a new favourite country?

Ok, maybe it’s too early to say for sure but I am quietly confident that barring no strange twists I may have found a new favourite country. Cambodia is only the nineteenth country (EDIT, make that twenty one…how could I forget Spain and Greece) I have set foot in (connecting flights naturally don’t count) but after just four days here I can safely say that its people, culture and general upbeat nature have made me already fall for the place.

I have a vested interest in Cambodia. As I have explained in previous blogs I have had a sister and a brother in law set up home in this country. They found work, both paid and unpaid in Phnom Penh for a whole year of their lives. My mother has spent pleasurable time here while several friends have also told tales of being smitten with Cambodia, explaining how great it is. Just a handful of days in this fascinating land have seen me want to sign up to this Khmer fan club.

All of this could easily cloud a personal opinion. When you hear people’s views on any subject it is naturally a human instinct to follow and want to agree. I think travel is a little different to day-to-day examples of this, and I am the kind of person that will happily differ from public opinion if I don’t agree. But I do agree one hundred percent with the opinion that Cambodia is awesome. Perhaps this is slightly too early to announce my love for a country? Even it is, I defiantly want to see more of it, experience more of its friendly people and take in everything it has to offer. If Cambodia was a woman, I would defiantly be asking it out on a second date – no questions asked.

And what are the reasons for its brilliance? Well, number one for me is most defiantly its people. I have never encountered such a country with a general overawing feeling of one so outwardly and openly happy with its current position. Every bus ride, tuk tuk journey and stroll through its streets so far has been met with nothing but warm, happy smiles from the average Khmer person. They say first impressions are crucial, and from the offset the people have been so welcoming and pleased to see people visit their country. I have lost count at the number of Cambodians who have waved and smiled at me in the last few days. Its funny how in England, and most over countries in the so called developed world, smiling at strangers innocently would bring confused or even angry returns back. In England if you smile at a stranger you could be accused of being a little bit odd, or a tad simple. If you smile at a member of the opposite sex it naturally means you want to have sexual intercourse with them, not that you could just be being friendly. I quite often bang on about going into Tesco or Sainsbury’s and getting some sour faced moron serving you who barely can look you in the eye. Here in Cambodia smiling is the norm, whether you are interacting with someone one on one or not.

It isn’t just the fact we are tourists that we are having this amazing attitude shown towards us. There was a feeling in Thailand that I felt people were being nice because they had to be. I wrote about that in Phuket. I have been watching the local people with fascination, and they all seem to show incredible respect to one another. It seems a very non-confrontation country which is quite happy going along day to day and getting by. I don’t want to get into a history lesson but I do wonder if the frightening history of modern day Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge has something to do with its people’s uplifting attitude. If you had survived several years of a leadership that either killed your friends or family because they were seen as ‘intellects’ or you had been moved out of your home to work effectively as a slave in a rice field, maybe you’d have the same ‘happy to be alive and well’ attitude? Its such a cliché, but if you have your freedom, what more do you really need to be happy?

This was a country battered by war in the late 1900’s – as recently as 1998 some factions of the Khmer Rouge still existed. During its power in the 1970’s it is estimated that up to two million people were killed from such ridiculous reasons for wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language. I find it quite amazing that this went on for nearly four years before effective outside intervention. It seems that original support for Pol Pot and is Khmer Rouge regime came because the Cambodian people were so scared and frightened from American bombing of it’s country (they were fighting Vietnam at the time and believed Cambodia was hiding some rebels) that they had no alternative but to trust the Khmer Rouge.

With all of that horror still very much in living memory for some surviving Cambodians, I wonder if this current new found love of the world and seeing visitors to its country can somewhat be linked to the idea of simply having its freedom. If that is the case, I hope this endearing attitude continues for many generations. The kids here seem quite content on what they have – which, in many cases is very little. As with any bus journey through a third world country you see people living in pretty basic and in some cases, less than basic conditions. On our trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we passed many flooded villages, full of people smiling, playing and working. They seemed content with what they had, just sitting at the roadside by their little shops, watching the world go by. Perhaps they don’t know of anything ‘better’ so why should they care?

Another endearing feature about Cambodia is the manner in which the kids sell the usual bits and bobs to the tourists. We’ve had several kids come up selling us bracelets or whatever and their banter is quite brilliant. They don’t just push a product in your face like in many other counties I have visited – they actually ask what country you are from (I’m still being accused regularly of being Australian) then continue to share the knowledge they have of your country. The great thing is all the kids know the same facts – the population of Britain is sixty million, David Cameron is PM and that there is a credit crunch! One girl at Angkor Wat was a specialist at naming capital cities, Madagascar and the Democratic Republic Congo being her best. I told her I’d buy one for her if she knew the England cricket captain…..Andrew Strauss was not in her repertoire! Another Cambodian kid was cycling next to me yesterday and asked ‘What country?’ When I replied ‘England’ he paused for a moment, smiled, and said ‘Lovely Jubilee!’ in a Del Boy style voice before cycling off to catch his mates.

That kind of interaction is priceless. As was the opportunity to visit briefly a place very close to Michelle and Fred – CCH, or Centre for Children’s Happiness in Phnom Penh. Now, I’ve very inexperienced when it comes to dealing with places like this. Sure, I give loose change to charities in pubs or in shops, I’ll even donate to Children In Need, but close up visits to charity organisations are very new to me. In fact, CCH was the first charity I’ve ever visited. It was a tidy set up, with many more classrooms than I expected. We arrived with lessons still in progress and sat around saying hello to the odd kid who would run up, say hello to Fred (well remembered) and practice their English on us. There was one little lad who must have been new to school being in Grade 1. He ran straight up to me, grabbed my arm tightly and started practicing the alphabet and counting up to ten. It was a strange moment, as I’d never been seen as an adult to look up to and ask for help before, but it was a lovely thing to see the smile on his face when he got to the letter Z with a little bit of help from me on the way. I can see why Michelle enjoyed her time teaching at CCH – a picture of her with some of the kids is on the wall to this day, from when their photo exhibition was viewed by the King of Cambodia. A pretty impressive mark to leave on the place.

We watched some kids sing a song in English as part of an English lesson (amazingly) It was all to do with the letter ‘K’ with the best bit undoubtedly being the kids go from pronouncing simple words such as ‘Key and King’ to the slightly tougher ‘Kindergarten’! They have a website that you can view at http://www.cchcambodia.org if you want to know more about the work that goes on.

We arrived that night in Siem Reap in torrential rain. The tuk tuk managed to get through what must have been a good foot and a half of water and got us to our guesthouse, the Golden Banana, in one piece. Luckily it had cleared some what by the time by hopped on a couple of hired bicycles the following morning.

Now usually I despise cycling. It either means that I am cycling to work when I would rather still be in bed or I am sweating my balls off coming back from playing golf (yes, you read that right – I do cycle to the golf course with my clubs strapped over my shoulders) This was a slightly more uplifting bike ride though. For we were heading for a site about 5 miles out of Siem Reap that is known for being the eighth wonder of the world – Angkor Wat. This was an amazing place that doesn’t need a history lesson. Just make sure you visit this site one day – and I would suggest by bike. We quite happily rode from temple to temple on our little one geared, Dutch style bikes while doing our best to avoid the numerous Korean tour buses that speed from major temple to the next without time to breath. Despite this being comfortably the biggest tourist attraction in this fine country, the vast area of the leech-free (phew) rainforest meant that you could find many places to find a little quiet time away from the hoards and take it all in. The most impressive temple in my view was not Angkor Wat – it was a temple that oozed eeriness. It was called Bayon, or as Wiki informs me, its full name is Prasat Bayon. This was a temple that was not only mightily impressive in size, but also gave an air of mystery with the large number of identical carved faces of Bayon.

Angkor Wat itself is singularly the largest religious site in the world. It is spread out over large, open grounds and protected by a wide moat. The local kids were doing back flips off the bridge that takes you over the moat – a slightly better place to cool off than the kids in Hereford risking life and limb jumping from the Victoria bridge! Inside the walls were plenty of other smaller temples and a long walkway that led you to the grounds of a big temple at the back. Sadly you can’t climb the very steep steps to get to a slightly more elevated a position here, as a tourist slipped and died a couple of years back, closing the steps to the top. Not a great way to go, to be fair.

My final Siem Reap tale comes from this morning where we had the experience of seeing not one, but two floating villages. The plan was to take a tuk tuk to the official boat that would take us on a trip out on the lake to see how some local people lived out on the water. We didn’t actually have to go that far as a mile or so outside Siem Reap we experienced our first floating village. Or perhaps sunken village would be more accurate. The river has flooded here big style, and if we thought the water was deep when we arrived a couple of night ago, then this was something else. Our tuk tuk driver somehow managed to avoid flooding the engine and got us through several stretches of water that was almost coming into the back of the tuk tuk at times. He was aided by the warnings of big sticks placed in the water that indicated where a pot hole was. I recalled the days of playing football down the park and doing the same, but warning of dog shit as opposed to holes in a road! The locals didn’t seem overly bothered, not panicking that their homes and livelihoods were two feet deep in flood water – just chilling in hammocks, playing in the water while waving and smiling at tourists braving the floods to get to the real floating village.

So, after just four days in Cambodia I can safely say I have started to fall for the place. I’m looking forward to reconfirming this in a few days time in my next date with this brilliant country.

Now its time for another ridiculously cheap Angkor beer – excellent.


7 Responses to “a new favourite country?”

  1. October 17, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Great to see you seeing the world Rich. I’m enjoying the read as well.I know you’ve always been a bit of a traveller but no cricket this time! Keep enjoying yourself mate.

  2. 3 Martin Chapple
    October 17, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Sounds like it’s all exceeding your expectations…brilliant! say hi to Fred from us all please. x x x x

  3. 5 Donna
    October 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    I am delighted to read that you are getting so much of this very special part of your trip Richard.

  4. 6 Matt
    October 18, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Yo Rich
    Glad Cambodia is so much fun.
    I have to say, you’ve got a really impressive writing style, very flowing, very readable – I’d say there’s definitely some potential as a writer of some sort – have you thought of contacting one of the cricket websites to write a blog while you’re watching the Ashes (from a supporters point of view).

  5. 7 Jane Wickets
    October 19, 2010 at 2:37 am

    OOHH … Rich, check it out, a storm may be on your way … Keep your eyes peeled x

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