One of the many slums in Phnom Penh CambodiaI wish I could lend you my eyes.

Probably my ears as well. Not because they are special but because I don’t know how to translate what they have seen and heard to into words and give it the same meaning.

I wish I could show you and let you hear the sights and sounds of life in the places we have been – Thailand, Cambodia, and China. They are totally different to what I am used to and completely the same, all at the same time. I don’t know how to describe this dichotomy.

But it has totally wrecked my worldview.

The sights, sounds, food, and people seem so much the same, but jobs, economy, religion, and worldview are so different.

It is the same because we are all human. Everyone works, loves, and plays. Family is important, and similar events are celebrated – weddings, birthdays, New Years.

However, everywhere I go there is a contrast that is much greater than what I am used to. There is wealth and there is poverty. There are the have’s and have not’s, the educated and the uneducated. Their income and way of life could not be more different.

The numbers are strange and disproportionate, a few with wealth and comfort and a lot in poverty and discomfort. A few with education and many laboring to survive. One group fighting to keep what they have and one group fighting to survive.

It is a mess, and there are no simple answers, no easy fixes.

I could spit facts at you and prove the divide and the contrast, but that is easy to dismiss. It has been easy for me to dismiss for years. For years I said that people just needed to work hard and save more and they could make it.

This might be true in some cases, but it is not the reality for most of the people I see and come in contact with over here in Asia. There simply aren’t better jobs for most of the world’s population. There are only so many people who can sit in air conditioned offices. The rest of the population gets the leftovers – hard, grueling work in sub standard conditions. Work that pays a salary that will buy enough food to keep them alive and maybe a roof over their head.

Let me give you an example.

While we were in Siem Reap, Cambodia last week we hired a Tuk Tuk to take us out to see Angkor Wat. Our driver, Mr. Chann, was an amazing and skilled professional. He knew exactly where to go, what order to see the sites in, and could tell us a little history and personal experience about each stop on the tour.  His English was great. His standard rate for the day was $15 with a extra charge for sunrise and sunset.

This is a great day wage, but there is a catch.

He doesn’t work every day. He can’t. There are too many Tuk Tuk’s and drivers in Siem Reap. As soon as there is a way to make money there is a flood of vendors into the market. So Mr. Chann works when he can and picks up a few passengers for short trips across town to restaurants for $2 a ride. In the end, trying to get work every day of the week and all hours of the day and night, he makes maybe $100 – $150 a month.

This is a great wage for Cambodia. To compare, we have heard that both teachers and nurses make less than $100. But he is stuck in a work cycle that relies on tourists. Some month are good some are not. He is good at what he does and working very hard at it but what he gets is a basic living, not prosperity.

I met a lady on a bike tour that we took last week that made rattan baskets. She was good at her craft. She was so good at her craft that the Khmer Rouge kept her alive to make baskets for them when they took over the village back in the late 70’s. Now she works for 2-3 days on a basket that will sell for $2-$3.The average wage in her village is .75 USD per day.

I see this problem everywhere, all around me.

Spending large amounts of time in places like this will wreck you.

For a family of four to be in any of these cities as a traveler can easily cost $50 -$100+ a day. When you realize that a monthly wage easily falls into this range for most of Thailand and Cambodia it is sobering.

What really messes with me is the happiness and kindness that I see here. I see people with so little and expect them to be miserable. But so many people have so little and at the same time are so happy, vibrant and kind.

Could I be that happy with so much less than I have now? Could I live their life and be happy? I honestly don’t know. I want to think I could.

In the end, traveling and working here has given me hope. Hope for these people and these countries. I have met local people working in their communities to make them better, to create jobs, education, and opportunities for those who need them most. I have seen the love in their eyes, the genuine desire to help and walk with people in their need.

So, while there are no easy answers, there are people answering the call, helping one person, two people, or maybe ten. They are doing what they see in front of them.

And in the end that is all I can do as well – do what is in front of me and do it well.

See a post written by my daughter on the Bong Paoun Project for more pictures of what is happening in the slums of Cambodia.