The original title for this post was “You had me at croissant,” but on reflection, it didn’t seem right to correlate my affection for this country to a baked good, especially one that’s a legacy of French colonialism. Nevertheless, if you stick with me, I’ll explain my flakey pastry quip in a few paragraphs.
But back to my crush on Cambodia. I am really and truly enamored with this incredible nation and its people, despite the heat, the humidity and the fact that I have received more bites from my nemesis (the mosquito) while here than in my entire two months in Malaysia. So enamored that I even bought an “I heart” Cambodia t-shirt, despite being heard to say, “Why does anyone buy those silly tourist shirts?” in every other place we’ve visited. I think that’s called comeuppance.
How do I love Cambodia? Let me count the ways.
1. First and foremost – the people. Despite the shadow cast by a devastating genocide nearly four decades ago, and the crushing reality of poverty for a large percentage of Cambodians, they are universally kind and friendly. It’s like receiving a warm embrace from a nation. Hard to put into words. We have a lot to learn about resilience, simplicity, faith and gratitude here.
2. Cambodians adore children. Love them. No, not just love them: L.O.V.E. them. When you travel with young children, you are aware that not everyone finds children cute and amusing. Here, they do. Without exception. Of course, so did a rather enthusiastic Chinese tourist at Angkor Thom, who caught one glimpse of Meskie and Cen, wrapped her arms around them and motioned to her husband to snap pictures. I tell you, these kids are showing up in various photo albums around the globe.
3. The tuk tuks. That’s how we (and pretty much all tourists – and even locals) get around. They are everywhere – a veritable sea of tuk tuks. The official term for the motorbikes with carriages is a remork, but they will always be tuk tuks to me. How fun is it to travel around in an open-air carriage, taking in the multi-sensory experience that is Phnom Pehn or Siem Reap?
Don’t get me wrong – it can be terrifying at times, like when it’s torrentially raining, your driver is cutting up the middle of a road, a bus is zooming by within inches on one side, while an open air truck is riding shotgun on the other. But we have confidence in our driver here. Which brings me to…
4. Sokaa, the calm, gracious and warm driver assigned to us by our hotel in Siem Reap. He takes us wherever we want to go with a smile on his face and watches out for our return. When we emerge from a tour of a temple, drenched in sweat and exhausted, or step out onto a busy street after dinner, it makes me so happy to see him waving us down. This man has an eagle eye and a heart of gold. We heart Sokaa.
5. The temples. These should be on everyone’s bucket list. They are quite simply awe-inspiring. The scale. The artistry. If there was ever a testament to the ingenuity and vision of humanity, it’s Angkor Wat. In contrast, Ta Prohm is a reminder of the ultimate power of nature, bringing to mind Shelley’s famous Ozymandias poem, where the mighty works (and words) of a once-powerful king are decayed and overrun by the desert sands. No desert here; just vines and trees reclaiming the stones of an ancient palace. And that’s just two of amazing sites found in Angkor Archaeological Park – a 400 square km area that contains the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including Angkor Thom, the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
6. The food. Not just Khmer food, but the variety and quality of culinary choices. We’ve enjoyed delicious curries, seafood, pizza, enchiladas, panini, salads, smoothies and the list goes on. Karl horrified the rest of us when he chose to BBQ his own crocodile, kangaroo and ostrich meat at our restaurant table one night. He may up the ante to a deep fried tarantula… this may explain the kids’ sudden interest in vegetarianism (more on that in another post).
7. The beer. $3 USD per pitcher. 50 cent happy hour. Free beer with a massage. Need we say more?
8. The artistry. As the Lonely Planet guide says, “Siem Reap is the epicentre of the drive to revitalize Cambodian traditional culture.” We have been fortunate to visit a silk farm and several craft training centres/workshops, where villagers (some with hearing and other impairments) are taught to create beautiful sculptures, paintings, intricate silk products, soaps, candles and more. Wonderful guides have walked us through, step-by-step, the production process in the various arts, and answered the kids’ questions thoroughly (Fellow homeschooling parents: can’t you just see me ticking off those learning outcomes in glee?)
We also saw a wonderful acrobat/musical show last night, featuring former street kids who have been given a chance at a better life by receiving training in gymnastics, music and the arts. Their talent is staggering, and it’s a little more than heartbreaking to realize how little these artists are compensated for their gifts.
9. Cheap massages. I haven’t had one, but the kids have, and I have suggested they not become accustomed to the bliss. A 30 minute massage? $3 USD. Yup, $3.
10. The bus with croissants … told you I would eventually bore you with my baked-goods tale – otherwise known as the moment when I started telling anyone who would listen, “I love this country.” I know I covered food in #6, but this tale is about so much more than bread. If you’ve been reading the blog, you may recall our Borneo bus-ride-from hell. There have also been train rides from hell, but let’s stick with buses for now.
Needless to say, I had become jaded and wary of this particular form of long distance ground transport. But then I stepped foot on a Cambodian bus – the Giant Ibis bus, to be precise. I won’t say a choir of angels sang, but when the lovely bus guide picked up his microphone to announce the itinerary (What? There’s a detailed timeline with planned stops and someone’s ensuring we are apprised of our progress throughout the journey?!), and then casually mentioned that he would be coming around with croissants and water for all aboard, I may have teared up just a little. And they were damn fine croissants, let me assure you.
But wait, there’s more. The washrooms at our first stop were clean and had soap. The lunch stop was lovely and the food delicious. When we resumed our journey, our ever-reliable and affable guide, who received rounds of applause every time he spoke (I kid you not; our fellow travelers obviously had “survived bus-ride-from-hell” on their travel resume as well), took to the mic to advise of the afternoon schedule. He then proceeded to come around with cold, damp cloths (again, not kidding). At this point I may have fallen in love (platonic of course). And best of all – we arrived not just on time, but 15 minutes early!! Our previous best time was 2 hours late.
Delicious bread products? Refreshing water? Ice-cold cloths? Informative guide? Punctual? Love this country.
Of course we’re taking a 10-hour, 2-bus trip ride to Sen Monorom in two days (starting off at, gasp, 4:30am), so my newfound love of buses may be put to the test. Not my love for this country, though!