Cambodia with Soul

According to our friend Maryann, who lives and works in Cambodia, most visitors to Cambodia stay for only three days. They jet in from the more popular locations in the area—Thailand or Vietnam for instance—, marvel at the wonder that is Angkor Wat, and then promptly exit. At first, I felt like I could understand why. Though Angkor is amazing, I found Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia, to be soulless. I felt like the extent of my interaction with locals was limited to “No, I don’t need a tuk-tuk. No I don’t want to buy 20 postcards for $1. No I don’t have a need for a silk scarf.” No one wanted to just interact with us; they wanted to sell us stuff. And while many tourists love Siem Reap for its countless comforts—Pub Street with its 50 cent beers, restaurant after restaurant serving good Western food, and abundant wi-fi—it felt sterile to me, as if I could be in any country, any where.

But then we ventured down (via a very long boat ride) to the town of Battambang, officially Cambodia’s second largest city, but what felt like a rural village. As we walked along the river, through the market, and up and down the streets of the very compact city, locals would stop and smile at us. They’d ask where we were from and then not follow it up with “Capitol: Washington, DC; President: Barack Obama; Buy my postcards.” The children would yell out hello and giggle contagiously when we returned their greeting, wanting nothing more than a wave from the strange white people walking past their homes. The market sold a few souvenir-type items, but for the most part it sold what locals needed for their everyday life, and it wasn’t spiffed up and polished with a fancy bar in the middle for foreigners who might need a cocktail as they browse. This was authentic Cambodia, and we liked it.

So we dove in deeper, hiring a tuk-tuk and a driver (who called himself Nick to foreign tourists, but whose actual name was Sambath) to venture into the countryside. Our itinerary was anchored around sights—caves that had once been used for theatre productions but had been hijacked by the Khmer Rouge for the killing of enemies, mountain-top pagodas, Angkor-style temples, and a ride on the bamboo train—but what we most enjoyed was the insight into regular, everyday life in Cambodia.

We witnessed a kid get a haircut under a tree in his front yard, right next to a pond full of blooming lotus. We watched a man plow his field the old-fashioned way.

We observed workers stooped over in a field picking and transplanting rice.

We marveled at the family herding ducks.

We waved to little boys running around without a bit of clothing and little girls wearing nothing but skirts. We passed bicycles laden down with more kids than you would think possible and entire families on motorbikes.

We stopped for petrol at a stand on the side of a road, where the bright yellow, red, and green fuel was sold from used soda bottles. We paused at a pagoda and witnessed the funeral of a monk and talked to another monk who was anxious to practice his English and learn about us and our travels. A monk for 18 years, he was well-educated and spoke many languages, but had never ventured out of Cambodia, and he giggled nervously throughout our conversation. Later, as we climbed up to the temple of Wat Banan, we met another monk, who happened to be our driver Nick’s brother.

At the end of the day, as we flew down the tracks of the bamboo train–a strange platform contraption invented by locals to move items from village to village by way of the existing rail lines–passing rice paddies shimmering in the setting sun and laughing village children, we realized just what people miss when they only stay in Cambodia for three days. It’s not lost time at the temples, exploring their intricacies; it’s time with the people of Cambodia, who, despite a haunting recent history, have bright eyes, dazzling smiles, warm hearts, and so much to offer if you only have the time.