My time in Cambodia has come to an end! After a quick trip to Mumbai, I have arrived back in New York.
Cambodia intrigued me enough on my first visit in 2014 that I felt compelled to return and see more of the country. And while I didn’t get to see absolutely everything (looking at you, Koh Rong), I did see a lot. I spent most of my time in Siem Reap, where I took a cooking class, visited the temples of Angkor Wat, and wandered a whole lot. In Phnom Penh, I learned about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. And just last week, I got to spend a few days in Kampot and Kep down south.
After spending six weeks here, I certainly feel like I have a slightly better understanding of Cambodia, though still far from comprehensive. While in a lot of ways it’s similar to other Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited, the somewhat odd comparison I keep returning to is between Cambodia and Hungary. Both bear the scars of very recent wars, and carry the burden of that history. Hungarians, in my experience, maintain a wry, dark sense of humor about it all. Cambodians seem to handle it differently, with extreme kindness.
There is a collective sadness in Cambodia that is palpable even in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The reign of Pol Pot ended just 38 years ago. There are plenty of middle-aged and elderly people who remember the years between 1975 and 1979 very well. It’s not some ancient war with only a few survivors. A huge percentage of the population witnessed the genocide firsthand.
But in spite of this trauma (or perhaps because of it), I’ve witnessed nothing but great warmth from most Cambodians. Nearly everyone I’ve interacted with has asked me where I’m from, and I must confess, I sometimes don’t want to admit I’m American. As victims of the “Secret War” (the American bombing campaign against Cambodia during the Vietnam War), Cambodians have every right to carry an anti-American sentiment. In a lot of ways, these bombings contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge (some viewed them as liberators from it, at least initially). Yet when I do say that I’m from the US, I’m only met with big smiles. Now this could be attributed to the fact that I’m a tourist, and my interactions with Cambodians are often part of some kind of transaction, but I get the feeling it goes beyond that. Here’s just one example.
When I moved from my apartment to a new hotel, I needed a tuk tuk to get there. A tuk tuk anywhere within Siem Reap typically costs anywhere from $3-5. I flagged one down, and showed him the hotel on a map. It was a brand new hotel, and was tucked away into a more remote part of town. The driver looked over the map, indicated he wasn’t exactly sure how to get there, but said we’d find it.
As I’ve mentioned before, road names don’t really exist in Cambodia. So finding unfamiliar places can be a little tough. We reached a crossroads and the driver pulled over to ask for directions. That person didn’t know, but rather than kick me out and tell me five bucks wasn’t worth the trouble, he called the hotel. While he was doing this, a couple driving by on a motorbike stopped and offered their help (no one knew where this damn hotel was, but that was beside the point). My driver punched the address into his phone, handed it to me, and asked me to dictate directions to him. After a little bit, we finally found the place. He then hauled my million pound suitcase up to the lobby. I handed him $10, and he just stared at it. He then thanked me profusely (and naturally, asked if I needed a tuk tuk to see the temples).
This whole journey should have taken about 10 minutes, and easily took 30. I would not have blamed him one bit if he just said, “Not worth it.” But instead, he was kind and helpful and I honestly think I’d still be wandering around if he hadn’t helped me.
And then there is the landscape of the country itself. As a travel blogger/writer, I’m always looking for that “Instagram-worthy” shot. Yet in Cambodia, I’ve found it difficult to capture that beauty of everyday life through a camera lens. The streets are not pristine like they are in Singapore, and people are not dressed in nice clothes. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and despite the booming tourism industry, that poverty is very visible. Garbage piles up on the side of the road, people litter all the time, and the stench of sewage is at times overwhelming. I got sick my first week here from ice made from tap water (just about the lamest thing ever, by the way). You can’t even compare it to life back at home, because they are worlds apart. But that’s what I find to be most interesting – the little kid walking his cows home down the same street next to the tourist munching away on his happy pizza. Or the gorgeous sunsets that I saw each evening over the sewage drain of the appropriately-named Concrete Drain Road. It’s this collision of the ordinary and extraordinary that made me really appreciate spending a good amount of time here.
Whenever people tell me they visited Paris for two days and hated it, and I want to tell them (without sounding like a total asshole) that they really need to spend a few months there before they’ll truly appreciate it. But the truth is that you can visit a place for a day, a week, a month, or a year, and still never fully understand it. That’s really the beauty of traveling – there’s always something more to be discovered. I’m grateful I was able to see as much of this country as I did. From the bottom of my heart, Cambodia, arkoun!