While checking my email at Hotel 9 in Phnom Penh, I struck up a conversation with an Australian woman and her daughter, whom I had seen the night before in the same common area enjoying a cigarette and beer, chatting under one of the intense ceiling fans incrementally reducing the choking heat and humidity on these early June nights.
The mother, whose name I did not get and she did not ask mine, said she came to Cambodia for the first time a year before. When asked why she was back just a year later, she replied, “Because I love it here.” She mentioned she and her daughter had been in the country alone for a week. The next day, her husband would join them, and the three would spend another two weeks in “The Kingdom of Wonder.”
I was baffled. For me, one week was enough. At least, for now.
That statement is not a condemnation for the southeast Asian country which, just my lifetime ago, was the scene of such mass murders, known as the Khmer Rouge regime. From 1975 to 1979, it is said a third of the Cambodian population was tortured and killed, anyone who opposed this attempt at a Communist rule.
And, many that had no say either way in the matter.
Cambodia has changed much in 34 years. To hear some there only a few years ago, or arrived and remained, the place has changed greatly in only that short time. For instance most major roads are now paved.
Though it remains a work in progress.
When I told friends about my trip, most said they were jealous. Post lots of pictures. See Angkor Wat. I did the latter and am in the process of doing the former.
I saw ancient temples. I teared up as I walked through The Killing Fields, completely with a thorough audio tour. I saw the kind of rural expanses and choking, vibrant third-world city backroads that I had only seen before in magazines and on screen in movies.
I got a pair of Converse All-Stars for $14.
I have absolutely no regrets on my trip to Cambodia. In 10 years, five years, even next year, it will have changed. Visiting Cambodia is not like visiting New York City, or Seoul. Things change all the time, everywhere. But the changes going on in Cambodia are so stark, noticeable, culturally significant, dramatic. What will an expanded highway system mean to those that can actually utilize it? How many people utilizing the many, many tuk tuks and motodups in the cities will soon be able to afford their own car?
I have no regrets. But, maybe we saw different things, you and I. For some, it may be easier to accept the intense heat, stifling humidity, absurd amount of casually disposed of garbage choking the earth–both in the cities and pretty much everywhere else–and incredible inequality, resulting in deep poverty. It’s a third world country, after all, in southeast Asia. It’s going to get hot. There’s going to be a lot of poverty. But, it doesn’t break my heart any less.
Not every worthwhile experience is going to be comfortable. If I was looking for nothing but comfort, I would have stayed at an all-inclusive hotel in a more temperate climate for my vacation. I knew what I was getting into (well, mostly).
I really have to wonder what I and that nice Aussie woman saw differently. We could not have seen the same things. Maybe, had I gone with a friend, instead of going solo, we would have seen each other. And, that would have been enough.
An unintended result of this vacation to Cambodia arrived when I stepped off the plane at Gimhae International Airport. Korea is not free from my gripes. It can be dirty. The “stare-bears” leave much to be desired. The Confucian system of status that has ruled their brains for so long is woefully out of touch with the realities of the 21st Century.
But, when I stepped off the plane–thought about all those little quirks that can sometimes irritate or maybe occasionally amuse, all this amidst a cool breeze–I could not help but smile. No, really! It came upon me like a spirit passing through, telling me to loosen the hell up. Take a swallow of that cool air and think about how, tonight, you’ll sleep in a comfortable bed. If it’s a little humid, you’re welcome to turn on the air conditioner. At the end of the month, you’ll get a good paycheck, instead of having to hawk knock-off sunglasses to tourists. Or, worse, openly beg for something, anything, because you’ve run out of options. Things may annoy you sometimes, but maybe they shouldn’t so much. You have it really, really good.
It was like that. I could not help but smile. I was home.