Facing Culture Shock in Cambodia
A one-way ticket from Bangkok to Cambodia was all I needed as I grabbed my buffet breakfast to go and headed to the bus station. I hadn’t had a second thought about the country I was entering, but I knew it was going to be amazing. It’s said that Cambodia is different from the countries surrounding it, but how different could it really be? As I glared out the window at the beautiful scenery of Thailand, I saw money, development and lavish greenery.
That quickly changed as I crossed the border into Cambodia. It was like flipping the page in a picture book. There was no slow adjustment, it was quick, an almost instant change in surroundings. It was like entering another world.
As soon as I arrived in Cambodia, I turned my backpack around to the front of my chest, as I’d heard about snatchings at the border. A common mistake that tourists make is to lose sight of their belongings. After entering Cambodia and crossing the border, I boarded another coach for the three-hour journey to Siem Reap.
As we pulled in to the first rest stop, I kept telling myself not to be afraid of the toilets! So as I searched for a western toilet due to my unbearable fear of squat toilets, I completely forgot that I would have to supply my own toilet paper! As I searched the restroom for tissues or any sort of paper, a woman approached me and gazed deep into my soul, through the windows of my eyes. In response to my standoffish posture she said, “Beautiful eyes.” Blue eyes were not a common sight in Cambodia.
Entering my hostel in Siem Reap, I showered quickly and excitedly rushed into the streets to explore. I would up at the famous Pub Street for dinner, and came face-to-face with a child unlike any I’d ever seen before. I had been told that children do the begging in Cambodia, so tourists pity them and offer them money. The children would often say: “Come on lady, open your heart and open your wallet.” A young boy in a yellow t-shirt approached me; he asked if I could spare him some money for milk to feed his cat. I told him that I had no money on me as I was just looking around the streets. A moment later, he bit my arm and uttered words I didn’t know at his age. From then, on I avoided children.
I had been told that children do the begging in Cambodia, so tourists pity them and offer them money. The children would often say: “Come on lady, open your heart and open your wallet.”
Early the next morning, after cleaning my bite and wrapping it up to avoid infection, I headed out to meet a group to experience sunrise over Angkor Wat. I hadn’t done my research and I felt useless as a traveller, so I had to visit the souvenir store to purchase a shirt that covered my shoulders; luckily, I had pants long enough to hide my knees. When visiting temples and religious sights across Asia, hiding shoulders and knees is basic cultural awareness, and all tourists must do so.
The sun hidden in the cloudy sky sparkled through, greeting the new day. Angkor Wat is also referred to as the ‘City of Temples.’ Getting a spot for the sunrise was simple, but if I’d arrived any later I would have been lost among the clamorous bustle of travellers and photographers attempting to see past the heads in front of them. When visiting Angkor Wat, the earlier in the day you go the better.
Leaving the small town of Siem Reap for Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, was a lengthy drive, but nevertheless worth it. Phnom Penh is a buzzing city that two million people call home. It took me time to warm up to it, as there were children running around everywhere, pawing at tourists’ bags and searching the rubbish for food, while adults whistled at every tourist to lure them into riding their tuk-tuks.
Besides a haunting history, Phnom Penh is home to interesting museums, beautiful architecture and a colonial-era elegance. Visiting the nearby Killing Fields, a place of remembrance for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, a heavy lump settled in my throat. I had to step carefully around the skeletons that were visible in the ground.
Cambodia was a confronting place to visit. Travelling from the luxury of Australia to a developing country takes some adjustment. There’s no clean water, and it’s important to stay vigilant in the cities. But besides the chaos and poverty of Cambodia are the uplifting spirits of those who call this country home, sharing happiness with those who visit.