“You ATE those sandwiches?”
“Ya, they were really good going down…”
“They told you they were pork?”
“I should tell you, local kids hunt for rats and sell the meat to the sandwich vendors.”
Oh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia! Not known for the health standards of its street food. But it does mean I am finally able to exchange the ever-popular bodily health “fisherman tales” with other South East Asia travelers. Really…having one of those stories is like a right of passage while living here.
Ya, well I picked up a worm in my small intestine while in Vietnam. I swear to you, that thing was at least two meters long!
Sure, thats great, but my Cambodian-rat-meat-parasite kept me within ten feet of a toilet for forty-eight hours straight! No breaks!
Rat meat. Add it to my list of “stomach-strengtheners” I’ve digested since I’ve moved here: jellyfish, barbecued cow udder, pig’s blood soup, and rat meat. The first two were intentional choices, mind you. The phrase, “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind…
I had been teaching for four months, and this was my first opportunity to travel further than three hours outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. So one insane, and seemingly endless, night-bus ride to Bangkok (complete with onboard Karaoke), followed by an amazingly cushy airplane ride (only in comparison to the ride on the clearly-not-built-for-people-over-six-feet-tall-bus), and I found myself in Cambodia. But something was strange…something was different…Ok, yes, I’m in a different country. But it wasn’t the place, it was something about me. Something about my person. I felt some kind of presence hovering behind me. I slowly turned and saw it. My giant back pack strapped to my shoulders. I had gone from being a resident of a city where I spoke a good amount of the language and worked with the community and had suddenly become one of…them. A Backpacker.
Ok, there’s nothing wrong with backpackers! They’re….we’re, rather, just trying to see the world, and understand foreign places. Really, travelers who settle down in an area foreign to them, just like to act like they’re better then backpackers. Its usually just a joke, but then again, you often run into certain groups of people that make you wonder….ya, I’m talking to you shirtless Aussies at the “Reggae bar,” screaming along to “No Woman, No Cry!” Ahem, sorry. Anyhow, my point is, when locals realize your backpacker status, you’re treated very differently than if you mark yourself as a resident and begin to learn the local language. This treatment is especially pronounced in Cambodia, where their history has greatly affected how the Khmei, or Cambodian, people interact with tourists.
Cambodia has seen unbelievable tragedy and hardships over the last half-century. Most Americans aren’t really taught about the 1976-1979 Pol Pot regime and the Khmer Rouge. This may have something to do with how we bombed the bejesus out of the uninvolved Cambodians during Vietnam war, just for good measure. I spent my trip learning about this history, getting bits and pieces every day. The scars from this regime are visible everywhere, and its impossible to travel Cambodia without encountering them. The Khmei people are trying their hardest to recover, but its not an easy process. Phnom Penh is littered with half finished skyscrapers, which ran out of funding and eventually will just be demolished. You also notice quickly that there aren’t many old people. The period of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea left the country with nearly ninety percent of the population under the age of fifty. They are eager to rebuild, and have realized that they must latch onto tourism as a way to heal. The problem is, they really latched onto it. If a Tuk Tuk driver or any other Khmei involved in tourism sees your backpack, get ready for them to latch onto you.
“Tuk Tuk! Where you go?”
“Ah tay ah khun! I am just walking.”
“Walking is so hard! Tell me where you go.”
“Ah tay. Ah khun. I don’t want a ride.”
“I follow you, for free, until you want to go somewhere!”
My first stalker! Then there was the time I decided not to buy water from a water vendor…because I already had water.
“You buy my water!”
“Ah tay ah khun, I don’t want any water.”
“Why don’t you buy my water?”
“Look! I already have water, I don’t want any more.”
“You buy my water!”
“Ah tay ah khun!”
“I steal your bike! You don’t buy my water, I steal your bike”
So, the first few days of traveling were hard. People were much harsher than in Thailand, and the tourist traps were constant and very in-your-face. I was having a hard time trying to get a feel for the Khmei people. I wanted to have sympathy because of their history, but at the same time I wanted to scream at people who wouldn’t leave me alone. One person told me I couldn’t sit on a public bench unless I paid them two dollars. Of course they were lying, but they also wouldn’t leave until either I left, or I paid them. I was feeling exasperated and conflicted.
Exasperation aside, some fellow travelers and I were on a mission to explore the country, as our breaks from work were short. I made it all the way down to the lazy, beach town of Kep (where the rat meat spirit exacted its revenge for my consumption of its Earthly body), and far north to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat at Siam Reap. These crumbling temples are free game for scrambling and climbing, by the way. I was Dr. Indiana Jones for two days…if Indiana Jones encountered fifteen-year-old girls who threaten to steal your bike instead of giant, rolling boulders and poison dart traps. Seriously though, the country is beautiful, and tourism ploys shouldn’t be a deterrent for travel. I’d seen images of those ancient Wats for as long as I could remember. It felt really amazing to be climbing to the top of them. But again, these areas were rampant with vehement salespeople.
It wasn’t until we escaped the tourist centers of Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, that I finally met people who wanted conversation. Real conversation. Not as a ploy to get me to buy something. On our first day in the city of Battambang, we climbed up to a giant Buddha head perched on a cliff. We were soon followed by five, twenty-year-old Khmei who wanted to practice their English. We spent a long time talking about teaching, and I was even able to practice my Thai with one of them.
The next day we met another twenty-year-old who, ten minutes after meeting us, invited us to a water festival. Again we talked about teaching aspirations and the future (while being totally overwhelmed by a massive crowd and a motorbike accident). He even informed us that we were officially “best friends forever.” I was seriously impressed by the passion and desire to better not just themselves, but those in their communities. Most twenty-somethings in America are no where near this point of self-awareness; most are just dispersing resumes like there’s no tomorrow in order to avoid going back to their parents’ home. I was so desperate to avoid this, I fled the country.
(Disclaimer: I’M TOTALLY JUST KIDDING, MOM AND DAD!)
By the end of my two weeks, I still didn’t know how to characterize Cambodian people. I had people viciously trying to sell me things, and others following me up a cliff just to practice English.
It was my last day in Phnom Penh, and I had a three o’clock plane to catch. I went to sit by the Tonle Sap River for an hour or two before my plane. A group of five ten-year-olds ran up to me and starting asking me all kinds of questions. They tried to impress me with goofy tricks for a long time, until they ran out of material. At that point they noticed a French girl five benches away. They pointed at her, then at me, and asked, “Love?” Yes, of course. We’re both white-backpackers, so it was meant to be. They wouldn’t leave me alone until I went over and talked to her. I resisted until I realized: I have a plane in an hour! Making an ass out of myself suddenly was not a fear. I had an awesome, jet-engine powered escape at the ready. We walked over as she looked up at what was surely the strangest posse ever seen. I introduced myself, and quickly found out that she spoke no English. So she took out a sketch pad, and we all started drawing different things. Soon, two Tuk Tuk drivers came and joined us. I laughed for an hour straight. I wish I could have kept the pictures those kids drew of me. They really captured my good side: the side with the square eyeballs and a mouth with only two teeth. I actually barely interacted with the French girl. I was more interested in the stories the Tuk Tuk driver had of his family, and the time he owned a Thai restaurant. It took me two weeks after the fact to realize that Phnom Penh was able to bring two backpackers, a pack of children, and a Tuk Tuk driver all together to sit by the river, talk about nothing in particular, and laugh at our terrible drawing skills. Soon my hour was up, and I was amazed that I was feeling sad about saying goodbye to a Tuk Tuk driver…one of the men that had been making the vein in my forehead bulge for the last two weeks.
“Why do you have go?”
“I have to get on a plane to Bangkok.”
“……Baht ah khun, Tuk Tuk. Lets go.”