Into Cambodia

The Journey to Phnom Penh

We woke up a bit later than expected, though still with plenty of time to catch the bus to Phnom Penh. I took a quick shower and went off in search of the hotel’s free breakfast. It took me about five minutes of explaining and gesturing that I needed a box or something to carry food away in before they finally produced a few plastic bags. I filled a few of them with rice, pastries, and other foods that I could take along with us on the journey. We checked out, re-claimed our passports, and boarded the bus for Phnom Penh.

It was an uneventful drive to Phnom Penh, no problems. It’s interesting though because the road is paved for most of the way and then about 100 km outside of Phnom Penh, there is a strip of road about 40km long which is still dirt. It looked like they were doing a lot of work on it though, so probably next time I pass by that way, it will be paved. Arrived in Phnom Penh and it was immediately obvious that Phnom Penh is quite a ways behind Ho Chi Minh City, though it seemed considerably better, safer, cleaner, and attractive than one year ago. It was now 7 July and I last was in Phnom Penh a year before on 3 July.

Me and Grace were greeted by the usual mob of push tuk tuk drivers, hotel hawkers, and others looking for a way to make a buck or two. There are so many that each person getting off the bus probably has five or six of them each. It was almost impossible to put on our backpacks and get out of the mob. We managed to cross the street to the gas station and lost about half of the mob in crossing the street. I kept telling them that I was calling my friend, Haksym, to come and help us. The group around us didn’t subside until I actually started talking on the phone to Haksym. Even then, at least two remained near. As soon as Haksym showed up on his motorbike, they all offered their services again. Me and Grace shared one tuk tuk and followed Haksym to a hotel he knew of.

Old Friends and Markets

Got settled in the hotel and then went to the Sorya Shopping Center and ate some food. That evening, we met with Haksym again and went to Malis (one of my favorite restaurants), a really really nice (and expensive, like $7-8 per plate) Cambodian-ish restaurant. Had another wonderful piece of steak that was really tender there and was quite satisfied and full afterwards. Then Haksym took me to buy a SIM card for Cambodia. As soon as I had that, I started sms-ing all of the kids from Project Cambodia 2006. I managed to set up a meeting with some of them the next day.

The next day, Grace and I headed back to Sorya to meet up with them. We were waiting there on the first floor of the mall and I saw two of them, but I wasn’t certain. It was about three minutes of us all staring at each other awkwardly from across the room before we finally decided that we were looking for each other. The first thing I said to the mentees and the first thing they said to me was “Wow! You look different!” Apparently, not only Cambodia had changed, but all of us looked a bit different too.

Grace and I had lunch with about eight of SEALNet’s former mentees and we shared everything that had happened over the last year. It was really nice to talk to everyone and to see everyone. I was glad that I had made it back to Cambodia, there’s something really special there in my opinion.

That afternoon, we saw the royal palace with Dara and then headed back to our hotel. It poured while we were at the royal palace and we took a tuk tuk back to Sorya Shopping Center with Dara. Luckily, it was covered, so we stayed dry, but had to get out into the flooded street. We ate at the Lucky Burger on the first floor and Grace got a towel for Dara to dry himself with at the supermarket, cause Dara was soaking. After the rain was over, we left the mall and went to a bookstore while the rain finished up. Afterwards, I carried Grace across the road to the hotel cause she couldn’t get her shoes wet and I was wearing my Chaco’s.

A Painful Past

We spent another day in Phnom Penh and went (back for me) to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Russian Market (Psar Tuol Tam Poung), and around the independence monument.

We ate again at one of my favorite (expensive) restaurants, l’Atmosphère. l’Atmosphère is a wonderful little French restaurant that serves some of the best steak I’ve ever had as well as wonderful desserts. After lunch, we took a motodup back to the hotel.

The motodup ride is one that Grace and I will probably remember, and laugh and smile about for the rest of our lives. The motodup was pretty old and had almost no teeth. As he drove us around, he would keep pointing at things, laughing, and then pointing and talking to Grace. As the three of us rode through Phnom Penh, we must have been quite a site. An old, toothless motodup talking to a chinese-ish Singaporean and an ang moh American in Khmer and all three of us laughing like crazy. We didn’t understand a word of what was said, but it was interesting to ride along and have a fun time.

We met again with Haksym and went to Olympic Stadium to chill (and had to pay the “foreigner fee” to get in). Then, Haksym treated us to Cambodian Phở, which was at a place run by Vietnamese. I ordered in Vietnamese, Haksym ordered in Khmer, and the dear wife looked kind of puzzled for a second before we helped her get phở.

The next morning, we headed to Siem Reap to see Angkor.

And Random Thoughts

For Grace, it was her first time in Cambodia. We both agreed that Cambodia has some quality that seems much more fresh than Vietnam. Vietnam is too claustrophobic or something. The mindset of the Vietnamese seems to have an exact place for everyone and exact behaviors that they should follow. Maybe it was just our perception, but Cambodia seems much more relaxed, much easier to feel happy in, and much nicer in general (although, it is much less developed).

For me, my second time in Cambodia was quite interesting. My first trip there had been my first trip to anywhere in Asia. The first time there had been a shock in many ways. In many ways, it was much more developed than I imagined that it would be. The thing that I always realize when traveling is that while people react in different ways to the same situation or have different interpretations and expectations of behaviors, they are all fundamentally the same. Pretty much everyone seems to enjoy a nice rest, good food, free time, and spending time with friends. These are simply human and universal. I’ve always thought this, but traveling confirms it for me.

In Cambodia the first time, I saw so many different and unique items, foods, customs, and behaviors. After even a short time, the strangest of these can be, if not embraced, accepted as commonplace. What is a novelty to foreigners is everyday life in these places. I think that this is something that i really recognize from having lived in a gigantic tourist attraction, the rocky mountains, my entire life. While something may seem very different, quite unique, even extraordinary while one is in the United States, it becomes normal, ordinary, even boring and mundane in its place of origin.

I think something that I am really realizing here in Southeast Asia is that people never change, only their surroundings. The background in which people live does influence how they behave and act, but only slowly. From last year to this year, there were many more people out and about after dark in Phnom Penh, many more Cambodian girls dressing or acting more openly than they did, and more buildings going up more quickly. Despite these changes, Cambodians act in essentially the same way that they did last year. Greater introduction of modern conveniences, foreign ideas, and new products have an immediately noticeable impact on Cambodians’ behavior, but they do not fundamentally alter the ways that people make decisions. Although one behavior may seem quite strange to an older generation, the younger generation may participate in it but maintain a very similar world view to one that they have held for centuries.

Even as we “lose” cultures to modernization and globalization, there are many aspects of cultures which are preserved. We do lose the obvious faces of a culture whether it’s language, religion, clothing styles, or certain customs. As we lose these sides of culture, we will find that there are still vast differences between the peoples of one country and another. While I can go to a shopping mall in the USA, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, or Thailand and have a very similar experience, there are certain differences in the layout within the stores, the types of goods offered, and other minor details that hint at the cultural differences that once existed.

Feel like I’m rambling a bit, but just a few random ideas.

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