My boyfriend Joram and I are in Cambodia for a week and have already been in Siem Reap for three days now. Home to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat, tourism drives the economy here and there is always something going on that caters to tourists that flock from all over the globe. Tuk tuks line street corners, the drivers stretched out in homemade hammocks strung up inside the vehicle's cabin. “You want tuk tuk? How about tomorrow?” They call, boyish smiles revealing white teeth amidst golden brown skin and jet black hair. After living in Thailand and Vietnam where pale skin is the standard for beauty and women go to extreme lengths to bleach their skin, I was stunned by the exotic, glowing tone of the Cambodian people; simply beautiful.
The drivers are searching for customers among the throngs of tourists that stroll up and down, perusing street markets, seeing the sights and enjoying a traditional Khmer dish of fish amok and a cold brew after a long day at the temple ruins Siem Reap is famous for. The city is alive with energy and beckons to you to go here and there, buy this and that. No matter where you venture, you’re met with a shy smile and a friendly greeting from the Cambodian people. Go into an art shop to browse local art and next thing you know, the 17-year-old shop attendant timidly approaches and small talk soon turns into meaningful conversation. He has just graduated high school, he is working hard to save money and studying English every day. He is confident and inspired, passionate and optimistic. He is like any other new graduate, crossing the threshold into adulthood with the world at his toes. But, even in a more modernized city like Siem Reap, reminders of poverty and tragedy are all around, if you take the time to look and listen.
“My mother’s parents were killed by Pol Pot,” he murmured when I asked about his family. “You know, when the Khmer Rouge was in power.” His eyes misted and the pain was undeniable. Some of his family had fled to Canada, his mother had remained in Cambodia.
What captures my curiosity most, is the stark divide between rich and poor. I can’t help but feel awed by massive ornate hotels, high end restaurants, trendy boutiques and contemporary spas that fill the city center. What really stands out though, are the desolate slums and shacks intermingled with the modern luxury. Wide ditches flooded with stagnant, dirty water hold ramshackle single-room huts. They rise just above the stinking pools on sketchy wooden poles, walls held together by boards of random wood. Trash lines the edges of the waterlogged plots, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the terrible diseases they carry. And, city life moves on around these slums in brilliant flashes of bright colors, blinking lights and honking horns. It goes on as if they don’t exist.
But, there is life in these slums, because even a pathetic shack is home sweet home to someone; a safe haven providing comfort and shelter from the elements. A cat stretches lazily on an uneven porch, its tail just grazing the water’s surface. Palm trees and overgrown bushes rise tall and shade the shacks, providing some relief from the tropical heat. Laughter, genuine and clear rings through the air like tinkling jingle bells. Dirty brown faces peek from behind rafters and clothes lines. A group of children from the slums watch tourists walk past on their way to Pub Street. A brave little girl, skinny and barefoot, decides to practice the bit of English she knows. “Hello, hello,” she yells. “How are you?” I reply back and am met with a radiant, toothless grin and then several, furiously waving hands. When I wave back, the children scatter and laugh with glee that one of the foreigners has acknowledged and understood their English greeting.
During a time when the current political events back home in the US have caused so much angst, hate and division between the American people and even within myself, a simple smile from the cracked lips of a dirty little Cambodian girl have the power to erase the conflicting thoughts, pictures and articles from social media that swirl non stop in my head.
The taste of exotic foods will soon be forgotten. The Cambodian beer at some pub will soon be forgotten. The numerous temples of a UNESCO World Heritage Site will soon all blur together and look the same in some foggy, distant memory. What sticks with me most is the resilience of a country’s people; a country with scars still fresh from a horrific political history still recent. It's the resilience of the 17-year-old shop clerk who dreams of a beautiful future. It's the resilience of the very girls and women once trapped in the sex trade, whom I'll get the honor of meeting on this trip.
Amidst the trash and dirt, the torn clothes and tangled hair; amidst the never ending fight for survival within a country torn apart, that slum girl's tiny smile is the green stalk of the myrtle tree pushing up through the desert soil and fighting to live on with optimism and inner strength. These are the travel memories that will stick with me most.