“Hey lady, tuk-tuk?” I hear from behind me, as I power walk my way down Street 134 in Phnom Penh.
It comes from a pudgy, smiling Cambodian (Khmer) man, lounging in the backseat of his tuk-tuk.
I turn around with a wide smile. Smiling is instinctual for me in Cambodia – a country with the most tumultuous history, yet the friendliest people. When you smile at Khmer people, they smile back. And when it’s a big, toothy, beaming smile, you always get the same in return.
“Nah, I like to walk!” I say with this ridiculous grin on my face. Because what I’m currently doing is stupidly ridiculous. It’s a blistering 39 degrees Celsius out, no cloud to even mildly shield the sun, 95% humidity or something, and I’ve been walking around the dusty streets of Phnom Penh for over two hours now.
“But so hot!” says the tuk-tuk driver with surprise, fanning himself.
“Isn’t it?!” I respond. “But nah, I like to walk. Crazy, right? I need the exercise. I’m on a mission anyway. Thanks, though.”
And with that, I give him the friendly “sorry pal, no dice” nod and wave goodbye. It is so hot and I probably should have taken this smiling tuk-tuk driver up on the ride. But I’m on a reconnaissance mission.
You see, my life is an eternal reconnaissance mission. It is my blessing and my curse. From finding the sickest campsite in the Badlands of South Dakota, to the best pizza in Cleveland, Ohio (thanks to Lindsay for deciding on the egg-yolked pizza at Bier Markt like four years ago), to the most flawless islands in Thailand.
I am like a Tom Cruise character with an objective that I pretend is on par with saving the world from aliens or an apocalypse or a couple of Russian MiGs. I’ve got far less weaponry, fighter jets, or martial combat skills, and my missions are way more possible than his, but very much like Tom, I have set out on recon with purpose-driven poise.
Irrelevant Top Gun references aside, that is why today, I am hiking across the streets of Cambodia’s capital city. I am on a simple mission: to find nice public pools to lounge at, places where one can dangerously darken their skin tone, finish reading gigantic hardcovers they’ve been lugging around in their 35L backpacks because that makes a hell of a lot of sense, etc. I am on a mission for the sort of local knowledge my tour groups need when they want to sit at pools in blistering-hot cities.
But, as most of my reconnaissance adventures go, distractions happen, and I find lots of very interesting things.
Every street in Phnom Penh is given a numerical number. So if you’ve been walking for awhile, and you can’t quite remember if you’ve already gone down Street 134, made a left at Street 148, and then ended up heading north on Street 178. Where would that leave you? Exactly. On Street 127.
What is Street 127? It’s Sign Street.
On Sign Street, every street side vendor sells the same thing. Signs. For the same price, each vendor right after the other, all lined up on this one street selling random signs in Khmer because the idea of competition doesn’t really exist here. And because these vendors are all right next to each other, if you buy from one guy, how can you not buy from his neighbor?
Places like Sign Street are the worst for my wallet. I get impulsive in settings like these. On Sign Street, I end up making rash decisions. I buy signs.
Hey, they’ll make good gifts, I rationalize. And some are kind of funny, I reason. And, well, there’s lots of places you can put a “No Urinating” sign or a “No Smoking” sign written in Khmer, so these are all worthwhile purchases, I think. I end up buying a lot of signs.
Then, I remember I have pools to find and I remind myself I’m Tom Cruise today and I must get back to work.
“Hey lady, tuk-tuk?” says the same exact tuk-tuk driver I passed two hours ago. Shit. Back on Street 143. Or wherever. But this time, I’m profusely sweating because it’s still super hot and I just bought a bunch of signs and man, I’m knackered. If I didn’t already before, I probably look like I really need to get into his tuk-tuk this time.
“You know me,” I reply with a smirk. “I like to walk! I think I’m almost there. Thanks again, though. I mean, maybe next time I pass you I’ll be a bit more tired and take you up on the offer,” I say, mostly to myself.
He doesn’t respond because by now he has realized I’m pretty set in my sweating, stubborn, absurd navigational ways, and there is no changing that, and I’m way too wordy to deal with at the moment.
He just smiles. Gives me a little wave. I continue to walk and sweat my way across Phnom Penh, on reconnaissance looking for a pool.
It’s nearing 3pm though, and that means it’s about time to snack. I pass a local market and buy some strange-looking fruit.
I decide to eat my strange-looking fruit in the creepiest way possible. Tucked inside a small indoor arena, I stumble upon a very serious sporting match. I can’t enter the pitch, but I can stand behind a concrete wall and peer through a small opening and watch this very serious sporting match.
The smallest, leanest, yet most badass-looking Khmer guys are tossing a circular ball over a net (who knew balls could be circular, right?). They’re doing so using their heads, ankles, elbows. It’s like soccer meets hackeysack meets volleyball.
I like to snack and I like to watch sports, so while I realize me peering through this small concrete opening and watching shirtless Khmer men play hackeysack-meets-volleyball is creepy, I’m ok with it.
But then it starts to pour. And unfortunately, the strange-looking fruit wasn’t incredibly thirst quenching but rather sour, and I’ve reached my creeper time limit. So I go to the quietest café I can find, take a break from being Tom Cruise slash a creep, look at a map for the first time since todays adventure began, and order a fruit shake because they sell fruit shakes for less than a dollar everywhere in Cambodia and it’s just pureed perfection in a plastic cup.
I sit happily in my own silence in this empty café and drink my pureed perfection. I notice a very old man across the street is waving at me. I wave back, but I’m enjoying my solitude, so I pray he doesn’t come over here and try to sell me something or talk to me or who knows. I’m Tom Cruise, a creep, and sometimes, a real loner.
He does this strange wiggle with his eyebrows at me. I return the wiggling eyebrow gesture. He waves again, and I wave back. I think we’re communicating, though I’m not sure what this exchange is about or where it’s headed. This continues for awhile, until he pulls out his souvenir wares. Great, here comes the sales pitch, I think. And I’m right: he’s selling zippered pouches in different colors and designs. I shake my head no, and try my best to look disinterested. It’s too late though. He is making his way across the street over to me, walks into my empty quiet café, and starts chatting with me.
It was only when I first came to Southeast Asia that I learned about what happened to the Khmer, the people of Cambodia, less than 40 years ago. No textbook, curriculum, newspaper told me that between 1975 and 1979, these people were horrifically murdered in a genocide that wiped out 25% of the country’s population. About two million people.
My tour groups visit S-21, the highschool turned prison where Khmer were tortured, and the Killing Fields, where they were murdered and buried. It shakes them, it shook me, as I hope it does every person who travels through Cambodia and learns about its past, often for the first time.
During those years after the Vietnam-American war, the Cambodia government fell to a regime called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge were attempting to turn the country into a agriculture-based, socialist society. They “exterminated” anyone who wore glasses, had degrees, knew English, were intellectuals or academics. Purification through elimination, mostly. Others were murdered for no reason at all. If you cultivated rice and hadn’t had proper schooling, you might’ve been spared. But everyone else was forced to work in the paddies, or “confess” to crimes they didn’t commit, brutally tortured, and then bludgeoned and beaten to death.
“Oh yes, they beat me,” says the zippered pouch elderly salesman. “Hard whip. On my back, many times.”
This old man selling zippered pouch things who I had hoped wouldn’t approach me and leave me in my solitude is now telling me about the terrors he survived through during the Khmer Rouge reign.
“I knew how to get escape though,” he continues. “I made friends.”
He’s got to be kidding me, I think. Few Khmer Rouge survivors have lived to tell about it as openly as this man on the street selling zippered pouch things. We — he — talks for over an hour. I’m speechless, I’ve melted into lasagna.
“Very painful. They evacuate my whole village – my family goes to border. I work, all day, and have no food. But I make friends with guards. They like me. They show me how to get out. You know. I am good. Smart. I figure way out.”
I listen to him talk; I watch him talk. His English is impeccable. Unlike most Khmer (and Asians in general), his face betrays his age. Somehow while he speaks, he maintains a smile, deep wrinkles bordering his mouth. The whites of his eyes aren’t white, but have a yellow glaze over them. His brown eyes have hints of blue. He is dressed well; his patterned, floral shirt is neatly tucked into belted, gray trousers. He carries only this briefcase of zippered pouch things.
I think I spoke only a couple of words during our hour-long conversation. He’d speak, pausing occasionally as if to gauge my reaction, and when I remained silent, he continued again.
“They take all my family. I never see them again.”
I ended up buying one of his zippered pouches, a $2USD hunter green variety. The zipper will probably come off tomorrow. But it’s the most touching transaction I’ve ever had, and I regret not buying more $2 zippered pouches from this man.
On my tours, people ask, “So what’s your favorite country in Southeast Asia?” I always say I have no favorite country, because I like places for different reasons. Thailand’s food and islands, Malaysia’s diversity, Vietnam for its history, the untouched-ness of Laos. Singapore’s got this great salsa bar at this one Mexican chain restaurant (thanks, Kevin). But in Cambodia? These are my favorite people. They have suffered through genocide, corruption, betrayal, poverty, all conditions we’d consider inhumane, all within the past 50 years, and you know what? They’re still smiling.
Every individual here, in one way or another, has been somehow affected by these inhumane conditions and tragic events, and they’re still smiling. Some don’t have grandparents. Some lost parents. Some have no idea about their ancestry or history, because no one’s lived to tell them about it. Some barely lived through the physical torture. Some are still hurting from the emotional pain.
And so that’s all I do here: I smile. I never let my gaze fall to the floor when I pass a local. I lock eyes and give them a big, toothy, beaming grin. And they always smile back.
And you know something funny? I ended up passing that tuk-tuk driver again. We just exchanged knowing smiles.
And I did end up finding the pool. It was nice, shaded. It’s worth recommending; looked quite pleasant. If you have time and you’re in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, take a look at it.
But first, take a look at the people. Talk to them. Smile at them.