Once you’ve entered Cambodia, it doesn’t take long to establish that you have arrived in one of the poorest countries of the World.
A cursory look around and things appear altogether less polished than across the border in Thailand (and that in itself is a relative observation when compared to Europe). There is more rubble lining the road, more atrophied cows and water buffalo in the abundant fields, more litter strewn streets, and far, far more push bikes than anywhere else we’ve been.
The otherwise ubiquitous 7-elevens are conspicuous by their absence in this kingdom. Here instead, the makeshift Momma & Poppa stores with their dust-coated products and unfamiliar sun-faded brands rule the roost (though the plentiful street chickens may have something to say about that turn-of-phrase).
Though investment means improvement in transport infrastructure is continuing apace and new roads are appearing in all corners of the country, Cambodian highways are still potholed in many places and unsealed in parts.
It is a blessing though that there are also thankfully less motor vehicles to populate the roads than anywhere else we have visited on our travels.
However, the Cambodian standards of driving, just like those of their near neighbours, remain comfortably on the negative side of abysmal.
Dependence upon the horn and headlight take on Indian-like proportions with much greater emphasis placed on their cocophonic use than in Thailand, Malaysia or even Indonesia.
Reaching the border town by way of a battered Toyota Camry with no seat belts, broken window winders, and a boot that refused to close, Koh Kong’s dusty streets teemed with young life.
Babies, kids, teenagers and young adults were in abundance both on the street and peering out of homes.
This was clearly a town where the birth rate was in high orbit and where, I therefore assume, Durex were yet to establish much of a brand presence.
However, the colourful local cocktail of poverty and youth masks its own dark secret.
This stretch of Cambodia, from the Thai border down to the resort of Sihanoukville has an unfortunate reputation for playing host to a sex industry, human trafficking, and also rather sadly, of being somewhat tolerant of paedophilia.
Now I don’t consider myself an overly liberal person, but hitherto, my opinions on paedophilia were rather aligned with those of Chris Morris and his team from the satirical TV series “Brass Eye”.
It just so happened that my views were shaped following the death of Sarah Payne in 2000, when I had been invited to sit in on an editorial meeting of the popular national “Red Top” newspaper whom I at that time worked for.
Suffice to say, the meeting was a cynical, farcical disgrace during which the editor was bouncing around potential Front Page ideas such as “String ‘em up!” and “Cut their balls off!”
Emotions surrounding the incident were running high (a paediatrician had been singled out for abuse by the illiterate mob in Portsmouth!), but this editorial stance was purely a means of stirring the masses in order to shift the print run – Nothing more, nothing less.
It came as a breath of fresh air then when in 2001 the Brasseye crew went headlong into the unavoidable media maelstrom with their mockery of headline hyperbole via a “Paedogeddon” investigation and their use celebrities who with little questioning backed their spoof “nonce sense” campaign.
Gary Lineker and Phil Collins were duped, whilst former DJ and Pop Idol judge, Doctor Fox, happily helped publicise the ‘fact’ that “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me”.
At the time of airing there was an absolute uproar, though I was able to view the show as an emotionally disconnected twenty-something, both rational in thought and conceited in my opinion.
Now as a thirty-something father in a town full of men who didn’t look “quite right”, I’d likely be taking a less welcoming standpoint on the show’s delivery, if not on it’s core sentiment.
The bars and cafés of Koh Kong were full of sole male travellers predominantly aged 40-65, nearly all of whom had something a little bit odd about them.
Limp, lank, home-cut hair. Thick-glassed spectacles. A slight yet noticeable twitch. You know the sort….
I found myself becoming suspicious and critical with little more than circumstantial evidence. The 0.5 went further, casting guilty verdicts all round like they were going out of fashion.
Rightly or wrongly, there was no way I was letting these men interact with “The Boy”.
If I was emotionally disconnected from the issue a decade earlier, then right here, right now, I was hot-wired and supercharged to protect my kin.
Perhaps I am unjust to act this way, though when you read about visitors from Western nations who prey on children selling fruit and trinkets on the beaches of our next stop, Sihanoukville, then I challenge any dad not to act in the same way.
My attitude here in Cambodia is far less trustworthy and charitable than it has been in other countries. There is no way for example, that I would tolerate what happened at Kota Kinabalu happening here even if it was done in complete innocence.
Of course, it is easier for a rich Westerner to prey upon a poor Cambodian than on a Western child. With such comparative affluence, winning the trust of a family but ultimately doing so with an abusive aim is going to be all too possible for those with a preference for kiddy-fiddling.
We as a family may not be in the front line, but all the same, our “Paedo-Radar” is going to be set to MAX for the foreseeable future.
I think I owe that to “The Boy” at the very least.