The road is long and bumpy. It’s practically a dirt road, here just after the border crossing. I expected a reducing standard of development as we got deeper into Asia but I was surprised by the level.
I wanted not to pre-suppose anything. A dirt road does not mean it’s a dirt place. And after the warmth I’d experienced from the Vietnamese people, I wanted to pay back the hospitality I’d received in kind. I wanted to adopt an appropriate mentality and that meant not judging a book by its cover.
I was sure that if I approached things well, that somehow it would pay me back. I’d read about this kind of thing in Vietnam. Religion there is based on Confucianism and I liked a lot of what I’d read about it. It seemed to have a set of ethics that sounded fairly on the money to me – humaneness and altruism; reason and centering; loyalty; fillal piety or respect for previous generation, alive or passed. And I didn’t have to believe in some strange god or beast or other folktale-ish airy-fairy, so it suited me fine.
But it was a poor standard of road, that I couldn’t deny. A dirt track, with pooled standing water and mud in places. As we bounced along on the bus, bound for Phnom Penh, my thoughts slipped and I imaged a place of poverty and people fighting to survive. After all, Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world if the figures are right.
I thought back to the hardships that the people of Vietnam had endured and knew that Cambodia had been involved in that. The Indochina war had been a sly and devious one and as such, soldiers regularly snuck across the border into Cambodia, to get a jump on the opposition. As such the fronts expanded into Cambodia and Laos.
But also, Cambodia had had it’s very own, unique bloody history with the dictator Pol Pots, the Killing Fields and S21 Death Prison. It seemed too much to bear, for a small country. All that death and misery. I started to pre-suppose that it must have had a negative effect on the Cambodia psyche, that continues until today.
And so I probably created my own truth, and immediately got a bad feeling when I arrived in the capital city. I must have been walking around under a cloud. I was overcharged for my tuk-tuk from the bus station to my hostel and then was given the dankest, smelliest room I’ve had on the whole trip. The pungent stench of rat urine, used to mark our their territory, filled my nostrils, to the point that I could taste it on my tongue. I could still taste it when I sat down to eat that evening but worse still, the restaurant seemed to be crawling with cockroaches when my meal arrived.
I began to wonder what fate was waiting for me around the next corner. Was I going to have my wallet stolen from me by a motorbike bag-snatcher in the street? Fall for one of the Cambodia tourist scams like so many have before me? Or maybe I’d just get drunk and lose my wallet or fall over or something?
I sensed I had brought this upon myself with my bad attitude and poor application of my new-found, temporary Confucius thought. Maybe I should have been practising Buddhism, as is the religion in Cambodia, I thought. But no, it was to Vietnam I owed the debt and I was dutybound to repay it. I could only think of one way to shake it off. To leave Phnom Penh quickly as I could. After 48 hours, a snatched visit to S21, a room change to a less smelly one and a few consolatory beers, I was on my way out of there and starting to feel better. How had it gone so wrong?
Siem Reap felt different. My tuk-tuk driver immediately accepted my offer of just $2 payment to take me to my hostel. In return for discount transport, he simply wanted to pitch at me a tour of the Temples of Angkor Wat.
Generally, I don’t like being sold to but I liked the polite manner and humble face of Ny, my tuk-tuk driver. I didn’t want to book a tour the moment I’d stepped off the bus though, so I said I’d take Mr Ny’s phone number and call him when I was ready to talk about it. He seemed disappointed by that. If you’ve ever worked selling a product, you’ll understand why – people rarely come back to you, even when they say they will.
I looked Mr Ny’s tuk-tuk over, as we got out at our hostel – the excellent, modern Onederz hostel in Siem Reap. His bike was an old thing, a bit ragged round the edges. It was clear that it had been well taken care of and that it why the thing was still running but it’s days were surely numbered. I sensed that a humble guy like Mr Ny, was unlikely to the biggest earner in Siem Reap but that is not why I made good on my promise and called him. It was because I liked him. He hadn’t done me for $5 like the guy in Phnom Penh. He was an honest guy and wanted to do things right.
Angkor Wat at dawn is a spiritual experience. I don’t know if I’ve ever taken such a serene photograph, as I did that morning, as I walked amongst the monkeys foraging for scraps, in the shadows of the mighty temples. Cambodia paid out in the end. Maybe that means I now have to become a Buddhist for Thailand?