When my plane from Bangkok broke through the clouds on its way to the airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, all I could think about was how untouched everything looked. Normally when you land somewhere, no matter how remote you think the place might be, you can see from the air that there is typically still no virgin land; the ground below is sectioned off into rectangles and squares of varying colors depending on what kind of crop is being grown there. Roads usually zig zag and swirl throughout neighborhoods and cities, and cars look like ants scurrying across them. That’s not the case in Cambodia.
As we slowly continued our landing, the dark green and lush earth below me showed no signs of being overtaken by farmers, roads, or cars. I could see some squares of land that were being used as rice fields, a few red dirt roads stretching from one place to another, although I couldn’t see what they came from or led to, and it didn’t seem like cars even existed in this part of the world. There was also water…everywhere. It’s monsoon season in this part of the world, but in Thailand it hadn’t been so obvious. Cambodia looked like it was mostly water with some soggy land and palm trees washed up here and there, and the few houses that I did see were built on stilts.
It wasn’t until it looked like we should be over the airport landing strip that I saw signs of city life. Roofs and a few paved roads started to pop up just minutes before we touched the ground. There was a small city clustered around a bend in the brown river below, but no skyscrapers or sleek office buildings made any appearances in the capital of this curious country. I couldn’t get over how uninhabited Cambodia looked, and honestly wondered how a public transportation system could even exist to take me from one city to the next.
After landing we made our way to the immigration and customs area, which is where I got my first taste of how a truly underdeveloped country differs from most. To get into Cambodia you have to pay $20 US for a visa upon arrival, along with your application form and one passport size photo. There was one long counter with immigration officials stationed behind it. My flight was the only one that had come in, and we formed into a line in front of the very left side of the counter. When I got up to the front I gave all of my documents and money to the worker who proceeded to motion me over to a small mob of people gathered around the other end of the counter. It was a good thing that my flight was the only one there at the time because the method for getting back your passport with the newly placed visa inside was a little unorganized. One of the workers was being handed everyone’s passports after they had been looked over and then calling out people’s names to come up and get their documents. Imagine having multiple flights to deal with…
I had organized a pick up from the airport with the guesthouse that I was staying with, and upon exiting the airport I promptly saw my name written on a piece of paper that was being held up by a six year old little girl. The shy looking Cambodian girl was accompanied by her two and half year old brother, Sam, and her non english speaking mother. I gave them a quick smile and wave and made my way around the gate to meet them. Sam immediately reached up to hold my hand, and the mother handed me her cell phone so that the guesthouse owner, Martin, could let me know that this woman didn’t speak any english, but that she was there to pick me up and being me to the guesthouse. We waited a few more minutes for another person who came in on the same flight and then headed off in their tuk-tuk (a motorcycle with a bench seat attached to the back) into the city.
Phnom Penh (pronounced Puh-nom pen) is a dirty, noisy, and crowded city. The sidewalks are broken, covered in litter, and are mostly used as parking spaces by cars and motorcycles. Rats crawl around the shattered pavement beside buildings and the stench of raw meat lingers down side streets that are crowded with outdoor markets. After having traveled through quite a few Asian cities by now, none of this really phased me, but it was interesting to see this kind of city in a country that looked so untouched upon arrival. When the French were in Cambodia years ago they left behind bistros and cafes along the riverside in Phnom Penh. The architecture in that area is definitely inspired by the French, and bakeries nestle themselves in alongside Cambodian food carts selling cooked animal tongues and meat on skewers. Cambodians with missing limbs from land mines or attacks by the Khmer Rogue beg on the sides of streets or sell used books outside of cafes. Children are sent out by their parents to sell jewelry to foreigners or to simply beg for food or money, and tuk tuk or motorcycle taxis almost beg you to use their services.
Cambodians are mostly reserved and extremely friendly, their country is stunningly beautiful, but they have seen atrocities that no one should have to witness. They live in a place that shows signs of slow progress from the war-torn days, but are constantly reminded of their past by war victims missing hands or legs and deadly, rural areas that still contain land mines. In this case, sometimes it’s best not to wander off the beaten track.
*Also, I forgot to include this: The reason that the little girl and her brother were there to pick me up from the airport was because it was a few days before a big national holiday in Cambodia and most of the guesthouse staff were gone on holiday. Martin, the english speaking owner, had to stay at the reception of the guesthouse, and the only other person there who could read the departure and arrival boards at the airport was the 6 year old girl. Without her, the woman would not have known if my flight had been delayed or anything like that. The little boy Sam was just along for the ride, though. 😉