Last notes on Cambodia

Writing this from Hong Kong, our time in Cambodia already feels very distant. I’d thought I would have written my farewell post to Cambodia by now, but actually maybe it’s better this way.

“Good luck for you”

Our visit to Cambodia was intense for me. I’d done more pre-arrival research for it than for any of the other places we’ve been so far and thus came in with a lot on my mind to begin with. For reasons still not clear to me, I had bigger emotional reactions to things we experienced in Cambodia. The country seemed to contain more extremes than the other places we’d been – extreme poverty and extreme power, the presence of deep, jagged tragedy s well as incredible and pure beauty.

(By way of contrast, I’d describe India as having extremes too, but it has a much fuller spectrum: there is so much filling the space between light and dark there.)

After the likes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Cambodia and Cambodians definitely had a tougher edge.

I witnessed a lot more rough housing between kids and even adults. Play seemed to involved a lot more hitting, pushing and pulling than we’d seen anywhere and I even got hit – with a good amount of force but without any malice – by one boy in Battambang who was exuberant about the photos I took of him and his friends and wanted me to take more. It didn’t bother me at all, but it was something I could never imagine happening in the countries we’d been to before Cambodia.

One’s overall impression of a place is subject in part to completely random encounters and occurences. While we were in Cambodia, we happened upon four different funerals. These take place every day all over the world but it was striking to me that we kept crossing paths with funeral processions and ceremonies. The last place we had witnessed anything like this had been in Varanasi, where it’s simply a part of being in that city.

It didn’t feel like a morbid or depressing thing, but it left me with the feeling that death is very much present in Cambodia. While the reign of the Khmer Rouge is over, that recent history and all that happened off the back of that regime’s time in power remains a tangible presence in the country and its people.

It was rare for us to speak to people who had been adults during that time, but we did have more opportunity to talk to people from our generation. Each had a substantial list of relatives who had been lost during that dark period. When they would share this information with us, it pretty consistently had an air of deep, inherited grief combined with total matter-of-factness and acceptance – an interesting combination.

I felt currents of this sort of energy – deep passion as well as fatigued resignation – in other interactions we had. For example with drivers and guides who would have the chance to make really good money for a week or two – if they were the lucky one that a tourist would pick to hire out of the dozens of men all jostling to offer the same service.

Something small that I noticed everywhere we went in the country was that to close an interaction with us, people wouldn’t say “Thank you” or “Have a nice day” but “Good luck for you!”.

In a country where death, poverty and lack of opportunity are accepted and expected, perhaps the best one can hope for is the rare and good fortune to escape these circumstances – or just the luck to be that one tuk tuk driver that bags the generous tourist who tips so well that he and his family can eat for a month.

Emotional hindsight

If I’d written this a month ago, that might be the note that I’d have ended on. Time and contrast can be useful things though and getting some distance from the intensity of Cambodia plus some perspective thanks to our experiences in Vietnam, the strong reactions and emotions I felt while in Cambodia are softening into a more steady gratitude and affection for the country and its people.

Though I went in with far fewer expectations and pre-conceptions about Vietnam, I had a much harder time to connect with people and places there. I’ll write more about that in a separate post, but that experience has certainly tempered the way I’m thinking about our time in Cambodia.

The beauty of the place and of the people we had the chance to meet runs deep. The interactions we had with people – once the business side was agreed upon – were open and heartfelt. When I was first living in Switzerland, I read somewhere that the Swiss are like coconuts – tough to crack but sweet once you get on the inside. Maybe Cambodians are like rambutan fruit; a bit spiky and rough but also beautiful and colorful and soft on the inside. 🙂

Travel notes

On a slightly different subject, the list of locations visited in Cambodia is relatively short, compared to other places we’ve been. We’re conscious that, as much as we’d often love to, we can’t spend infinite amounts of time in each country we visit. We decided to experiment, choosing fewer stops in Cambodia but hoping that having a bit of time in each would still allow us to get a good feel for the country. In the end the balance of our time got tipped towards Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Both places were fascinating, thought-provoking and clearly essential to any visit to Cambodia.

But I feel strongly that getting off the typical tourist spots and seeing Kratie, Kampong Chhnang and Battambang was equally vital. If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably try to spend even more time exploring towns and villages – although I’d also allow myself more than four days for Angkor as well. 🙂

Over all though, I think we managed to get a good mix into our month and a bit in Cambodia and I’m grateful for the chance to see all we did – even the less comfortable, more challenging parts.

One more random note – I stumbled upon a great blogger whose different perspectives on Cambodia were really interesting and helpful for me while were traveling there. Check her out if you want another perspective on the country. 🙂 http://summerinsea.wordpress.com/

Our Cambodia itinerary

June 20 Kratie Morhautdom Hotel
June 24 Phnom Penh Golden Gate Hotel
July 3 Kampong Chhnang Sovannphum Hotel
July 6 Battambang Royal Hotel
July 9 – 22 Siem Reap Angkor Pearl Hotel
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