Siem Reap, Cambodia - a place and the people close to my heart


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October 9th 2016
Published: October 9th 2016
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A trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia


Many have travelled in the past and appreciated the majesty of the Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, Banteay Kdei, Ta Promh in Cambodia, and many will visit in the future. The beauty of the temples and the history that goes with them will never fade away. But that is not my only intent of writing this blog. Sure, I would like to share with you my experience of visiting the Angkor Wat and its stunning view from the sky flying on a microlite, but that’s not the whole purpose of this blog. What amaze me are the people of Cambodia! The innocent smiles despite the poverty that envelops the country, the love and affection they share with the tourists, the easy going life style without any complain continue to amaze me. I have no idea how they gather their strength to give people such beautiful smiles after what they have endured in the killing fields of rural Cambodia. My story of Siem Reap will remain incomplete if I don’t tell about these people who embraced me with their love and affection and showed me their best hospitality during my short stay in Siem Reap. My travel to Siem Reap also taught me how one can preserve the self esteem although poverty has taken away all that matters to the material world.

****

The confusion started right from the time I landed in Siem Reap on an early morning flight from Kuala Lumpur. It’s 7:30 am and I was dying for a cup of coffee. I already have an e-visa, so it shouldn’t take much time for immigration and customs, I told myself. True, the line up was not much and the immigration didn’t take much time. I collected my luggage and walked toward the Customs. But where are the Customs guys? No trace! But I need to hand over the paper to the Customs people…and I better get that in record, otherwise I may be stopped on my way out. I looked around, still no trace. I asked the cell phone store just outside the Customs gate, he asked me to check outside the terminal building. “Outside? You must be joking! How the hell do I go outside without checking with the Customs?” The lady smiled and gestured me out. I went outside and finally I tracked the Customs guy having a cup of tea by the road side stall. I handed him the Customs paper. He smiled and kept the paper in his pocket. In broken English, he said “it’s ok…it’s not a big deal.” I took a deep breath, - yes, I’m in Cambodia. The standard norms of the western world are obsolete here, - “Imagine, there is no country!”

****

My tuktuk was waiting across the road. The well dressed driver is just a kid and he greeted me with a grin like the morning sun. By that time, I have forgotten my desire for a hot cup of coffee that I am used to! The simplicity of life and friendliness has slowly started to creep in me. I started realizing that the cosmetic and habitual greetings that I grew up with in the western world are not the norm here. The warmth here comes from the bottom of the heart.

It’s around 8:30 am when my tuktuk arrived at the hotel entrance. It’s a notch higher than a budget hotel and no fancy decorum in the hotel lobby. But the hotel desk is active with tourists coming in and out. A young boy came to my rescue with some fruits and a coconut drink. Usually one doesn’t get a room while checking in that early in the morning. I knew that. The boy looked at me, “You look tired,” he said. Of course I was. I hardly had any sleep last night in Kuala Lumpur. The boy took me to the front desk and told the girl in reception that I need to rest. She checked in the computer and with a lovely smile she arranged me a temporary room to go and sleep. “We do the paperwork later, first you go and sleep, we will wake you up at 11am am when your room is ready,” the girl said. I travel a lot in North America due to my work, and I depart and arrive in odd hours. Never, ever was I offered such a facility in any hotel?

“Are you sure?” I was hesitating

“Yes, I am sure. In Cambodia, we make sure our guests don’t suffer. You are no exception,” the girl said. I was touched. I stayed there for two nights only. And soon I became the part of the hotel family.

*****

Vesna was my tour guide for the Angkor Wat and the other ruins. He was waiting in the front lobby the next morning when I entered there at 4:30 am.

“We have to leave, otherwise we will be late.” Vesna was visibly worried.

“Relax, we will make it,” I said and hopped in the car.

Vesna made sure I get the perfect spot for the photo-op of the Angkor Wat at sunrise. He was with me for the whole day and we had such a wonderful time discussing the history and civilization of bygone days of a region where the influx of Buddhism and Hindu religion left their mark more than thousand years ago. Siem Reap became the melting pot of these two great religions and the testimony of that is everywhere. Some of the sculptures in Angkor Wat carry the tale-tell signs of the fusion of these two religions and unless one is familiar with some of the practices of these two religions, it is easy to overlook the blend. Vesna spend the day with me not as my tour guide, but as a true friend. He was not doing this job just to narrate some standard gospel about the architectures; he sincerely wanted me to absorb the history so that we could have a meaningful conversation. Yet, he was mindful during the entire time that I don’t go thirsty or hungry and I don’t get burnt in the tropical heat. You come across such people not that frequently in this selfish world who go beyond the call of duty with their sincerity and friendship. I kept in touch with Vesna for a while, and now it has become irregular.

*****

“Where can I get the authentic Khmer dish ‘amok’?” I asked the front desk girl.

“Oh, just walk ten-fifteen minutes to the Night Market, you will find plenty of restaurants serving that. Or shall I call a tuktuk?” she was sincere.

I smiled, “not really, I can walk…not a problem at all.” And that was a walk I will probably remember for the rest of my life.

I was crossing a road near a small grassy island when I saw a homeless lady sitting on the edge of the island, near the lamppost. A small baby was sleeping on her lap and she was also falling asleep while holding her baby. She was facing her back to the road, oblivious to the outside world that is passing by. She has nothing to offer to the world, and she was not interested either. The world has deserted her and she has also accepted the verdict. Only the little child is all she has. This little spot is her resting place, her solitude for the night. She will probably spend the rest of her night under the lamp post, crouching and dozing off holding the baby. What touched my heart is that poverty could not take away the self-esteem; she was not interested in begging and she was facing her back to the world. Not sure whether she or her child had any food throughout the day. All she wanted a little bit of peace, a little bit of quietness in her life for the night. And there I was going to the night market to blow away some dollars to taste the authentic Khmer cuisine! I couldn’t walk any further. I squatted beside her and slowly touched her forearm; she shivered and she was startled. I gestured her to calm down and I gave her few dollars from my pocket. In Cambodia, even a couple of dollars go a long way. Her eyes widened beyond belief, her mouth opened; she couldn’t believe she owns those few dollars herself; she probably would be able to buy some food for her child and herself that night or the next day! My eyes welled several times that night. And still it does whenever I think of her. Sometimes I want to scream, - bring me some social justice in this world…please!

*****

Before I came to Siem Reap, I booked a microlite flight to view Angkor Wat from the sky. I was to fly the next morning from an obscure airstrip and I was told to report at 5:30 am. I asked the front desk to arrange a tuktuk for me.

“To the airport?” the girl asked

“No, it’s not an airport, it’s a small airstrip…somewhere close to the town I was told.”

The girl didn’t know where it was. She asked others, they didn’t know. They called the Manager; she came to the front desk, and they all huddled and discussed. I was patiently waiting for the verdict on tuktuk. Yes, the Manager read the final verdict, “You are not going there tomorrow.”

“Whaaat? What do you mean?”

“We can’t let you go there alone that early in the morning…it’s a very desolate place.”

OMG, is she my mother?

“No, I’m going there tomorrow morning alright. All I am asking you to reserve a tuktuk for me, please”. And they all tried to convince me not to go, but I was stubborn; I will fly come rain or shine, damn it! Finally, they booked me a tuktuk and I went out for dinner. Once I came back to the hotel, one girl came running to me,

“We cancelled the tuktuk,” she was apologetic.

“Whaaat ?” it was now getting on my nerve.

“Trust us, that guy didn’t know well how to go there. We are trying to contact another guy who knows the place. Our manager is on the constant phone since you left.”

My trusted tuktuk driver came that night and he slept inside the tuktuk in front of the hotel to ferry me in and out of the airstrip the next morning. I don’t know how people can be so sincere and passionate for the well-being of a complete stranger like me! Are these people from this planet? Live and learn, Tab, live and learn!

I have travelled to many of the South East Asian countries. I always say that a place is characterized by its people, and not the place by itself. The friendship, love, affection and sincerity that I have received from the people in all these countries are unparalleled. They continue to amaze me and I will travel there again and again. The off-the-beaten rural paths could be dusty, but the people are gold. Many don’t have much for living, but their biggest wealth is their warm heart. Many became my good friends and I hope to have many more in the future. I’ll love to share their story with you some day.


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9th October 2016

The land of smiles
I can feel your heart in your blog Tab. It is indeed humbling to be the recipient of the open hearts of people in Cambodia and hearing the stories of their lives. How could so many have their families killed and uprooted by the Khmer Rouge and be so accepting of their lot with smiles and generosity no matter their economic situation. Cambodia certainly challenged my perceptions and countered my conceptions. Your blog brings me back to our time with our guide in Siem Reap who had supported and cared for his family since he was 9 and notwithstanding he had no TV or computer at home, researched Australia each evening so he could understand and connect with us better. Very humbling indeed.
9th October 2016

The land of smiles
Your caption is so appropriate, Dave - indeed it's a land of smiles. It sure challenges the perception how the have-nots of this world gather their lives together rising from the ruins and face the world with lovely smiles. It brings back my faith in humanity despite the fact that war still persists in so many parts of this world,- a beacon of hope still lights up in other parts. I really appreciate your comment, Dave!
12th October 2016
P032-2

The humanity of travel
Priceless
12th October 2016

The amazing people of Cambodia
So good to read your work again. A harsh history develops strong and kind people. We enjoyed this part of the world and it was great reading your impressions. Sunrise and sunset are so amazing in this location.
12th October 2016

The amazing people of Cambodia & The humanity of travel
Dave and Merry, Thank you so much for your comments...means a lot to me. You are so right, harsh history develops strong and kind people indeed. The people there really touched my heart. I still think about the homeless lady....I wonder how she is doing today with her child. I still can see her face when I close my eyes...a look of disbelief when she saw the few dollars I gave it to her. We have so much here, but we complain so much! I haven't forgotten your request of writing a blog about my experience in delta of mangrove forest. That will be the next. Actually, last month I had an encounter with a bear as well. I will narrate this with some of the experiences of my dad who lived and breathed in the green forests due to his work. I am also taking your advice of taking swimming lessons. Not doing so well though. I am heading out to Indonesia end of November and I would like to learn some at least. I am trying!!!

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