When I boarded the plane from Anchorage, Alaska, I knew I was headed for a paradigm shift. When I disembarked 22 hours later in Siem Reap, I knew I had had no idea quite how great that shift would be. It was pouring rain in Siem Reap, and airport workers held umbrellas for us as we ran across open tarmac from the plane to Customs. Customs was as old-school as it gets: men in shirtsleeves sitting at a long wooden desk stamping passports. Lizards hovered watchfully on the ceiling. We finally left the airport around midnight, for a long bus ride through dark, rainy streets to our hotel. This was the heart of darkness: the occasional orange streetlight cast a dim pool around it, bringing food stalls, small groups huddled under umbrellas, and young people on motos into a dark silhouette. We left the city center and drove through narrow, pot-holed, flooded dirt streets to our hotel and, exhausted, collapsed into bed.
The next morning dawned clear and beautiful. I woke early and wandered about outside, taking in the bright orchids, the palm trees, the birds, the humid air, the sound of the housekeepers sweeping the water away. I found a tower on the compound, and from there looked out onto rows of small homes on stilts, flooded fields where children fished for crabs. Men, women, children, and monks passed by on foot, bicycle, and moto on their morning routes.
It’s a lovely country.
This first twelve hours in the country in a way encapsulates my impression of the entire trip. There were times of great pleasure and discovery, and times of great anxiety and discomfort. The natural beauty of this land was incredibly heartwarming, in and around Siem Reap, on our long drive through provincial rice fields and forests, and in the village suburbs of Phnom Penh. The openness and resilience of the people, too, was amazing, whether they were cynical professionals, eager street kids, quiet shopgirls, or NGO leaders telling us about their organizations with pride. And, most of all, this country’s commitment to Buddhism as a religious, social and cultural force – as the lifeblood of the people – shone through, even after having been so drained so recently.
Over the course of the trip we met with 16 NGOs, a group of monks, and representatives of the US Embassy. After having studied human trafficking and economic development for so long on paper, it was remarkable to see how these issues play out on the ground in this specific location. Every time we felt that we had learned just about everything and couldn’t stomach yet another meeting, we’d hear something new, or hear a different perspective, that filled out the picture even more and created more ties between job availability, education system, corruption, medical care availability, culture, religion, the Khmer Rouge era, cross-border politics, migration, sex work, and human trafficking. It was just as remarkable to walk down a street and see the things we’d just spent two hours discussing: street kids pushing books and bracelets or simply begging; squatters and scavengers; old men, land mind victims, begging so humbly as to make one weep; middle-aged foreigners with young Khmer women; karaoke bars; and even brothels.
I was fortunate to be able to spend my early mornings before our meetings at Wat Ounalom, fifteen minutes’ walk from our hotel, talking with a monk and a grad student whom I’d befriended. This provided a pleasant counterpart and in some ways an antidote to the heavy material we were taking in every day with NGO visits, Khmer Rouge site visits, and simply walking on the streets. It was lovely to hear the monk describe the importance of Buddhism in Cambodia, and the ways in which they’d been rebuilding since the Khmer Rouge systematically destroyed monasteries and killed monks (and all professionals, artists, teachers, middle class – anyone who might resist them). It was lovely to hear him speak of the statues of the Buddha and of Hindu Gods, of the stupas and murals, of the history of the lovely temple which he called his home. And it was lovely to be invited to honor the historic Buddha statue in a small shrine along with the grad student Sophal.
I’m very grateful to have been able to go on such a trip: to understand the situation of this country; to understand how human trafficking plays out on the ground there; to understand how NGOs work; and to get a sense for how I might live in a place like this. I was very pleased to discover that I felt very comfortable in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (more so than in Alaska, in fact, where I’d spent the prior three months working), and that NGO work seemed that it would suit me very well. I now look forward even more to my studies in this sector and to future travel in this part of the world. This year: Cambodia. Next year: India.