Cambodia, Country of Mosts
Cambodia is in a perpetual state of mood swings. It’s an up-and-down sort of place that teases away any sense of normalcy with its extremes. After traveling through Cambodia last month I fail to find a pretty paper box to wrap it up in. Just when you want to call it beautiful, it hurls a city slum at you. Just when you think it’s relaxing, a tuk-tuk plows you over. The only simple way I can sum up Cambodia is to say that it is a country of “most”; the most exotic, the most poor, the most opulent far past, the most horrific recent history, the most gracious people, the most heart-breaking stories. Cambodia manages to win most categories for most good and most bad.
After our 14-hour bus ride from Saigon to Siem Reap, I was feeling perhaps the most grumpy I ever have. But after a good night’s sleep in one of the most comfy hotels I’ve stayed in, JD and I were ready to jump and jive with Cambodia. We put off seeing the notorious Angkor complex to first view some of the less famous temples here, there and everywhere around Siem Reap. We wandered in a baseball-to-the-head-like daze, complete with open mouths and stupid faces. Everywhere was Ornate in her finest slippers. Even the balustrade was meticulously carved. Each inch of wall was an opportunity seized to celebrate art, celebrate religion and, quite frankly, to show off. Sunset at Angkor Wat sealed the deal and left me somewhere between now and the twelfth century.
After that things along the Tourist Trail only got better. We did everything we’d come to do, but found we still wanted more. Sunrise at Angkor Wat where we mentally blocked out the thousand other tourists? Check. Tomb Raider tree temple? Check. Monks in orange robes peaking out poetically from ancient doorways? Check. The Chinese tour buses left satisfied, while we readied ourselves for the next phase of the adventure like greedy monkeys.
There were more definable items to add to our Done It list. There was the Landmine Museum, the fish/foot massage and downtown Siem Reap. In Phnom Penh there was S-21 and the Killing Fields, (which we accidentally and creepily visited on Halloween). There was the walk along the Mekong River, and the documentaries of Pol Pot we watched alongside every other tourist to ever visit Phnom Penh. The experiences ranged from the most interesting to the most startling.
Then there were the other parts of Cambodia I met, which I struggle to so nicely put commas in between. There was the poverty. Everywhere, always, except when we would inexplicably find ourselves in a restaurant far fancier than anything back home. There were beggars, land mine victims and dirty babies that made me feel sad, fortunate and uncomfortable all in one strange sandwich wrapped in guilt. There were tuk tuk drivers and hotel attendants whose niceness went beyond Tip Me and teetered dangerously on Sincere. There were fellow bar patrons from across the country, keen to hear our stories rather than tell their own – and one funny little girl who entertained us while she slaughtered her pet worm by making him dance, before convincing us to buy ugly string bracelets we didn’t need. There was the progress(ish). Each block of the cities seemed to alternate between buildings being developed, and buildings entirely forgotten. Worn stone carvings were timeless but also boring against bright Happy Hour signs. There was the general chaos. Rush hour was a mix of scooters, tuk tuks, the odd Range Rover and farm trucks stuffed with too many people in awkward positions. Again and again Cambodia refused to give us a concrete definition.
We ended our time in Cambodia sad that it was time to go, relieved that it was time to go and still confused. My first trip there leaves me with more questions than answers, and a profound want to learn more. Is this a place with the most hope for the future, or the most despair? Is this a country to be described as the most beautiful or the most wretched?
Above all Cambodia is a place with the most still left to be discovered.