Although we’ve both visited Cambodia separately in the past, hospital we decided to come back because Cambodia is a place you can never forget.
When I visited in 2005, medications I was on a mission from God. Literally. As a volunteer with a Christian organization, I spent a month in Cambodia traveling throughout the country and working at orphanages. I remember my first night arriving into Phnom Penh and being sent out into the dreary rainy night to buy dinner for the group. At the market, I was completely overwhelmed by the garbage-strewn streets, the half-naked children, the begging families, and the fly-covered food stands. This was a kind of world that I had never seen before.
Yet over the following weeks, I grew to look beyond the poverty and the chaos and to fall in love with the beautiful and resilient people of this country. It was a joy to visit friends at the orphanage from my last visit. After the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in the ’70’s and ’80s, the past few decades have seen thousands of NGO’s, church organizations, and foreigner volunteers saturate Cambodia trying to help the country recover. While the tourist can enjoy $4 massages and 50 cent beers, it is hard to ignore the fact that these cheap prices are partially a consequence of Cambodia’s pervasive poverty.
We got a taste of Cambodia’s infrastructure issues when we left the city of Siem Reap as it flooded due to heavy rains and a non-existant sewage system (see photos of the flood and more of our trip). With so many social problems relating to basic needs such as running water, electricity, food access, and HIV, it is hard to imagine that there would be any focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. Yet, the LGBT movement progresses here with surprising visibility.
In 2004 after watching images of gay marriage in San Francisco, the 81-year old monarch at the time, King Sihanouk wrote on his website that since Cambodia is a liberal democracy, the Kingdom ought to allow gay marriages. King Sihanouk also stated that he believed that God views homosexuals, as well as transvestites, as equal because “God loves a wide range of tastes.” Yet while there are no laws explicitly against homosexuality, Cambodia’s traditional culture places intense social pressure to marry and have children.
VIDEO: What did we find when we set our to find the Supergays in Cambodia? Check out our videolog as to why Cambodia made one of the biggest impressions on us thus far…
It was here in Cambodia that we met an extraordinary one-of-a-kind activist: a man with a passion for helping lesbians. Coming from a family of 10 sisters, Super”Lezbro” Srun Srorn understood first-hand the struggles of women. But as he started doing social work amongst women, Srorn realized there was a group that was even worse off: lesbians who were forced into marriages with men. Srorn works hard to organize support groups for lesbians, connecting over 700 women across various provinces in Cambodia, and he represented Cambodia at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this spring on LGBT needs, highlighting lesbian community concerns
Srun connected us to Ya, one of the women who benefitted from his outreach program. Over some beers, Ya told us about the the positive changes happening in her generation. She took us to the newly established LGBT center in Siam Reap, Dragonfly, complete with a counseling center, a library and HIV testing. In the nine months that Dragonfly has opened, they already have had 400 visitors walk through their doors.
Much of the resources to support Cambodian LGBT organizations have come from foreign NGOs. While many criticize these foreign aid groups for wastefulness and lack of efficiency (including spending their money on Lexus SUVs for their personnel), they are nonetheless having some positive impact for local people.
I feel a similar conundrum as a tourist. Cambodia offers some wonderful restaurants, accommodations, and tourist experiences that Lisa and I fully indulged in (we loved the food so much we even took a cooking class) – but were we being wasteful? Should we have given the money to one of the aid organizations instead? Or that one-legged man trying to selling us some fake books? Or that child carrying his little sister on his back and begging on the street corner?
I don’t know what the answer is. But I hope that the little we do do – playing with the orphans for an afternoon, visiting with the local staff of an LGBT center, spending money at local businesses – ends up having some positive impact.
Cambodia may be a country of great need, but it is also a country where you can see many people working hard to make things better. And we hope that as Cambodia strives to meet the basic needs of its people and raise standards of living, it will not forget about giving its people the freedom to choose how they live their lives and who they love.