I’m laying on the grass in front of the river while the sun sets behind the old market in Siem Reap. The sky bleeds from opaque coral into soft lilac, subtly entrancing me with its beauty. Motorbike exhaust perfumes the air and tuk tuk drivers incessantly solicit passersby. Local men impressively kick a hacky sack in a four square while tourist hippies juggle their own crocheted spheres.
Families sit on the bridge, taking a break from selling fake jewelry or Buddha singlets, eating bowls of noodles or ice cream in waffle cones. Impoverished barefoot children stand beside me and stare at my journal as I write. They collect empty water bottles from garbage bins and tourists walking by.
The fact that all of this seems normal both eases and alarms me. It may have taken six months, but Southeast is finally beginning to feel like home.
Four months ago I entered Cambodia for the first time, crossing overland at the Koh Kong border. After traveling from one hectic city to the next in Vietnam and Thailand, I felt drained and questioned whether I would ever find a place in Southeast Asia that could move me the way that Costa Rica had.
But as we churned the potholed road into clouds of terracotta dust, I looked out at the vast green countryside and immediately knew that I was somewhere very special. I hadn’t seen such a raw landscape since I left Latin America and its rugged beauty tugged at my heart.
When I reached Sihanoukville a few hours later, I became intrigued by the seedy energy that permeated even in such a developed touristic town. I walked in disoriented wonder along the shore past the plastic bottles floating in the surf while touts shouted specials to me from BBQ beach bars and young Khmer children set off fireworks into the horizon.
The next morning, when my ferry approached the wooden houses and the aqua shoreline on the jungle covered island of Koh Rong, I laughed in disbelief that such a place even existed.
By the time I arrived in Phnom Penh, nibbling on crispy daikon cakes, receiving hellos and beaming smiles from flocks of uniformed school children, and watching old women perform dance aerobics on the river, I had fallen in love.
Unfortunately, my heart already belonged to someone else.
It may have been love at first sight when I drove into Cambodia in the back of a van with plastic woven handbags full of chickens, but it was love at first smile when I sat with my mango shake across the table from the tattooed scouser on Rambuttri Road in Bangkok.
So I left Cambodia weeks earlier than I intended and I flew to Bali to see him before he diverged on a path that vastly differed from mine. If you’ve been reading for a while, you already know how our reunion went.
When he left I wondered if I made a mistake leaving what could have been lasting love with Cambodia for fleeting infatuation with an unavailable man. I knew he and I had no future. I wondered if I would get another chance with Cambodia.
Since meeting this man I became increasingly confused about who I was and what I wanted for my life. I was mentally distracted by emotions I buried for years and working and blogging took a backburner. Consequently, my finances reached an all time low. At one point I had less than $50 to my name.
While seeing him again confirmed that he was undoubtedly not the man for me, I now felt emptiness in the space he once occupied. I pined for someone I wasn’t even sure if I liked. I wondered if the centered, mature woman I grew into was simply an illusion, easily disrupted the moment I let my guard down.
December was a hard month.
But out of this struggle I noticed a positive shift in myself.
Running out of money motivated me to hustle; building more contacts and securing more work. Slowly my financial situation improved and travel felt possible again.
Being broken hearted showed me that even in pain I preferred to feel than to live behind walls. I began connecting more with the people around me instead of shutting them out.
Reverting to the anxious, insecure character from my past reminded me of the practices I began that changed my life in the first place. I began exercising again, giving myself Reiki, shifting my thoughts to positive ones, and taking more adventures. Finally, for the first time on this trip I felt centered.
When the time came for me to return to Cambodia, after two months of emotional work in Indonesia, and one managing work life balance in Thailand, I knew I was entering this time in a much better place.
It took me thirty hours between three buses, two minivans, one ferry and a corrupt border crossing to come back here, but I didn’t mind.
Even when the tour operator shuttled me into a bus that sat stationary in the blazing heat for an hour while he convinced tourists to pay for an air-conditioned taxi, an organized scam notorious among travelers, I smiled and said “pura vida”.
I’ve come to expect corruption in this fascinatingly complex country. It’s the first impression most foreigners have of Cambodia, from the moment they reach the border and officials begin demanding inflated visa fees.
But the more time I spend here in Siem Reap, the darker what I observe appears.
I read that Cambodia is considered the worst performing country in all of Southeast Asia with respect to corruption and one of the worst performing in the entire world. Half of the nation’s budget comes from international aid, yet the government leases massive amounts of land to outside investors. Meanwhile much of the population struggles to simply feed themselves. It appears that the rich simply get richer and the poor… well you know.
In Siem Reap I see poverty on every corner. I see families beg tourists for money beside the glittering lights of elegant restaurants and five star resorts. Children patrol the streets, barefoot, collecting plastic water bottles.
I hear tuk tuk drivers lure traveling men with promises of women and can’t help but remember that one in forty girls in Cambodia, some as young as five, will be sold into sex trade. Beside the trinket stalls and massage parlors in the markets, disabled land mine victims play music for money. Apparently over five million land mines still litter the country.
Just four decades ago the Khmer Rouge forced citizens out of Siem Reap, Battambang, and Phnom Penh and sent them to rural villages to starve. A third of the population perished and nearly every teacher, artist, poet, philosopher, and intellectual was exterminated. Today two thirds of nationals are under the age of 30 and literacy rates are low by Southeast Asia standards.
Cambodia’s tragic past appears to live on in its corrupt present.
Yet in this country where it seems so easy to fixate on the scars of the past, I also find myself witnessing hope for a better future.
Young adults working in shops and restaurants in the cities put first world customer service to shame. Talented performers floor an audience with acrobatics, some even go on to perform for Cirque de Soleil. A former Khmer Rouge soldier leads efforts to remove landmines across the country and raises orphaned children in his home. Past victims of sex tourism create education centers for women and publish their stories on an international scale. Galleries hang paintings done by rural village children depicting joy and light with vibrant colors and smiling faces.
Many people here seem happy.
Nearly every foreign owned business in Siem Reap claims to fund and operate a charity or education center striving to bring greater opportunity to underprivileged Khmers. Businesses train orphans and impoverished youth in anything from hospitality to circus performance and non-profit English schools are everywhere. Volunteers come from all over the world to teach English to children in NGOs, though even the nonprofits enjoy their fair share of corruption.
I do not know what the future holds for Cambodia, nor when they might bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. I don’t pretend to have a solution or even an idea how I can help. What I do know is that the humble tenacity of these people would inspire even the most apathetic minds and the sincerity in their smiles would melt even the coldest hearts.
So I’m using my second chance here in Cambodia
to at least try to understand theirs.