Navigating Cambodia: Reflections from the first week

by: Theresa Puhr

While climbing through the ruins of one of the many temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park in the city of Siem Reap, I was taken aback by a large tree growing on top of the temple’s walls. It was striking—the tree soared into the sky at least 20 feet high, its roots sturdily straddling the wall. For the rest of the day, I continued to think about that tree. To me, it seemed to be a perfect metaphor for Cambodia: the ruins of the temples symbolized the country’s long history, while the tree was present-day Cambodia. Present-day Cambodia isn’t simply a remodeling of an old temple. Rather, it is a stark offshoot that is attempting to stay connected to its roots.

A tall tree growing off the side of a temple at Angkor Archaeological Park
Ruins from a temple in Angkor Archaeological Park.

The Khmer Empire emerged in the ninth century and ruled for five hundred years, bringing Buddhism and political and cultural development to Cambodia. This was evident at the archaeological park, where massive stone structures, full of intricate art, lay on top of human-constructed waterways. The area was bustling with tourists, and it was easy to get caught up in the awe-inspiring complex of temples.

However, small details remind you of Cambodia’s darker, more recent history. At several of the temple entrances, a group of musicians serenaded visitors with traditional music. They all had apparent physical disabilities—and signs next to their performance space confirmed this, describing how these musicians were all injured by landmines. While we ate lunch with our tuk-tuk driver, he explained to us that he was not a native of Siem Reap—rather, he used to live in the jungle, fleeing from the Vietnamese during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Remnants of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and its genocide of around two million people during the 1970s are ubiquitous in Cambodia. I see it on a daily basis—in the fairly young faces that surround me on the streets, in my struggle to figure out what Khmer cuisine exactly is since many recipes and culinary traditions were lost to the genocide, in the very visible survivors of the war who share their stories on the street.

At the same time, rapid economic development also dominates the landscape. High-rises are under construction, most being built by Chinese companies. Parts of the capital, Phnom Penh, are full of modern architecture and advertisements for Western luxury brands. These images of economic growth have brought to life everything I learned about Cambodia’s rapid rate of development in one of my macroeconomics class projects back in my first semester of the MGA program. Any observer can clearly see that Cambodia has made an impressive comeback over the last four decades. In reality, Cambodia’s development has only scratched the surface and has yet to reverse the damage done by the Khmer Rouge.

The city of Phnom Penh at night.
Nighttime near the center of Phnom Penh—this area is in striking contrast to the more populated areas of the city.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

According to official reports, the country’s poverty rate has experienced a massive decline and is currently sitting at 13.5 percent. However, poverty indicators that account for factors other than just income place Cambodia’s poverty rate at a much higher 35 percent. This is why NGOs like my i-Lab partner organization, Oxfam, continue to operate in the country.

Through the Keough School’s i-Lab, my team and I are working with Oxfam in both Cambodia and Timor-Leste to explore avenues to achieve financial inclusion. Inequality in Cambodia is growing: there are limited opportunities for decent work, and climate change threatens its most vulnerable populations. Thus, it is important to remember that, regardless of Cambodia’s ability to achieve remarkable economic growth in recent years, healing from trauma is a long and difficult process.

It may take generations for Cambodia to recover from its painful history and reestablish roots in its traditions. As our team works with Oxfam to improve the status of women by examining programming which addresses gender norms and researching market access opportunities in Cambodia, we will continue to be mindful of the fact that these goals cannot be achieved in a vacuum. Context matters, and we must not forget Cambodia’s complex layers of history and tradition in our work to address gender inequality.

Bangladesh: A New Learning Experience

by: Chista Keramati

Chista Keramati is working with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) in Dhaka. Chista and her teammate, Jamie, will be studying the gendered aspect of climate change by looking at policies and programs in Bangladesh that address the vulnerabilities of women to climate-induced hazards. The team is conducting fieldwork in three different rural areas of Bangladesh, each prone to a different mix of climate disasters.

The pilot announced that our plane would be landing in 40 minutes at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka. Looking out the window, I tried to see with my own eyes the Bangladesh landscape. I spotted settlements here and there, green areas of what I assumed were cultivated land, and what I initially perceived as “dirt roads.” I asked myself, “But, wait! Where is all the water that I read so much about?,” only to realize that the “dirt roads” were not really roads but rivers whose brown color comes from the huge amount of sediment they carry with them along the way. I gazed in awe at the magnificent web of rivers and wetlands that were running across the landscape below our feet.

Typical busy street in Dhaka
Typical busy street in Dhaka.

That feeling of awe has not only remained but grown with me at every scenic or human encounter here. Life in Dhaka involves learning not necessarily new things, but everything in a new and different way. This new learning experience encompasses everything from the very basic activity of crossing the street (a double challenge when you are not used to people driving on the left-hand side of the road, and overcrowded streets that rarely have street signs) to working with our partner organization BCAS.

FIRST MEETING WITH OUR PROJECT PARTNER

Our first week in Dhaka involved extensive meetings with BCAS members, together with our professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa. We heard about the BCAS team’s hopes and aspirations not just for a better life for the people of Bangladesh, but for the whole world.

On our first meeting with Dr. Atiq Rahman, the founder of BCAS, he explained how the neat and well-organized knowledge in written reports and proposals do not necessarily match the messy realities on the ground.

I can see what he means. The realities we read about on paper before coming here have felt different when faced and experienced first-hand. I am seeing with my own eyes the amount of water running across the Bangladesh landscape, and how this might relate to climate change. And instead of seeing images of busy streets, I am now crossing even the narrowest streets of Dhaka with special caution. I am relieved, too, to find that there are some female experts working at BCAS and that it is not an all-male organization. This is important to our research.

RESEARCHING GENDER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

As a team of two women interested in researching the gendered aspect of climate change in Bangladesh, we are trying to observe and learn as much as we can about the attitude towards women in this country. Of course, our own personal experience has been mixed with our identity as not just women, but non-Bangladeshi women. We are slowly getting used to attracting attention at every turn in the local market, and being asked to take selfies wherever we go site-seeing.

Another lesson I have learned is that Google Maps doesn’t help much with local transportation. When you are stuck in a street and don’t know how to get home, and you also don’t know the local language, you can still rely on the kindness of strangers to help you take a CNG taxi (a small motor vehicle that runs with compressed natural gas). I have learned that once you ask someone for help, they feel responsible for you until their job of helping you is completed successfully.

AnAn attraction in our own right
An attraction in our own right.

As I am writing the final words of this blog post, I come across another cause for celebration, not necessarily related to our personal experience here, but surely related to Bangladeshi women: the Bangladesh women’s cricket team has just won the Asia Cup, making it the first Bangladeshi team ever to win this championship. It is both funny and endearing to read the comment of Soumya Sarkar, a Bangladeshi male cricket player on this great achievement, saying, “the moment is a proud one for us. This is the first time the girls won something, and that has come at the Asia Cup. They have won a big title, whereas the boys have won none till date, despite all the facilities.”[1]

Kudos to the women of Bangladesh! Our team is here to learn from you all.

[1] https://www.dhakatribune.com/sport/cricket/2018/06/10/bangladesh-women-elect-to-field-in-asia-cup-final