In late 2005 I made my first trip to Cambodia. Before my departure from Australia I’d bought myself a guidebook to the region. Instead of being stranded and needing to survive in an unfamiliar environment, the theory was that all I would have to do is turn to the guidebook of laziness for warmth and friendly advice. But upon submitting to the tome of general knowledge for those just visiting I felt guilty. What would I learn from this trip that I couldn’t live vicariously through everyone else before me? Of course, fulfilling all the requirements for an A grade cliché, to be separate from ‘the rest’, I wandered off the beaten path in Southeast Asia. However, my preconceived notions of a Tintin-esque adventure weren’t fulfilled in this manner.
Instead, what I relate to the New Mandala hive in the following occurred at one of those junctures where it is impossible to boast of charming remoteness.
One afternoon at Sugar and Spice’s bar and lodge in Siem Reap I met a Dutch man who claimed he worked for the UNHCR. After countless Tiger beers I was quite enamored by his stories of aiding victims in Haiti and Israel. As I was doing a degree in International Relations, I felt properly ingratiated and morally righteous sitting with this person, so I was not expecting what was to come. Getting emotional, he began to tell me about a Khmer girl he slept with. He estimated that she was around 12 years old. He said that the money he gave her would feed her family for a month and, therefore, his actions were justifiable. As though he thought I would think nothing of that, he then offered me use of his shower as I had told him I was sleeping in the cheaper rooms. Stunned.
Quickly I left the table and went for a walk. I saw some rambunctious Brits who were stoned, sitting outside their huts. I loathed everything that I thought I must represent. I wished to be Khmer. I kept walking and came to the Red Piano restaurant. Just round the corner were hundreds of women milling about talking loudly, and gyrating provocatively. They called to me and I nodded and made an about turn towards Sugar and Spice. This sequence of experiences was quite confusing and I decided to join the Brits and their long tradition of peaceful resolution. One said to me, “I think Angkor Wat is like the biggest playground in the world, I don’t care about all of this history shit.” Stunned.
The next morning, still confused and disappointed with myself, I went to buy some fruit. Walking passed the Red Piano, I saw some of the same women from the evening before sleeping on the road. As I got closer, I saw that one woman was squatting – her hands covering her face. I went to give the seemingly distressed woman a rambutan. She shouted at me and I didn’t know how to react except to make a hasty retreat. Interpreting her comments to be filled with anger and cynicism at the fruits of my evil foreign currency, my guilt about not punching the pedophile and reporting him, and the clichés that I came to Cambodia for, I accepted her outburst as confirmation of my self-depreciating conclusions. However, as I was about to turn the corner, she called out again, this time in English, and said “big party.” Stunned.
Later that week, I watched the dream I had of the sweltering Sun set over the never-ending Mekong sepia and understood a little more. Beginning to understand ones personal acquiescence surely isn’t a ‘new perspective.’ Perhaps though, my perspective isn’t what this story is about.
Colum Graham is, in his own words, an average westerner. He recently graduated with a pass degree and is presently saving money to bite the Honours bullet. The story he wrote before this one is titled “Inside North Korea”.