Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Whirlwind Romance in Cambodia

I didn't expect to fall in love during my not quite three days in Cambodia. I planned to see what I could of Angkor Wat in such a short time, browse some local markets and head on to Chiang Mai with no regrets. But then my flight from Bangkok started its descent, I caught my first glimpse of the Cambodian countryside and my grasp on my no-nonsense, let's-see-the-sights-and-move-on mentality slipped. Why didn't anyone tell me Cambodia's beautiful? I wondered. Variations on that same thought played through my mind on repeat every moment I was there and long after my feet had left Cambodian soil.

My first glimpses of Siem Reap were full of
dust and intense heat from the back of a
tuk-tuk - and were absolutely enchanting.
The tuk-tuk ride from Siem Reap International Airport to my guesthouse was windy, dusty and brutally hot - and I loved every moment of it. I couldn't stop the smile that kept stealing over my face as I looked around, watching the motorbikes that zipped past, the farmers working in fields and rice paddies near the road and the multi-colored houses and shops that lined the streets. Most of the big hotels looked ridiculously out of place - I've never been more pleased that my budget doesn't run to luxury accommodation.

Mr. Thorn, my tuk-tuk driver, pulled up in front of a pretty, peach-colored building and I walked into the charm of Hotel 89's lobby.

After arranging for my visit to Angkor Wat the next day with the front desk, then making myself at home in a room that was comfortable and welcoming (and air-conditioned!) at only USD $15 per night, I wandered toward Pub Street and the center of Siem Reap.

The quality of light in Cambodia is unlike anything I've seen
anywhere else in the world, and it adds to the lush beauty of
the countryside in a way that's completely captivating.
With every step, I was more enchanted. I'd never before been in a place where all of the action on the street seemed to take place so completely at the same level. Sure, I was (sometimes) on a sidewalk, but motorbike drivers grinned at me as they went flying past my elbow, local occupants of tuk-tuks looked at me with curiosity and the cars quickly made it clear that the idea of pedestrian right-of-way definitely does not exist in Siem Reap and that if I wanted to cross, I had better saunter partway (and not at an intersection - who uses those?), wait in the middle of the street for them to drive past and then continue on my way, like everyone else.

After a souvenir stop at fair trade merchant Rajana and a dinner of delicious tofu amok and Angkor Beer at Pub Street's Le Tigre du Papier, I wound my way back through town, sharing a stricken look and then a laugh with a moto driver who happened to speed past just as I was catching my balance after tripping over a crack in the sidewalk.

Angkor is a vast subject unto itself (and will have its own post somewhere down the road!), but I can tell you that I loved it and that it only deepened my appreciation for the region and the Cambodian people.

Life in Cambodia may not be easy, but it's
as vibrant as its street traffic.
I don't want to give the impression that Siem Reap is all rainbows and butterflies - it's very far from it. Landmine victims hobble down the street on what's left of their legs, begging for money or food; children who should be in school fall into step with you, asking where you're from and repeating a litany of facts they've had drilled into them about your country or state, trying to convince you to buy a set of postcards; both poor standards of living and abject poverty are evident everywhere you look.

But the strength of spirit of the Cambodian people is equally evident. They may have nothing more to offer than a smile and a joke, but they're unfailingly generous with those. Their sunny cheer, as they call out "Hey lay-dee, need a tuk-tuk?" from across the street or offer directions when you're looking particularly lost, is incomparable and blends with their country's mesmerizing quality of light and colorful culture to form a national charm that's impossible to hold out against.

I flew into Cambodia expecting a couple days' worth of history lessons. I flew out with an entirely unanticipated love of the country and deep respect for its people that will keep me ready to jump at any chance to go back.


Heather said...

I love when a new place can capture your heart when you least expect it! Sitting here smiling for you :-)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Heather! :-)