We landed in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. It was not that long ago that the city was completely evacuated, the reason given that a American air strike was imminent. The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new agrarian communist utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” It’s difficult to see the smiles on the faces of a people struggling to survive, but it’s there. We saw it on the faces of the two naked kids playing in a dirt pile, jumping in as if it were a pile of snow. We see it on the faces of desperate tuk tuk drivers, that we often get annoyed by, who are more than happy to take us anywhere for a dollar.
Being a tourist in Cambodia isn’t easy. As we stroll amongst the ruins of 2,000 year old Temples, you are bombarded by little children trying to sell you bracelets, postcards, and books. They try to hustle you in English with their best game face on, and if that fails, they will happily try in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese. They’ll try to sell you something with a smile, then they’ll try to tug at your emotions by putting on the teary, hungry, puppy faces, and if that doesn’t work, they will ask you for a dollar, just to go to school.
You emotions are tugged in every direction while your in awe of the Angkorian Temples, torn by Cambodia’s turbulent history, and the constant question, ‘Are these kids all slave of some mafia?’
We are still new to this country, still trying to figure things out. We’ve seen the 8th Wonder of the World, and try not to worry too much about the warnings that military weapons and explosives are easy to come by….we laugh to ourselves as we say “no, thank you” to one offer for massage after another for an entire city block, only to frown at the sight of men with fish-eyed lenses and opium stained eyes.
Cambodia can be exhausting, and no amount of happy herb pizza can compensate. But as we write this we’re sitting in a posh coffee lounge on white linen cushions, surrounded by plush white pillows, candles, and white lilies. once again, confronted by being a tourist, turning anothers war riddled countryside into our Disneyland. It’s time to step back and take in Cambodia for what it is…another country waiting to be discovered once again.