up all the unexploded bombs and land mines in Laos and Cambodia?

David: I don’t know. There are a lot of them. I read that the US covertly dropped about 250 million bombs in Laos during the Vietnam war. They wanted to break up supply lines going to North Vietnam. But an estimated 80 million failed to explode on impact and now they are laying in fields and cities. They still claim lives today. Laos is the most bombed country in the world.

Jenny: That’s insane. And don’t forget that the Khmer Rouge and the Royal Army planted millions of land mines in Cambodia in an attempt to kill each other. There are no maps of those.

David: Can you imagine going for a walk in the woods, or in a field near your house and being worried you might accidentally set off a bomb?

Jenny: What I want to know is, what is the U.S. doing about it now? And, is something like that happening now and we don’t know about it? (i.e. bombing in Libya). There is no solution or easy way to fix the legacy left behind.

A bomb dropped by the US
Imagine how we felt standing in front of this bomb that the US dropped on Cambodia?
Bombing map
Did you know that we bombed Cambodia and Laos? This is the legacy we have left behind.

David: One thing that I do love about this region is the resilience of the people and the sense of hope. Heroes like Aki Ra put their life on the line every day to make their country a safer place.

Jenny: And don’t forget Ponheary Le, who owned our guesthouse in Siem Reap. She started a foundation to improve access to education for children – her family starting from nothing after the Cambodian genocide.

David: Yeah, and there’s little things we can do as tourists that can help. First of all, our money is supporting the local economy. We just have to be wise how we spend it.

Jenny: Right. For instance, by not giving it to the little kids selling junk outside of temples. Like Ponheary says, those kids need to be in school, not on the streets hawking bracelets. But, it is so hard with their sad faces and big wide eyes (and absolute persistence). I wish there was an easy solution to help.

Aki Ra
Aki Ra is a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who now works to remove land mines and has diffused more than 10,000 by hand. He also cares for orphans and victims of land mines.

David: I wonder what everyone at home thinks about this stuff?

Jenny: I don’t know. Let’s put it on the blog and see what they say!

6 thoughts on “An Examination of Conscience

  1. In Attleboro, we ran a month long celebration of Cambodia as part of the “Becoming American” series last year. We learned about the culture, read 2 books about the Kmer Rouge genocide and a family’s emigration to the States called “First They Killed My Father” and “Lucky Child” and watched a movie about one family’s journey back to Cambodia called “New Year Baby”. Following that we had a happy celebration of culture, attended by local monks and many people from the community. What impressed me most when it was over was that I found out that in Attleboro and everywhere else that Cambodians settled, there are people who were Kmer Rouge soldiers. The very ones that tortured the families of the people who came. Yet, in their culture, they forgive and move on, understanding that everyone did what they had to do to survive. We have some real heroes among us.

  2. ThiS was such a great story guys. I think it’s interesting that in SE Asia the topic is about survival and getting rid of land mines while politicians in the states are arguing about birth control and gay marriage as hard line issues worthy of qualifying that person for the office of the president.

    I actually watched a long documentary on the history channel about the Vietnam war the other day and I couldn’t help but think about how similar it is to our modern day war in the middle east.

    We’re spending millions of dollars and more importantly, thousands of soldiers lives, in a country that largely wants to see Americans die. Meanwhile countries like Laos and Cambodia are left to figure out the problems we left behind on their own because the US does not see any economic gain by helping them.

    The broader issue is forgein aid. I’m not sure how many people know this but the US gives more aid than any other country in the world, however as a percentage of GDP it ranks among the lowest. I frequently am torn about this statistic… I know living in tough conditions here must be a vacation to what some people experience every day in a country like Laos but what is our duty as Americans to the rest of the world?

    Even being up in RI a few weeks ago it was depressing to see how many businesses have shut down, how many empty buildings littered the towns we drove through. In Detroit, NO, and other areas it’s 50 times worse. I often wonder if a country like Laos had money, would they give us aid? Am I wrong for thinking we should spend that money domestically to strengthen our country so that future generations can prosper and potentially share more of their wealth with the world?

    It’s a tough thing to think about particularly as I type on my iPhone with my iPad on the nightstand….

    1. First of all, you typed that whole comment on an iPhone?! I wouldn’t have the patience for that. Thanks for contributing.

      You bring up a lot of interesting points. I agree with the similarities of our current wars with that of Vietnam. When I think about aid and your question of our duty as Americans, I guess I would ask what is our duty as humans to the rest of the world?  Dave decided that yes, Laos would give us aid – all of these Buddhist countries are so kind and giving. Even here, where people are racked with poverty, they give food to monks everyday and welcome and serve strangers – it is part of the fabric of the culture. 

      I too occasionally struggle with the same thoughts – we have enough troubles at home to be taking care of everyone else in the world, lets just take care of our own. Being abroad now, a lot of the need at home just pales in comparison. Do I have more allegiance to my own country or humanity? I have spent my career in the nonprofit sector, wanting to “save the world” but is developing the leadership of American children as important as others being able to survive? At what point does the population problem and natural selection kick in? I don’t know the answers to any of these…all big questions to struggle with…

      1. It’s almost a funny thing to think about. I’m not sure how much you guys have been keeping up with the news here in the states but people won’t stop talking about the republican nomination race.

        I took a minute to think about it and found it incredibly ironic that Americans (including myself who recently donated to the Obama campaign) give large sums of money to these candidates that are all millionaires, yet how many of these people donate to organizations that support humanity whether it be foreign or domestic, probably very few…

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