How do I sum up Cambodia in a few hundred words?
It is impossible of course. In one week I dipped my toe into the assault on the senses that is Cambodia. I laughed, I cried, I was amazed and inspired.
The smells and streets of Phnom Penh reminded me of Mexico. A vague smell of urine and rotting food, broken footpaths, and lots of activity. You walk down the middle of the street amongst the motor bikes, bicycles, air conditioned four wheel drives, and people. People live out in the open, amongst each other.
The traffic in Cambodia is surprisingly quiet. No constant horns that you get in so many chaotic cities. But then, Phnom Penh was not chaotic. There is constant movement, constant activity, but in a quietly organised way. The traffic weaves gently around itself, in an out of each other, never stopping, flowing.
It was hot. Sweat would drip down my back and down my legs as I walked. The city was quiet in the middle of the day, everyone hid away from the heat. As the evening breeze cooled the day, people crept out, the city buzzing again by nightfall.
Where did that breeze come from? As a Sydney sider, I associated a cool breeze with the ocean, yet we were not near the ocean. How does that work? Where does a cool breeze come from if not the ocean? Mmm.
There was a very particular atmosphere that made me think of Budapest in 1991. 1991 was a time when Hungary had only just come out from under the cloud of communism. The city was poor, tired and struggling – yet at the same time there was this surge of energy. Buildings being renovated, new businesses springing up. Old people determined and resilient, young people daring to hope.
I learnt so much on this trip. So much about Cambodia, its history, and so much about myself. Cambodia’s recent history is so violent and so far reaching, there is no person there unaffected. Every family lost close friends and relatives, every person experienced personal suffering. I heard this from our guides, who had the tough task of sharing the Sad Story. A story that there is no right way to tell, no way to explain.
They endure, as do their ancient recipes, stories and dances. I ate Amok, a delicious type of curry, almost every night. I watched giggling teenagers perform their traditional dances for the tourists.
The ancient history is so enchanting, so full of richness and beauty it takes your breath away. Temples in the jungle seem impossibly fantastical, as if a childhood storybook was opened and its contents laid out before you.
Cambodia was impossible to just observe. It had to be tasted, touched and smelt – swum in.
Cambodia reminded me of everywhere, but nowhere. It stays with me. Part of me is still flying around the streets of Phnom Penh on a Tuk-Tuk.