Sunday, February 28, 2010
I am back in China from my 20-day trip to Thailand and Cambodia. I am busy getting ready for the new school semester, beginning this week. For now, some highlights from our trip.
We split our time between Cambodia and Thailand, between big cities and beach towns. I had a deeper impression of Cambodia, probably because we spent more time on the road there and saw much from our bus windows or from the back of a tuk-tuk, the local taxi (basically a motorcycle with a wheeled cart attached in back).
The poverty of Cambodia would have been more striking if I had not lived in China already for almost half a year -- although from what I could see Cambodia is much poorer than China. Children walk around barefoot. Homes are small, tin-roofed, hammocks hanging in front.
From the capital of Phnom Penh to the Angkor Temples near Siem Reap to the beach towns on the southern coast, we watched daily life happen. I am glad we did not fly from one destination to another. As much as I love going to museums or historical sites, sometimes I am just as content watching daily life happen, especially when that life is so different from my own.
At the same time it is poor, Cambodia is also one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We stayed for a day in Kampot, on the southern coast close to the Vietnam border. We had booked a night at a hotel bungalow about a ten-minute tuk-tuk ride from the main strip, down a bumpy red dirt road. In front of the cluster of wooden bungalows was a river that, according to a hand-drawn map we were given, flowed into a kind of cul-de-sac.
There was plenty of daylight left when we arrived, so we decided to take a trip down the river by kayak. I gave a good effort but ended up letting my boyfriend do most of the paddling while I took in the scenery. Lush green palm trees, deep blue waters and skies, mountains in the distance. It was a bit like floating through a postcard, but this was real and right here in front of me.
We saw maybe one foreigner, but mostly we encountered locals along the route. People kneeled on their wooden boats with fishing nets slung over the edge. Two boys dunking themselves in the cool water looked up at us and smiled as we paddled past. In the river cul-de-sac, we paddled by an old woman, her head wrapped in cloth, who was paddling a canoe by herself. She did not look up at us, only forward at the river.
I couldn't help but feel I was an intruder in this landscape. Bangkok and Angkor Wat and the other main attractions were different; they were swarming with tourists and over-attentive locals selling overpriced things. But here, life looked like it hadn't changed much for many years. I wished I spoke Cambodian so I could strike up a conversation, but I had barely gotten down 'hello.' So I was resigned to be a tourist, floating by and just watching.