CHAPTER SIX

THE FIRST SMILE

Cambodia

The plains and villages we cross are something new, and at first sight Cambodia seems rather raw, ‘untouched.’ The golden glow of sunlight flirts with the pale greens of dry vegetation here


“Wait here!! And you don’t ask me questions.”
“Erm. Ok.’
“Now, those people over there only paid for transportation. They did not want the visa processing by my agency so they can sort it out themselves… The bus will not wait.”

I am ushered through the Cambodian border in the same fashion I have been boarded into buses and trains when I explored the country I am now leaving: handled like livestock, more or less. Only this time, I am dealing with a real character. Sixty-ish year old Marie-Rose is almost comical. She carries her purse close under the arm and walks around so energetically that she is almost impossible to keep up with. She bosses us around completely and has no time or energy to spare on any of our concern. No choice do we have but to fully trust in her to handle the crossing of the border.
Soon enough, the business is taken care of and she sees us off giving the caring smile and wave of the auntie she cannot help but be. I can only imagine how life must be around this one of a kind woman.

I am en route for Sihanoukville, and hope to be swimming in the azur blue water of Koh Rong by tomorrow! Soon after we leave the border, I am visually introduced to the countryside of Cambodia. The plains and villages we cross are something new, and at first sight Cambodia seems rather raw, ‘untouched.’ The golden glow of sunlight flirts with the pale greens of dry vegetation here. The countryside we cross is stripped down to the essential and I quickly fall under Cambodia’s spell. I can only wonder: will the country keep the promises it is making me?

The scenery changes dramatically when we reach Sihanoukville, a little town buzzing with the industry of stop-off tourism. The town -which I fantasized an old-ish fishing port- turns out to be a beach destination taken over by backpackers. They are on their way to party-fueled Koh Rong, where I chose NOT to join the springbreak ‘dudes’ and techno ‘gals’. Instead, I will head to the (hopefully) sleepier island of Koh Rong Samloem. Besides, I am told it is the preferred spot of snorkel-enthusiasts.

The following day, we are ferried to the beautiful island, where I have arranged accommodation in the small village of M’Pay Bay. The bay harbours a pier numbered twenty-three, or “mphei bei” in Khmer.
I soon realize one thing. The bay is a beer themed spot with expat-owned guesthouses or hostels. Some of the expats there wished to escape the materialistic culture of their Western country and operate a no-stress accommodation. Some are hoping to bank on the party-goers who mistook Koh Rong Samloem for Koh Rong, they blast their music. Some genuinely try to build a life in Cambodia and most enjoy the one policeman’s very liberal approach to weed consumption.

A fair bunch of these expats are contributing to ruining the experience in this small village, but I must see passed this. I cross through the village on my way to the snorkeling spot and observe the locals. Children play on the beach and into the water while their family run small businesses or go fishing. I spend my afternoons snorkeling around beautiful reefs filled with tropical fish and barracudas. When I take a break, my destination is one of the three peers around the bay, where I observe savvy locals who fish with agility and harvest a great family meal with little efforts.

My few days in the bay show me the life of the island people and expats of Koh Rong Samloem. I spend my days between the snorkel spots and delicious Khmer food. In fact, the village offers great options of local food, I am now in a triangle relationship with Amok chicken and Lok Lak beef, by the way. They treat me real good!

On my last night I head to the main pier for a diner in a stilt house restaurant. The delicious food is very popular, and I find myself sitted between a group of young Germans and a lovely Dutch couple. On my right, I strike a nice conversation with the couple, who mentions their observations of the differences between their two year old daughter and local children. Meanwhile, the little girl is playing with the slightly older son of the restaurant owners. The language barrier does not seem to be of concern to them. To my left, the group of early twenties Germans share their experience of travel, and eventually they invite me to join them for a night swim. Sure enough, one hour later I find myself swimming into tiny white sparkles. Little did I know, the island is famous for its sparkling plankton.

All good things come to an end, and I leave the transparent waters of Samloem for the land. The sea is rough and I am looking forward to reaching the coast! I will now be heading to Phnom Penh, where I am to meet a good friend who had visited the Cambodian capital in the past. She has great knowledge of the place and will surely share some interesting comparisons between the Phnom Penh she has seen thirteen years ago and the city it has become.

As happy as we are to be reunited only a few weeks after my visit to Malaysia, the celebrations are short lived. By the time we head out to diner, sickness has taken over my body and I am quite weak. I can barely force a bit of rice into my stomach but feel happy that she can enjoy a nice meal. Later, the real struggle begins when the lock of our accommodation turns out to be faulty and we are left outside. The clock points to eleven and, with no battery on either phone or passport to check into a hotel, we undertake a quest to find shelter for the night. A group of foreigners help us contact the man who has rented us the apartment, with no success. No choice is left, we visit multiple hotels and eventually, we are offered a fairly expensive room for the night.

Hoping the new day has better luck in store for us, we start exploring Cambodia’s capital. We head into the street and make a plan to visit the Royal Palace and National Museum in the coming two days. At the former, I discover a masterpiece of architecture and art. The roofs, a mix of gold and green, are a wonderful balance of sharp edges and soft details. The buildings are a testimony to the grandiose history of the kingdom. They are surrounded by murals and stupas that hint at the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism I am to discover in the country. I have no doubt that the culture of the Khmer empire will be fascinating in that regard, and the feeling is strengthened at the National Museum. The art pieces leave me speechless. For one, the art of the Khmer empire, and especially the Angkor era, is the most stunning I have seen so far. Also, the museum showcases the alternations between Hinduism and Buddhism in the history of Khmer culture, and the interconnections between the two religions.

The following day, and my last in Phnom Penh, is much gloomier. Indeed, I pay a visit to S-Twenty-One, the school turned prison/torture-center by the Khmer Rouge. Following my visit, I head further out of town and visit the Killing Fields, where an unimaginable amount of people were assassinated and thrown into mass graves. The day is heavy but atrocities are also an important part of history to learn. Besides, the visits also teach me a great deal on the many aspects of Khmer Rouge’s Kampuchea: their rise to power; their communist ideals and the emptying of cities; their persecution of political opponents, intellectuals and minorities; the intervention of Vietnam and the civil war that took over the country following the liberation; the attitude of foreign governments during and after the regime. As relieved as I am to leave the places behind, I also realize many did not have this chance and it humbles me. Today I have had a great lesson about history and human nature, and given the current political climate, I could not have dreamed of a better teaching.

My time has come to leave Phnom Penh, which has become a serious player on the cultural and culinary scene. The following day, I will be heading Northeast along the Mekong, and I will be leaving with the feeling that the capital of Cambodia would be an interesting place to live. Paradoxically, the capital has also been the culminating point of my experience with the road hierarchies of Asia. At the top of the hierarchy are priority-cutting car drivers who would run you over before they even considered letting you cross the road. What do you mean, “pedestrian crossing”? In the shadow of the big SUVs are the two following layers of the hierarchy: the scooters and bicycles. They will happily corner you in the middle of traffic rather than let you cross, but only because they are busy trying to climb the social ladder. At the very bottom of the hierarchy, in the forgotten abyss of society, are pedestrians. They belong somewhere between the road where the heights of the hierarchy commute, and the sidewalk where they park. I personally chose to bully everyone back and force my way across the road. I like to claim a sidewalk.

Phnom Penh [...] has become a serious player on the cultural and culinary scene. The following day, I will be heading Northeast along the Mekong, and I will be leaving with the feeling that the capital of Cambodia would be an interesting place to live

Suddenly a woman emerges from the bushes. The ghost-like local smiles and signals for me to follow her. I cross through the bushes and find her husband and daughter sorting a batch of freshly harvested peanuts. After a bit of basic communication on the agriculture of the island, I ask them if I may buy some of the peanuts from them. They hand me a bunch, of course way too much, and they will not accept any money


After a long day on the bus, we finally reach Kratie and are greeted by a deep orange sun diving into the Mekong. I quickly gather my bags and head to the pier where I should be taking a humble commuters’ boat to Koh Trong, a small island on the famous river. Unfortunately, there seem to be no other boat than the one whose engine a few men are trying to fix. My stomach bug has left me in peace for the remaining days of my visit to Phnom Penh but it is knocking on the door again. I need to find out about crossing the river, preferably at close enough distance to a bathroom. I walk back to the street and into a restaurant, where I sit down for a small meal. As soon as I start eating, I hear the boat sailing away. There goes my last chance at crossing the river for the day. Time to make alternative accommodation plans.

After two lazy days of rest and stomach-bug fighting, I am ready to take on Kratie and its surroundings. My first destination is a small village North of Kratie, where a traveler I have met offers to take me. Together, we arrange a tour on the river to observe the freshwater dolphins of the Mekong. In a wider part of the river, we come to a stop where a group of dolphins surface to breathe at regular intervals. The encounter is much pleasant, though it is soon over. We head back and say goodbye for now. We have different programs, mine being to finally conquer Koh Trong. I spend the afternoon on the island.

The following day is my last in Kratie, and I take an early start for Phnom Sombok, a Buddhist temple on the only hill surrounding Kratie. The place is a mysterious spiritual haven with a procession of statues along the stairs. The stairs make for the prayers of well-deserving believers, and I explore the site with humility. After a while, I head back for the ten kilometers of cycling back to Kratie. Close to the exit I come across three kids who ask for a high five, after which one of them grabs a slingshot and throws a stone at me. Sneaky little devils!
I decide to head back to Koh Trong for the afternoon. The previous day, I have crossed the roughly hundred meters of Mekong that separates the city from this ideal depiction of rural Cambodia, and I intend to explore more. Once on the island, I cycle on the one paved way around the island and discover banana fields, among others. I reach the Vietnamese floating village at the extreme Southeast of the island, and cycle back to the North. I observe different fields of vegetables and suddenly a woman emerges from the bushes. The ghost-like local smiles and signals for me to follow her. I cross through the bushes and find her husband and daughter sorting a batch of freshly harvested peanuts. After a bit of basic communication on the agriculture of the island, I ask them if I may buy some of the peanuts from them. They hand me a bunch, of course way too much, and they will not accept any money.
I start heading back back and stop to share some snacks with a few children playing on the side of the track. The little girl points at different things on my backpack and requests I gift them to her, and the little boy tries to climb on my arm. Meanwhile, their little brother plays with the back wheel of my bicycle. Soon enough, They take over the bike and play make believe. I wonder what imaginary land they are crossing with their 'scooter' now.
Once their attention moves on to the next game, I grab the bike and waves them goodbye. They smile and wave back. “Bye bye! Bye bye!! Hello bye bye!” Time to cycle back to the boat now, only I come across another scene of local life a few hundred meters further on the way. This time, a group of young men have gathered to play football in a field shared with a few cows. I sit for awhile and enjoy the game, the boat can wait!

Tomorrow, I will be heading to Siem Reap, and now I daydream of my short visit to this more rural part of Cambodia. The stomach bug has taken two days away from me, but there is nothing that could be done about it. In return, Kratie has given me wild dolphins and friendly locals. I have crossed one of the most famous rivers in the world and taken a glimpse into the life of the villagers of Cambodia. Their environment, their food, their games. It was another gift from Cambodia, the country conquering my heart. Once again, I can only feel grateful, and I think to myself: “it was well worth the stoning!”

Yet another bus takes me to my most anticipated visit in Cambodia: Siem Reap, and the Angkor temples. Most importantly the latter. Siem Reap quickly reveals itself as an over-exploited tourist-magnet. I had read about the pressures of the fast developing tourist industry on the life of locals and the environment, the town does not betray my expectations. I head towards the center for diner and find myself lost in an ocean of souvenir shops and western restaurants. Neon lights flash colours across the streets and tourists occupy every corner.

The management has decided to increase the price of the entry tickets of the Angkor Parc by an average of fifty percent, effective on the day I buy my ticket. Great! Regardless, I have no doubt the visit will be well-worth every cent, and I tell myself that hopefully it will cause a decrease in the volume of visitors to the temples. In fact, it is no secret that the two million visitors the Angkor temples receive every year are causing significant damage to the monuments. “I will see the extent of the invasion for myself soon enough!” - I think, as I put the precious ticket in my wallet.

In the morning, I wolf down breakfast impatiently. Finally, I will see the famous Angkor temples! I jump on my bicycle and head to the parc. I have three days to explore a few of the temples of the famous Suryavarman the second and Jayavarman the seventh, who have both led incredibly prosperous eras of the Khmer empire. The former was Hindu and can be credited for Angkor Wat, the latter was a Buddhist and had many of the other temples built, including the famous Bayon temple and the city of Angkor Thom itself. The Khmer empire, whose success was greatly attributed to their water resources and mastering of water management, has gone through alternating periods of Hinduism and Buddhism, which have tempered with most temples.
My first encounter with the culture could not have been more majestic. I am standing in front of the South entrance of Angkor Thom, and there is only one word to describe my feeling at the sight of the Gatura (gate) and the lined up statues of the Devas and Asuras holding the Vasuki for the Churning of the Sea of Milk: awestruck!

During three days, I explore the major temples of Bayon, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat. Smaller temples are also a real treat, and I visit Banteay Prei, Bantaey Srei and Pre Rup. Later in the afternoons, I relax around Srah Srang, the enormous bathing pit which could easily be called a lake; and on my last day, I venture further away from the main spots to visit Kbal Spean. There, the Khmer have carved what is referred to as the “Thousand Lingas”, into the river. The blessing of the water was considered a key factor to the thriving of the Khmer.
My visit of the Angkor temples is especially focused on Bayon temple and Angkor Wat, which I have researched more in depth. Observing the breathtaking murals of both temples, I am able to recognize scenes of the life in the Khmer Empire, and others from Hindu mythology. On both temples, the Churning of the Sea of Milk is especially impressive, though it is less exposed on Bayon temple, which makes it a pleasant discovery. As I explore both temples, I find it fascinating to try and observe the intricate influences of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Both temples have been modified with the different religious majorities over the centuries.
My three days of exploring the temples of Angkor come to an end with a nice exercise of exploration. In fact, I have read about the estimated seventeen hundred ninety-six Devaras depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat, and how only one of them is showing her teeth. Full of excitement, I search for the smiling figure for a while and eventually, I succeed.

In three days, I have explored very few of the temples of Angkor, true wonder of civilization. I have analyzed the carvings of major temples and felt like Indiana Jones among smaller, jungle-overgrown temples in complete ruins. I can say I understand why the site is so incredibly popular. It has allowed me to get a sense of how great the Khmer Empire was, and without a doubt it will remain one of the major highlights of my trip.
However, as much as Angkor testifies of the greatness of civilization, it is also a painful testimony to how low this civilization can drop. Angkor is a place of jaw-dropping wonder… and patience! One has to share their discoveries with a monumental amount of poorly mannered, irrespectful tourists. Rules could not be stated more clearly, and yet visitors touching the carvings or feeding the monkeys are sadly too common. In Angkor, you will encounter tourists who are well aware of the many signs but clearly decide to put a full palm on the centuries old carvings. You will enter sacred rooms among visitors who are not dressed appropriately and others who shout from one door to the next. Visiting Angkor is definitely as incredibly amazing as it can be frustrating, and you leave Siem Reap with the desire that the tickets price be doubled now.

In three days, I have explored very few of the temples of Angkor, true wonder of civilization. I have analyzed the carvings of major temples and felt like Indiana Jones among smaller, jungle-overgrown temples in complete ruins

Cambodia is a complex story of greatness and pitfalls. The people here is humble and lives a discreet life. You will find that they do not approach you, but give them a smile and they will give you the world. The people here live with both the proud legacy of a prodigious empire and the recent experience of oppression. Add to this serious issues of social matters and corruption, as well as a highly developed culture of tourism, and you will find that the people of Cambodia aspire to only one thing beyond a comfortable life: dignity


Cambodia and I have met, though too quickly! My many adventures and changes of plans have left me with very little time to spend here, sadly. In a way, it gives me an excuse to come back…

I am having coffee at the Siem Reap airport, waiting to board a plane and visit a friend who has been sent for work to the country of my next adventure. Again, I have mixed feelings of impatience for the next destination and longing to stay longer here. Cambodia, in its simple contemporary charms and grandiose history, has cast a spell on me. There is no doubt that I will return. The country may not be the most striking of my journey, but it is definitely one I hold in high regards. Unexpectedly, strongly, I feel that the country is one of a kind. It has a je-ne-sais-quoi that creates a sense of staying. Perhaps a specific blend of history, culture, food and human qualities that you find nowhere else in the same exact measures.

Cambodia is a complex story of greatness and pitfalls. The people here is humble and live a discreet life. You will find that they do not approach you, but give them a smile and they will give you the world. The people here live with both the proud legacy of a prodigious empire and the recent experience of oppression. Add to this serious issues of social matters and corruption, as well as a highly developed culture of tourism, and you will find that the people of Cambodia aspire to only one thing beyond a comfortable life: dignity.

‘Welcome’ is a word Cambodia will whisper into your ear, for it does not feel the word needs be shouted out loud. You may be rushed to board or leave a bus, perhaps your accommodation hosts will express more pragmatism than concern, and yes you will have to claim a sidewalk every now and then, but let it not fool you. You will be having a coffee at the Siem Reap airport, ready to leave Cambodia behind, and only then will you look at the bigger picture. You will realize something crucial then: that in all its delicious foods, in all the small conversations it has given you, and in all the treasures it has let you explore, Cambodia has welcomed you all along. And, which is more, that the first smile was simply yours to give.

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