Cambodians: The Irish of Southeast Asia
Just like parents who “equally” love all their children, as a traveler I don’t like to admit that I have a favorite, but I do. Out of the eight countries visited in the Asia series, Cambodia was my favorite. I knew from the beginning that this was a different place.
Landing anywhere in Asia makes a recess of an elementary school look like naptime. It’s just that chaotic. When you leave the airport you might as well be walking onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange right before the closing bell. As I leave the shelter of the airport I always brace myself for the onslaught of people asking if we need a ride or a guide. My attention is more focused on navigating an errant luggage cart topped with four heavy pieces of baggage plus a tripod or lens case while following the other 5 members of my crew with equally temperamental carts as we try to locate the person who is officially our guide and ride. Whew. But as we left the airport terminal in Cambodia in Phnom Penh the glass door slid apart to reveal a scene of utter calm — just as many people who are always congregated outside an airport but they all stood there with soft eyes and slight smiles. That’s when I knew I was going to love it here.
I had some advice to brace myself for Cambodia, a country just coming out a vicious and cruel civil war still showed a lot of scars physically and mentally. I was told that adults and children missing limbs having been victims of land mines would be begging in the streets. I thought I was walking into a country depressed and floundering and that the only reason to go would be to see the great city of Angkor with its now famous temple Angkor Wat. I was wrong. I never saw those with missing limbs although I don’t doubt they’re there and as for homelessness and those very down on their luck? Sure, but that’s a problem we all have. In fact, as I write this I am back home in Portsmouth, NH where for the first time in 30 years I saw a man with a cardboard sign at an intersection. Travel teaches you that there’s always a difficult side to any destination and that you never look down on another person (or country) but show compassion. There’s no reason to pity Cambodia, the people have an amazing sense of themselves and that they are finally going places.
I found the Cambodians to be the easiest people to talk to. I call them the Irish of Southeast Asia. On the whole they speak a lot of English, which I wasn’t expecting and an overwhelming curiosity about Westerners since it’s only been recently that we’ve been allowed to come. That’s not to say the ancient city of Angkor isn’t a showstopper. I’ve seen it from pages of my National Geographic but really just had no idea what an amazing place it is. Experts say it’s on par with the Pyramids of Egypt (I wouldn’t know, unfortunately I’ve never been — hint, hint Travel Channel) but I would say its worthy of the bucket list. I should mention in the interest of full disclosure that I did not spend the night in the tent on the beach. As awesome as it was after seeing that spider and then being told by the guide that a jaguar or some large Travel Channel-host-eating cat was walking the beach the other day I thought best that I just go back to the hotel. I know my limits.