* Zoe Raymond's continuing quest through Asia, part IV. See Index Here

The Evacuation Vacation: Cambodia

 

By: Zoe Raymond

The worst part of evacuating a place you love is facing the possibility of never again seeing it or the people who made it special. I faced carrying them as an added burden with all the memories and stories I have been storing since I began my adventure with my mother. Now, under my mother’s counsel, I was required to reluctantly leave my newfound friends and home behind to seek refuge in Cambodia. My sense of loss fed a budding animosity for that place that was presented to me as a haven for my safety.

My anger and despair were amplified by our only greeting at the Cambodia Airport – the scorching heat ascending from the tarmac.  This discomfort hardened my resolve to despise the country I was hoping would conveniently serve as a short-lived and crude host. The airport further validated my bias with its pungent mugginess and primitive security. Our only choice of transportation was what the Cambodians call tuk-tuk, rickety motorcycles with rusted carts hitched to them. A sign at the airport declared, “Welcome to Cambodia,” at which I glared with my arms crossed in disdain. 

Our tuk-tuk driver who carried us from the airport unwittingly fed my animus for his homeland by telling us of the corruption overtaking the country. He told us that the locals are impoverished as the government thrives. I noticed through my sour mood, though, that they managed to remain optimistic, with smiles carried across their faces. Their seeming contentment began to soften my mood, but that proved to be a temporary feeling as Cambodia became familiar to me. 

The anxiety-inducing reality of our situation persisted and began to take a larger part of my mind as the dismal air began to suffocate me. I yearned for our Balinese home when I was introduced to our hotel. It was built for a king, but adjacent to it were apartments with doors crafted from tin. Lines of clothes being hung out to dry served as their picket fences. 

The center of the town was called “pub street,” an area that slept during the day but became a lively bazaar at night. During the evenings its club music would reverberate through my chest. LED signs advertised their local delicacy of “fried snakes,” and “beer in a bucket!” Metal Buddha knick-knacks and braided jewelry were laid out on pop-up tables lining the sidewalk, while white t-shirts hung up in rows proclaiming, “I love Cambodia.” That admonition fell on the rocky soil that covered my heart as I saw the scene as nothing more than a tourist trap. The sight reminded me of the bland, consumerist lifestyle I so purposefully left. The noise and reveling fed my longing for the jungle environment and warm smiles that I left behind in Bali. 

Stubbornly, I woke up at dawn and hopped into the back of a taxi smelling of burnt rubber and stale french fries. I made a commitment to take a two-hour drive away from the city and into the region to see Angkor Wat, a vast Buddhist temple. I felt like a newborn baby, my eyelids heavy, begging to close. The temple greeted us with an endless bridge that demanded I walk across it to see the sight which my mother required me to visit. 

Once at the temple grounds, I took an opportunity to sit for a brief rest.  I fought my fatigue and propped my tired arms behind me to sit at the edge of the lake. Across from me, a mysterious structure hid behind the dusk sky. With time, duplicate images of the castle-like temple appeared before me as it reflected on the water. The sun crept up the back of the temple showing its first ray of light. As it lit up, the massive structure exuded its intricate details, a vast architectural work of art revealed itself to me. This sight momentarily counteracted my desire to retreat to the hotel. The scene did not seem to me to be in any way connected to the mayhem I was subjected to during the evening. This was peaceful, beautiful, and serene. The city of the evening’s past was boisterous, gaudy, and tumultuous. 
 

My mother forced me awake for another morning bright and early, as I was still unaccustomed to waking up before the day exuded its first notion of light. After two hours in a car driving down a dense red clay road, I stepped onto a rowboat to witness “kampong phluk,” the floating village. These are houses built on floating platforms on the murky waters of Tonle Sap Lake. They are free as they are not connected to any land, but it seems that free is all their residents could afford. The polluted waterways provided their sole resource which is the fish that they can catch. 

Electricity & fresh water are nonexistent. Men row their small kayaks to the nearest town to find any work that would earn them the money for their daily needs. At night they would return to three generations living in a single room encased by metal walls on their floating home. 

 

Rain rings against the tin roofs of these homes, while the adults worked to supply the daily provisions for their families. The laughter of children echoed through the mangroves as they played in the mud of the lake shore and climbed trees. Their pleasure did not apprehend what I saw as filth, poverty and despair everywhere I looked. 

 

Their joy humbled me and struck at the animosity I had been building since my mother first ordered our evacuation from Bali. Where I saw emptiness and despair, these children saw friends, families, and homes. These children created the same happiness I had known in my home endangered by that Balinese volcano. 

At that point, I realized that I had been selfishly arrogant and pridefully wallowing in the self-pity I used to evaluate the decision of my mother to move us to safety. I now realized her wisdom in the kindred I felt with the joy of those Cambodian children. Maybe I could come to buy a t-shirt that proclaims, “I love Cambodia.”


But, alas, my mother and I would not have time to try.