After settling down a bit in Phnom Penh, the city became familiar. It was more developed than I had imagined, and the people were the friendliest I had ever encountered- especially if you know a few words of Khmer! My vocabulary was expanding- numbers 1-10, "Hello", "Goodbye", "Little Brother", "Big Sister", "Big Man", "how much", "I have", "left", "right"... With the major attractions from my sister's itinerary out of the way, events Off The Beaten Track were all that was left.
This included a trip to the city dumps, where the hardest working people in the world endure the worst of conditions to make something from nothing. My sister brought 15 or so vitamin fortified fruit drinks to give to the children, while I was armed with bags of candy. After a 15 minute drive through town, the tuk-tuk pulled off on a side street. Slowly but surely more trash appeared and the smell became worse. Dwellings disappeared and the road started to disintegrate. This is where the tuk-tuk driver would wait for us as we continued on foot to the mountain of trash.
It was a bit strange, because anywhere else in the world I might be fearing
for my safety. But Cambodian people are so friendly that even venturing out into a landfill to see unimaginable conditions of poverty felt perfectly safe. Smiling and barefoot kids run towards us on the makeshift road, fashioned from 3 meter wide sharp strips of metal placed end to end. Small fires are everywhere, choking our lungs. Undoubtedly the smoke is filled with the carcinogen Dioxin, which is created from the burning of plastics. The Landfill, which was more of an open pit, was at least a few km in area. Soon the road began to cut its way through the heaps of filth, wish trash embankments a meter high. My sister passed out the nutrient laced drinks which would hopefully give them a head start to better health, while I passed out candy which gives immediate pleasure while slowly rotting the teeth.
I was feeling more privileged than ever for Christmas Eve. My sister had arranged a river boat ride along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Phnom Penh sits at the grand junction between the two, and since I have never really been around large rivers growing up I was very impressed at their size! The water was
moving fast, filled with leaves, branches and mud. The boat next door was blasting Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls(suicidal, suicidal)"- which I thought was a bit odd until I heard it later in Thailand and Taiwan as well. The sun set over the Phnom Penh skyline as we enjoyed snacks and drinks with her friends and coworkers.
I went from cultivating Christmas nostalgia with a heavy dose of animated children's classics, chilly winter weather and Christmas songs to tropical heat and Cambodian karaoke videos. A week ago I was sad to leave the Christmas spirit in the States to travel halfway around the world, but there was no place I would have rather been then spending Christmas eve on a sunset river boat tour with my sister and brother and law in Cambodia. I was able to experience their lives there instead of just hearing stories, seeing pictures and using my vivid imagination. The sights, smells and experiences I had drew no parallel to my expectations- and for this I was grateful that someone in our family could experience a taste of life in Cambodia. Phnom Penh is an incredibly friendly and unique place, unspoiled by the ravages of heavy
development that eventually takes its toll on every major city in this rapidly shrinking global village. An extended trip to Phnom Penh is surely off the beaten track!
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