A half drunken South African, over a big bottle of Chang Beer in a small pub in Khao San Road, once told me that Cambodia was one of the weirdest places he had ever visited. He told me all about how he and his friend boarded a bus from Bangkok and crossed over to Cambodia. I found the whole story extremely fascinating. Cambodia seemed unpredictable, and dangerous.
So later that year, I decided to cross into Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City. I did my research and for some reason I was a little nervous about going to Cambodia solo. I read about how Cambodia, being a poor country, can be unsafe especially for a foreigner.
I remember how I debated with myself for two days, while I was in Vietnam, to whether go ahead with the plan and book a bus ticket to Cambodia or just buy an air ticket to Thailand and skip Cambodia all together. Late one night, under the influence of alcohol, I decided to finally man up and buy a $9 ticket to Phnom Penh. This was one decision that I will never ever regret.
The road trip from Ho Chi Minh City to the capital city of Phnom Penh was an awesome adventure (I have written about it in another post) mainly because I had never ever crossed into another country by road.
One of the fondest memories of the trip was hanging around in the restaurant of my hotel, Dara Sey Reang and tasting the local food and the cheap local beer. The ambience of the hotel clicked with me and within hours of being there, I felt comfortable enough to walk around in the lobby in my shorts and slippers. The manager of the hotel was extremely friendly and many a times she would ask me if I liked the food, or if I wanted a taxi to go somewhere, or if my stay there was comfortable. She did not wear the plastic smile that many other hotel managers flash all the time. She seemed genuinely nice and kind.
The next day we went to the Killing fields and the Genocide museum with this awesome tuk tuk driver who was not only honest (a quality surprisingly hard to find among tuk tuk drivers) but also extremely friendly. We were having lunch in a small restaurant just outside the Killing Fields when he told me the story of how his grandfather and his father were taken to a concentration camp where both of them lost their lives. Believe me, it is one thing hearing about the Killing Fields on the small audio guides that they give you for a small fee when you enter, but quite another hearing from a man whose family was actually a victim of it. Towards the end of the story, I heard his voice choking up and saw him fishing for his handkerchief in his pockets. He told me that he usually avoided going to the Killing Fields but he really needed the money that day. Later that evening when he dropped me off at my hotel, he gave me a hug. Yes, a hug.
Why the hell did I think Cambodia was going to be scary?
My next stop was Siem Reap. The roads leading up to the Old Market area were nice and wide, with trees and graceful buildings on both sides. It was hard to imagine that I was in Cambodia. The Cambodia that I read about on the travel websites and magazines was a lot less attractive.
The nights at the Pub Street area were relaxing. You can roam around in the night markets; have good local food and shop. Or you can choose your favourite bar and hang out there with an Angkor beer and watch the world go by. Every now and then, the waiter or some other staff of the bar would come by and ask you random things about your life back home and your country.
The Angkor Wat was majestic. It was actually more beautiful and peaceful than I thought it would be. During this trip we stopped at a small forest which was awesome since I had never been to a forest before. Realising my fascination with the forest, my tuk tuk driver took me to the middle of the forest, near a small pond surrounded by tall trees where we saw a deer.
Few days later, I went back to Phnom Penh for my onward flight to Thailand. I was greeted with an extra wide smile when I checked back into Dara Sea Reang. There were dark clouds all over the sky that day but I decided to go shopping in the Central Market, the biggest market in Phnom Penh. It sold almost anything that you can possibly think of in terms of clothes, footwear, jewellery, decorative, etc. It had started raining quite heavily by the time we returned to our hotel.
My hotel manager had arranged for a tuk tuk to take me to the airport that evening and she asked me to leave extra early as the roads usually get water clogged in the rain, resulting in terrible traffic jams.
And she was right. We did get stuck in a terrible traffic jam.
I realised my good luck with the tuk tuk in Phnom Penh had continued when I saw the driver covering up the passenger compartment with a black plastic sheet to protect me and my bags from getting wet. From the small opening in the front, I could see how he was taking the brunt of the rain and storm.
As I saw the tuk tuk drive away after dropping me off at the airport, with the driver drenched from head to toe, I realised that Cambodia had redefined humility, kindness and forgiveness for me. The country’s painful history could have easily divided the country into groups, each one hating the other, blaming the other. But, it almost seemed like all of the Cambodians had taken a pledge together to let bygones be bygones. I realised there was no kindness in visiting an orphanage for a day, taking pictures for your friends on the social networking websites, rather it lied in all the random small niceties which the Cambodians showered me with during my stay. I learned that kindness is not a function of how much money you have in your bank, rather it is a function of the love that you have in your heart.
Aw khun, Cambodia.