The Index: Cambodia through New Eyes

18 03 2012

Here’s the latest article I’ve written for my parents’ paper. Most of the information won’t be new for regular readers but since I plan to post all of the articles, this one is going up too. To read the others click on: index.

 

Not long ago, a friend of mine from school came to visit me in Cambodia. After six months in-country, I got my first chance to experience the so-called “Kingdom of Wonder” through the eyes of a tourist, instead of a volunteer.

Cambodia has received a host of accolades recently from international news and travel sources. For example, the New York Times recently published a piece on the quaint, artistic town of Battambang, located in the northwestern corner of the country.  Around the same time, Lonely Planet, one of the most well-known travel guide publishers, polled more than 1,000 of its followers asking which country had most changed their lives. Just behind India, in the number two spot, was Cambodia.

After hearing of all of this good publicity, I was more ready than ever to leave my rural town for a week and explore some of Cambodia’s finest cities as a tourist. I was already well acquainted with Cambodia’s tourist mecca, Siem Reap, because I live a mere 60 kilometers away, but I was excited to spend time as a tourist in the country’s two largest cities: Battambang and Phnom Penh.

Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda area in Phnom Penh

My friend and I spent three nights in each place, which was just enough time to appreciate the charm of each. In Battambang, we rode the erroneously named bamboo train, which is neither a train, nor made of bamboo. Instead, it is nothing more than a small wooden platform that is powered by a motor to ride up and down the train tracks. A legitimate form of transportation for many locals, it has also become one of Cambodia’s most famous tourist activities, allowing visitors to peacefully see the countryside while the wind blows through their hair.

On the bamboo train

The highlight of the trip, however, was a performance by the circus, a group of 14-20 year old youth who are trained at a French-funded school outside of Battambang. The kids put on an exuberant and surprisingly professional performance that had me laughing out loud for the entire two hour show.

Our trip wasn’t all fun and games though, since we thought it was important to visit some of the sites associated with Cambodia’s tragically violent history. From Phnom Penh, we took a short day trip to Choeung Ek, where more than 17,000 Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge. There isn’t much to see at the site today, but the lone tower filled with skulls and bones of the deceased was more than powerful enough to make up for the small admissions fee.

The tower at the killing fields

It’s amazing how having a visitor made me feel simultaneously like an expert and a complete dunce when it came to Cambodian knowledge. “How is Cambodian Buddhism different from that of its neighboring countries,” my friend innocently asked the as we gazed up at the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. When she looked to me to find an answer, she was instead met with an embarrassing expression of ignorance.

This is why having a visitor was so reenergizing. Of course it was lovely to spend time with an old friend and to see a handful of new sites, but it also incentivized me to learn more about the place I am living and gave me a fresh perspective. It was like getting a new set of eyes.

When she came to the town where I live, my friend raved about the beauty of the trees, remarked about the calm vibe and was impressed with the friendliness of our neighbors. Her enthusiasm was contagious and soon I was viewing the town once again as I had when I first arrived. The potential she saw in the town, and in the work that my husband and I are doing, was a much appreciated breath of fresh air.

As a volunteer, it can be easy to get lost in the daily struggle of trying to be understood and  to find my place within the community, but seeing the country through a new set of eyes reminded me once again of Cambodia’s beauty, tenderness and, above all, potential.

Katie

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