Cambodia – Part 1

So there was a time, a few years back, or rather a few many years back, when Yashraj movies had not come into my life. When romance did not involve chiffon saris and snowcapped mountains, when nature did not mean coniferous trees and gurgling brooks and soft green lush meadows, when ‘character’ did not mean quaint wooden houses, or cobblestoned streets with beautiful lanterns, when beauty was not synonymous with neatness. That was a world before Europe, or rather a time when Europe had not yet touched me

It was a long, long time back.

So I have been addicted to Europe for close to a decade. Well, I use Europe in a very loose fashion, in the sense that anything that’s geographically close to, or anything that looks similar Europe has been included in my definition. So yeah, Scandinavia is not Europe. What about UK and Ireland? Not really Europe?  Who cares!  You can practically touch France across the English channel and that’s good enough for me! I digress, but to coming to the point – I was addicted to Europe. And yes before you jump, I do know that every country in Europe has a different landscape, a different character, a different ‘feel’. I would have to be deaf, dumb, blind, and terribly stupid not to realize it. But nevertheless, I loved Europe, every bit of it that I had physically seen, and every bit of it that was in my fantasies.

So when the husband suggested travel to Asia, I was dumbstruck. As in really, mind-blowingly, “dear lord! Asia?” kind of dumbstruck.

I nodded my head and tried to digest the information. So it was definitely an option as he rightly mentioned. It was even a sensible option considering that I had travelled to the west quite a few times, and it was surely logical to now spread my wings towards the east. Looking at it purely from a traveler’s perspective, it was a part of the world I had not explored much, and how could I not be curious about a world which was so unique? And yes, places from Asia have been on my to-do list for a long, long time. Japan with its unique heritage and stories, Mongolia with its vast nothingness, Cambodia with Angkor Wat, Indonesia with its volcanoes. Besides, for the longest, longest time, I have believed that Kerala is the most beautiful place I have seen, and it’s uniquely Asia. I had also done Malaysia and Singapore, and I had liked what I had seen…so why was I so reluctant to even consider it?

I am still not sure. I have always loved mountains more than the sea, and preferred hikes over beach holidays. I have also enjoyed being cold, more than being hot. My  idea of a perfect getaway has been a log hut on the mountains, my picture of romance was a campfire in front of a cold lake surrounded by mountains on a star-studded night. My memory of a perfect day has been trudging up a rocky mountain in biting cold feeling the benevolent gaze of the sun, sitting in companionable silence on the summit, bidding adieu to daylight lying on soft heather as the darkness enveloped my eyelids. And yes, I thought cities were pretty too..esp when they had cobblestoned streets, or acres of gardens, or a 1000 year old heritage…or a mention in all those books I used to devour as a kid.

So I made excuses with the husband. Told him that we could do always do Asia, it was right at our doorstep after all, so maybe we should try something else? The husband shook his head in disbelief, but didn’t prod, and so we finally chose Africa. Not Europe I know, but a safari is safari, and I wanted one. And then things went wrong – a missed medical injection, visa issues, and botched up leave plans. So we were back to square one, or rather Asia again. By now the husband was aware of my reluctance and suggested Cambodia.

So finally Cambodia it was..

My first memory of Cambodia is that of lightning. Fierce, striking, shit-in-my pants, oh-so-beautiful lightning. Take that back. My first memory of Cambodia is that of cold coffee, the most amazing rich strong cold coffee. And that of a casino. I know. I know. Too many varying images. And that’s exactly how Cambodia was – like a Picasa collage. Images that are rich yet widely divergent, images that are intense and disparate, images that in a collage make total sense. So where do I start? Maybe where it all began dramatic as that sounds 🙂

So we walked away from Thailand and moved into Cambodia. On our feet. Just walked across, and walked into total chaos. I wish I could tell you that it was beautiful, but it wasn’t. It was crowded and noisy and dusty. There were tons of tourists, mostly backpackers, and there were tons of locals, people who worked across the borders. The air was filled with the smell of food – roasted barbecued meat in varying shapes and sizes, the sun was blazing, and the atmosphere seemed to have this  dragging throbbing energy which seemed to be heavy, yet exciting. After immigration, the first building I saw was of a casino hotel, and in the long tradition of casino hotels, it was wholeheartedly ugly. We walked into the outdoor coffee shop, or what passes for it, and were instantly charmed. A beef burger for 30 bucks? and cold coffee for the same? I could marry the whole ugly structure for that kind of thing. And so yes, my first abiding memory is of us sitting in tired silence in front of an ugly casino, drinking the best cold coffee in the world.

And the lightning? Yes, I will come to that. So the journey from the border town of Poipet to Siem Reap is roughly two hours. It’s roughly three and half hours in a rickety old bus on a wet rainy afternoon. Of course we had the option of taking a taxi, but we decided that when in Cambodia, we should do what Cambodians do and take a bus. As I boarded the bus, I realized that there was no way to really test this hypothesis as the bus was full of tourists. Coming to think of it, in a country where the average spending is less than 2 dollars a day, was it likely that locals would spend 9 dollars on a 3 hour bus journey? So we tossed our luggage into the backseat  along with 30 other backpacks, squeezed ourselves into the tiny seats, fought with the driver along with the backpackers, pretended the AC was working, and finally settled down in satisfied silence. And watched the lightning. As the hot sweaty afternoon melted into grim cloudy skies and pouring rain, I huddled close to my book and a snoring hubby. The lightning first brought my attention to the landscape. Miles and miles and miles of open land. Green, lush, rich land. Land that was currently being torn apart by silver grey lightning. Small run down houses nestled among the fields, weathering the rain as best as they could. The sound of rain pounding on the glass window while lightning lit up the fields with breathtaking clarity. And with that clarity, I realized how beautiful Cambodia is. And with that thought, came the next – lightning usually strikes in open fields, and here we were, sitting targets for warring nature. 🙂  But yes, I would like to think of that as my first image of Cambodia.

Cambodia does not mean Angkor Wat, and it does not definitely mean Siem reap. But that was our destination. So we took a tuk tuk to the hotel. So a Tuk Tuk is quite different from an auto rickshaw. For one, it’s not a vehicle on its own; it’s more of a cart pulled by a scooter or a motorbike. The more important difference is that it’s driven by people who are quite polite and respectful (unlike the typical indian autodriver!). We did notice that there were no fixed rates, and there was quite a lot of haggling, but the people seemed ‘softer’ for lack of a better term. The husband pointed this out with habitual enthusiasm, while I remarked with habitual cynicism that this could be because we were tourists. Yes, I can be a horrible travel partner sometimes!

As our tuk tuk wove through the roads, I noticed two things straight away. Siem Reap is littered with hotels, and even more with good looking plush hotels. It suddenly struck me that Cambodia was a widely sought after destination. So I always knew that Angkor Wat was popular, but the roads paved with hotels brought home the fact with touristy clarity. The second thing I noticed was that it did not bother me, and if you know me at all, you would realize that THAT is really strange. I have an acute allergy to touristy places – it brings out severe symptoms in me like grumpiness, rudeness, unreasonable-ness, and many more worse things. I caught the husband casting surreptitious glances at me, waiting in breathless agony for my tantrums to surface. In fact he almost seemed disappointed when I grinned at him with breathtaking beauty, giving him the full benefit of my general happiness with the world.

The happiness continued through the rest of the evening. We were welcomed like long lost family in the small but comfortable hotel that we had chosen. As usual, the husband walked out of the hotel in jubilant eagerness to make some new friends, and I rushed into the room with nervous trepidation to check how clean the toilet was. Successful and reasonably pleased with our individual endeavors, we met again in the hotel lobby and exchanged notes over chilled honey and lemongrass tea. The hotel lobby was also graced by a number of the hotel employees who seemed genuinely pleased and entertained at our presence in their hotel. I wish I could say it was because of my attractive presence, but the tan that I was gifted from the beaches of Thailand and the dust from the journey ..well suffice to say, even the husband on the honeymoon found it difficult to say how pretty I looked. Coming back to the boys, and they were boys not more than 20 years old, I looked at them hovering around with shy smiles and suddenly started giggling. The husband was used to my giggling attacks and paid no attention, instead choosing to make friends with all of them. While I composed myself, I explained myself to the patient hubby. I was suddenly reminded of Bangalore and all those mallu supermarkets on our street. Yeah, I know it sounds vague, but visit any of these supermarkets with names as vague as M.K retail, J.K retail, or as creative as Evershine Retail, and you would find them filled wth small mallu boys with tiny moustaches and embroidered jeans hovering in each bay, working on lifting a really heavy 1 kilo pack of maida, and placing it on the shelf. Visit the supermarket on a working day, and you would find not more than 5 customers in the shop, and around 30 of the apprentices learning the trade. Ask for maida in mallu and you would see a shy smile break below the moustache, and you would be suddenly treated like royalty. I broke away from my thoughts and returned to the scene of action, where the husband was in animated conversation with the boys. Listening in and sipping my lemongrass drink, I suddenly felt ashamed of my cynicism. With each sentence, I realized how much information those boys had, and how proud they were of their country. As we asked them questions, we realized that they were not tutored to answer to tourists, they answered questions with all the information and the heart they had, they spoke in halting English but with the ease that came with genuine kindness. The happiness now seemed like a faithful companion…

The next day we woke up to bright sunshine and interesting conversation. The hotel owner Mr Kim came over to the breakfast table with the newspaper and a cheerful greeting. We insisted on a traditional Cambodian breakfast of Konji and fried beef; we also insisted that Mr.Kim join us for breakfast. I think we disgraced ourselves slurping over the beef, but I am hoping that Mr Kim disregarded that, given that we were brilliant conversationalists. Some hope that, sigh. Mr Kim in addition to being kind, was an amazing storyteller. He talked to us about Cambodia’s tortured past, about its tolerance with its Buddhists beliefs, about its hopes for the future. As we listened spellbound (as much as you can be with a bowl of fried beef in front of you), I wove through a nation’s muddled history and encumbered present, away from the preconceived notions brought in by a tourist. Mr Kim spoke with restrained emotion about his village 50 miles away from Siem Reap, which did not have any electricity at all. He spoke about how Siem reap had changed after the civil war. He spoke about his hopes of completing his education a few years from now. Some of the stories were not pretty, but what amazed me was the kind of peace and acceptance that refected in his eyes. I have never thought that poverty was romantic, and I could see that Mr Kim thought the same. Also, this wasn’t some kind of stoic acceptance of fate, nor was this a tired defeated peace. Maybe it was something to do with his Buddhist beliefs, but whatever it was, it gave me hope.  Coming as an Indian tourist, I saw nothing exotic in the stories, but felt a brief empathy which probably was brought on by familiarity.

And then there was Angkor Wat….to be continued…

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