Monday, 9 May 2016

The Strangers of Siem Reap

I stepped into Siem Reap airport, after a cramped Air Asia flight, and felt lost. It was the first time I had entered a country alone. I'd read a lot before this trip though, what to expect, what to be wary of, etc. I walked over to the phone counter to buy a sim card (knew what to buy, which company, what plan and all that) and two smiling faces quickly got my phone all set up with a "welcome to Siem Reap, have a wonderful stay!" I'm taken aback by the fluent English, especially in contrast to the broken English which I hear and converse in every day in Bangkok.

With 3g equipped smartphone, I quickly open Google Maps. Then I notice there are no cabs anywhere. The foreigners take tuk tuks out of the airport and I'm thinking, "pssh, tourists and their obsession with tuk tuks". As I wander around the airport parking lot, Friendly Stranger Number 3 walks up to me. He has an airport staff badge on and asks if I need any help. Again in fluent English. All I can manage to say is "how can I get out of this airport?". He replies that I can take an "airport tuk tuk or airport bike" to get out for 2 dollars.

And so there I was, behind the bike driver on a beat up Suzuki one speed bike and the driver asking me if I want him to take me to Angkor Wat the next day. I reply with, "where did you learn English" to which he says, "school". I suddenly became one of those bright white smile, red lipstick English girls at bars that have asked me the same thing and I've given the same answer. I'd felt insulted when they asked me; why was it so surprising I spoke English? And here I was, berating someone else in the same way. Riding on those roads that were more dust than tar, I felt the relative nature of privilege. He left me at the hotel with a bittersweet smile.

Every Cambodian I met in Siem Reap had something in common : kindness drew out from their soul and shone in their eyes and smiles. Despite the immense poverty they suffered, every single one offered a warmth that one rarely gets from friends, let alone total strangers. You notice it all the more when you're alone; I was so much more sensitive to my surroundings. And so, stranger 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 gave way to so many amazing strangers over the next two days, that I I've entirely lost count. But I wanted to tell you my favourites.

Three of the hotel's staff - who offered me a cold towel, a drink and a room upgrade. Then, without invitation, took me through a map of the city, offered me free rides to and from the hotel whenever I wanted, arranged my trip to Angkor Wat, arranged a ride to the airport, recommended places to eat, tidied up a creaky old cycle so I could explore the town on my own and lent me 50 cents when I ran out of change. All services deployed with bows and smiles.

Two tuk tuk drivers - who carried me out the city on their makeshift contraptions so that I could experience the magic of the sun rising and setting in two different corners of the city. Who rode quietly with dust in their eyes and sweat on their palms but still turned back with a smile when I was stepping off or welcomed me with a wave when I returned. Never expecting a tip, but beaming when I forcefully pressed a dollar into their hands.

Shirtless Monk who poured me ice cold water after I'd climbed a kilometre of hill in the midday sun. I'd arrived drenched in sweat and panting breathless at his door. He sat me on his stone bench and told me to enjoy the view, shared his photos of himself in his saffron robes and explained to me in broken English that he'd been living in that dusty, deserted place for 15 years. I touched his feet when he held me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and wished me a long and happy life always.

Ant loving tour guide - who found me waiting at the top of the hill, just me and my kindle, and started speaking loudly so that I could be part of his tour, eventually getting his Italian clients to smile and welcome me in to listen to his anecdotes. He took a red ant from a tree onto his finger and let it run around all over, showed the ant to tourists and then set the ant back on a leaf saying, "its life is as good as yours or mine" and I cringed, because I'd only 10 minutes ago stomped an ant dead as it scrambled too close to my bag.

Roadside Bartender - who sat with me as I cleaned a White Russian, followed by a Margarita and told me about his day job and best place to find amok. He raved about his cute niece and went on to comment on the similarities between Indians and Cambodians. I don't remember his name. He kept calling himself "Mark" because it's easier to pronounce and he played cheesy Bruno Mars songs and sang along with me like we'd been friends forever.

The last meal I had in Siem Reap was this incredible Lok Lak, a beef and rice concoction that melted in my mouth. They invited me to the kitchen so I could give my regards to "the Chef" and I saw that there was no white hat or sparkling kitchen, but just another guy in a tattered T-shirt and shorts, with that unmistakably warm Cambodian smile. When I told him it was the best goddamn food I'd eaten in Siem Reap, he bowed and his humility brought a lump to my throat.

That same evening, as I rode my last tuk tuk to the airport, I couldn't help but remember all these different people and the tears just came streaming down my face. I didn't know anything about the history or significance of Siem Reap or Cambodia for that matter. I went to 2 temples, because I was too sleepy to do more. I'd just turned up to get my visa renewed. But I left wishing I'd paid more attention, talked to more people, spent more time. What looked like a dusty, crumpled mess of a city, now seemed almost magical in my eyes. I felt this sinking feeling of going back to this awful, money making corporate world. Most of all, I just didn't want to go home, when strangers were so much kinder.


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  2. You what i wish in my life or what i am all dreaming about, its that i want to be at a place where everyone else is a stranger to me and i am a stranger to them i think its the best feel and the most comfortable one