Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Profiles in Transit: Pau Thom

Siem Reap, Cambodia
"Hey lady, where you from?" echoed off the buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway as I turned down it and two boys no more than ten years old fell into step with me. Used to the rhythm of this exchange after two days in Siem Reap, I said "The U.S. - California" and kept walking, knowing they'd keep pace.

Sure enough, the boy who'd greeted me rattled off President Obama's name, the U.S. and California capital cities, (former) Governor Schwarzeneggar's name and even a couple of quotes from the Terminator movies. I laughed and kept walking.

"Hey lady, I remember you, I talked to you yesterday!" the boy said, unexpectedly. I stopped and looked at him, then smiled. "You're right, I remember you too!"

"So today you buy my postcards, eh? Yesterday no, but today yes?" I looked at the cards but realized I had bought the same set the day before outside Angkor Wat's Ta Prohm, from a girl no more than five years old who broke my heart when she said she hoped I would buy her postcards because she wanted to go to school.

"I'm sorry, I already have these ones," I said, feeling regretful and wondering if I should buy a second set - I genuinely liked this kid.

After a brief pause, he said, "I'm still hungry today, maybe you could buy me some food instead?" My heart cracked again and, after my own brief pause to consider the idea, I said, "Sure, what do you want to eat?"

"This way, I'll show you," he said, leading me down another alley and making me momentarily consider the potential folly of following a stranger - even a friendly, juvenile one - through the streets of a Southeast Asian city I didn't know particularly well.

"My name is Pau Thom," he said, practically skipping as his friend and I walked alongside, "what's yours?"

"Jessalyn," I answered, pronouncing it slowly.

The Siem Reap alleyway Pau led me down
(which, consequently, I'd taken a photo of an
hour earlier) in search of his favorite chicken amok.
"Jessalyn," he repeated (more accurately than most Americans, to be honest) "Okay, now I remember your name and we can play! I remember you when you go back to California."

I laughed and restrained the urge to rumple his hair as I would have done to my niece. "And I'll remember you whenever I think about Siem Reap."

We grinned at each other as we crossed a street and approached a small restaurant with tarps pieced together serving as a roof and a plastic-coated menu sitting on a rickety pedestal outside. Pau flipped through it, then pointed to a chicken amok dish. "That's what I want to eat."

"Okay," I said and asked the waitress to bring him an order of the dish, along with a Coke when he said that was what he wanted to drink. Pau's friend slipped away before I could ask what he wanted, but Pau got settled at a table and I paid the waitress for his meal (which cost all of $3.00, U.S.). He looked small and more than a little lost at the four-person table by himself, completely out of his element - happy about it in some ways, since he was clearly hungry, but not quite sure what to do with himself while he waited for his meal. I wanted to sit and keep him company but was already past the time I should have been heading back to my guesthouse to finish packing and head to the airport, so instead I told him I had to leave. He gave me his crooked, sunny smile and waved, "Bye, Jessalyn-California!"

I smiled and waved back, murmuring "Bye Pau," knowing I was leaving a little piece of my heart behind as I walked away, but glad to carry the memory of that crooked smile and sunny disposition with me as I moved on.

There are hundreds of children in the same position as Pau on the streets of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, not to mention thousands throughout the rest of Cambodia. Some of them are bitter after years of watching foreigners come and go who are never hungry and don't lack for anything; most of them are resigned; and some of them, like Pau, are cheerful despite the hardships they face and, whether they know it or not, bring smiles to the faces of the people they interact with every day. Some people may question my decision to buy Pau a meal and that's fine - for me, it was a way to help that didn't involve simply handing over money (which, once I'd declined to buy his postcards, he didn't ask for anyway), since that's something I try not to do. Pau made my day significantly brighter and I hope that I was able to do the same for him in some measure.

My one regret is that I didn't get a picture of that cheerful, charmingly crooked smile of his. I'm still painfully shy when it comes to asking people I meet while traveling if I can take their picture and, while it doesn't affect my memories, it does have an impact on the degree to which I can share those memories with you. Hopefully by the next time I meet someone like Pau, I'll have overcome my shyness enough to ask if I can take a quick snapshot to remember them by.

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.