Tonight is our last night in Cambodia, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic. You’re surprised aren’t you? This little country has been a wonderful introduction to the vast continent of Asia. With so many more places to visit, I have a feeling the Khmer people will hold a strong place in my travel favorites.
I’m struggling with whether to say we’ve been in Cambodia for a long or short time. Has it already been three weeks? Looking back, three weeks feels relatively short, but compared to our original plans and every other vacation I’ve ever taken, it’s quite long. My perspective has already changed. Not only does time feel different, but our sense of culture shock has faded. What seemed like crazy behavior upon our arrival now feels strangely normal. It’s worth getting into a little further… I’ve tried to summarize the things that set Cambodia apart from our own culture… most are fun, but some are a little off-putting.
We spent our first evening in the capitol of Phenom Penh watching the traffic from our balcony for nearly two hours. It was fascinating. It can only be described as complete disobedience of all posted and sane traffic laws. Someone can tell you that traffic is crazy, or that there are literally a million motorcycles, but until you are inside the confines of your tuk tuk (a truly false sense of safety) you really can’t imagine what traffic is like here. Organic, flowing like a flock of birds or school of fish, you must brazenly walk out into traffic to get across the street. The speeding motos simply flow around you as you methodically cross, sort of flinching the first time because you were sure you’d get hit. There are clearly posted stop signs, lights, lane lines, medians, and one-way markers. No meaning here. All one way streets can be two way, buses drive down the centerline of the highway, typically full speed toward another huge bus that’s flashing it’s lights to get out of the way. Families own a single moto, so dad, mom, and sometimes three kids cruise along Sisowath Quay sandwiched together on a Sunday evening.
The road rage must just be terrible, you say? Not in the slightest… another fantastic anomaly of this organic movement of vehicles! Honking is reserved for necessary communication, and everyone generally minds their own business. I think it’s mostly cultural, but I also think that moto traffic lends itself to less confrontation. Can you imagine freaking out at someone for cutting in front of you on the sidewalk the same way you do on the freeway in the secluded confines of your car? Naw… cars make us crazy assholes.
Unfortunately the pollution is unavoidable… here we see those scary looking surgeon masks. I’m buying one soon. You may not need it walking around, but stuck in traffic or on a busy road, I’m envious of the filtered air my counterparts are enjoying.
I expected to see a lot more squatty potties. I can’t say I’m disappointed in this trip’s short supply. Toilet paper… well that’s a different scarcity. Bum hoses appear to be the preferred method. Still practicing with this one… I mostly just end up all wet.
Madame. I quite like this quaint holdover from France’s pre-1950’s control of Indochina. Oh, and the baguettes and croissants! Delicious.
Despite an abundance of mouth-watering food (which I’ll cover in another post), nobody is fat here. Except the old white guys, of course. Local life is hard; everything is done manually from cutting the grass with machetes and butcher knives (seriously), to building roads and trenches with shovels and flip-flopped feet. Even delivery guys don’t have dolly’s… they lift full kegs and huge bags of rice on their backs. Power tools? Nope. Elevators? Only for the foreigners. Hair trimmer… even that’s a fancy manual scissor contraption. Kids ride bicycles 12-inches too tall for them and the old (70+) tuk tuk drivers ride the bicycle type tuk tuks (cyclos) instead of motos. After sunset people come out of the woodwork to gather along the riverfront park and enjoy the cool evening air. Kids are running back and forth, teams play Jianzi in a circle lunching a shuttlecock back and forth with their feet, and grandmothers sweat to an open-air aerobics class (awesome video). The energy is contagious and people-watching, priceless.
Light skin is still a strong symbol of class. Women, particularly, will completely cover their bodies outdoors during daylight hours. Imagine wearing a large-brimmed hat, head and face scarf, long-sleeved shirt, knit gloves, pants, and socks with flip flops in 100-degree heat. This is the norm. (Oh, and colorful pajamas. Cant figure that one out) Instead of sunless tanners, lotions and bodywash are sold with “brightening agents”. Whitening creams fill the makeup aisle, and when worn, give women the unhealthy appearance of half-done clowns. At night the young women show off their light skin in short dresses, cropped jeans, and midriff tops. Their incredible black hair untied, thick around their faces and nearly covering their backs. The women are inherently exotic to my American eyes, but more than that, they are utterly breathtaking.
This leads me to my next query. Old white men with Khmer women. This one still gets to me. I’ve only seen one blatantly inappropriate situation between a child and an old creeper, but I have a hard time withholding my judgments. Some of these guys are with women half their age, most are out to dinner, but some are affectionately doting to their two Cambodian children at the market. Some expats may have come for a good time, but I think that others stayed because they started a new life and family. It’s another complicated issue I won’t begin to understand on this journey.
Being a white-skin traveler, I’m often jealous of our fellow travelers who are not so obviously foreign. I imagine traversing Asia as an Asian helps limit the number of times you’re asked, “Tuk tuk, lady?” or “you buy bracelet, 3 for $1?” or “I no want money, just milk for my baby.” from old and young peddlers alike. Each person is asking because they truly need the money: poor, crippled, and not in genuine… all more sad to refuse than anything I’ve see on the streets in the US. The experiences I enjoy while traveling are very different when I can disappear, blend in with the locals and my surroundings We’ve memorized a handful of Khmer phrased we’ve been wanting to try, practice, fumble through, but being white dissolves that option. A soo s’day is usually met with hello, and ah-koon with sank you. I imagine that we’ll get more practice in remote areas… more than we are probably comfortable with. That Chinese translator will get frequent use in the upcoming months.
The children here make me want to take every single one of the home with us. Even shoeless, dirty and half naked, their smiles are contagious. They are curious of foreigners, waving, saying a shy hello or byebye. I don’t even think they cry. These children appear quiet and happy… at all times. No noise-cancelling headphones needed for a diaper change here… haha! It is no mystery as to why Angelina Jolie was so possessed by the intense beauty of these children that she decided to adopt.
Some of these kids can hustle… they’ll barter and bet you a rock paper scissors game for your money. They’re pretty difficult to turn down. I’m finding child labor to be a complicated issue. The kids that are either asking for money or selling cheap bracelets probably aren’t spending time in school… Although their English is very good (they’re always practicing). Unfortunately if their adorable faces can sell even $5 a day, their parents are unmotivated to stop that income, nor can they afford to send their child(ren) to school, since an education is not free here. There appear to be a lot of international aid programs involved in this country, but the Khmer people must also be behind the change and that is not something I know enough about to speak about here.
I find myself wondering how much of the Khmer ways are old, and how many of them are the changes created by the devastation of the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian genocide. While we’re fascinated with their history, visiting the killing fields, and torture camps, I find that they’re as nonchalant and embarrassed of their history as the Bosnians were of their own recent war. People do horrible things to one another… hell is still happening in Darfour… but for these people they seem to be back to a new normal at least. Cambodia is a place of immense natural beauty (Long Beach video and rainy jungle hike video in Koh Rong), astounding history (Siem Reap), and most of all a culture of friendliness and trust. Theft is uncommon and considered shameful. Most Khmer people do not act distrusting or annoyed toward foreigners like I experienced living in Spain. Instead they’re quick to smile and help you find a ride to your guest house. I’d return for another vacation in a heartbeat.
Please enjoy the photos below for a little slice of our first few weeks! Click on a photo to open larger slideshow.