When I feel ready to travel to Southeast Asia, I think Cambodia must be included in my trip's itinerary. This country seems very familiar to my eyes since I often encounter its beauties on culture and travel magazines, some documentaries, and the pictures taken by famous documentary photographers. The joy I feel lies in planning this trip, as I'm excited to explore the remote villages, aside from touristic places such as Angkor Wat.
Upon arriving Siem Reap, I realize the city holds its breath with all the chaos, tranquility, joy, sorrow, past and the future. Everywhere is crowded and full of different noises coming from crooked and shabby motorbikes, westernized cafes lined side by side and street food vendors making sure if they are noticed by people. There is also a nostalgia for the country's pre-Pol Pot regime wealthy times that no longer exist. In every step I take, I clearly see the contrasts of Cambodia, poverty at one hand abundance on the other. Opportunities widely offered seem to be just for Europeans who had come to live here as expats, or the ones visiting the country's most well-known places. But even in the high season, income from tourism isn't enough to keep Cambodians able to meet their needs, but despite this fact they seem peaceful and this peace begets their inner serenity.
Further South, I have the chance to take a journey into a village where Khmers make a living mostly from fishing. What really connects me to the people living here and untouched nature is to be around off the beaten path. Here, I can smell of soil moist, touch some plants I've never seen before, witness the warm greetings of locals and smiling back to me even I can't understand the words, hear the sounds of everyday routine; moos of cows, chats of neighbors, and children playing football on streets. As I watch how they pray in front of their traditional Buddhist altars, how they cook and eat the Khmer food or the technique of fishing they use, the sights satisfy my pursuit of authenticity that could be hard to catch in city life. Here I also feel different emotions at once, while talking to the owner of my homestay about his darkest memories in the era of Pol Pot regime then watching the hope in his eyes as telling me about his little granddaughter. ‘Everything will be better for her,’ says Sopheann, sitting on the porch, overlooks a beautiful view of the fields, where his granddaughter plays with a red bike.
Spending most days visiting around by tuk-tuks, passing by Tonle Sap on a boat, traveling on a bamboo train trail among lush green forests, watching thousands of bats getting out of a cave, chatting about the life to different tuk-tuk drivers and guides, drinking coconut juice several times a day, tasting sour-sweetish Khmer meals cooked in a traditional way, ultimately I've become a part of the life in Cambodia. Traveling in this land feels exhausting at times, with a language barrier and cultural difference, but rewards me with a sea of good memories that I will remember with peace and gratitude.
So, if you decide to travel to Cambodia someday, you should make sure it doesn't offer you a high comfort on the surface, but deep inside you feel something good happens to touch your heart.