I had never visited Cambodia in my whole twenty three year existence, in early April I had the opportunity to venture back to my ancestral home. April being right in the heart of Chaul Chnam Thmei (Cambodian New Year’s) seemed like the right time to go. I thought I would blend into Cambodian culture and life effortlessly so I didn’t need to read up about what to do, where to go and what to expect. I knew everything there was to know about Cambodia. Right? In my head I ticked all the boxes of what one would describe a Cambodian person (Khmer) to be. The complexion of my tanned skin and facial features oozed Khmer. I spoke the native tongue, my mum cooked Khmer food every day and we visited the Wat on special occasions. I was undeniably Khmer; though this was true there was much for me to learn. My partner being Kiwi; I worried he would find it difficult travelling for the first time outside of Auckland. He suffers from anxiety and days before we were due to depart he got chronically ill. God willing we made it to the departure gates and were destined for Cambodia.
I dreamt Cambodia to be an exotic utopia, advanced not in terms of technology and infrastructure but quality of life. Cambodia to me was not a modern day hub that resembled New York City or Sydney but still bright lights shone in every direction, it blazed with an energy of wickedness. Cambodia was exhilarating, streets packed with an array of traditional foods, motorbikes carrying a small family erratically zooming down roads and people were buzzing with happiness.
After a quick stop over in Singapore, I caught my first glimpse of Cambodia. I felt like a teary eyed kid seeing the world for the first time. At that moment I felt like this was it. I had been searching all my life for this sense of belonging. I was finally home. Cambodia was beautiful; it was where my parents met, where my grandfather grew up and his father before him.
My eyes shut tightly as I stretched my face to the heavens. I let the crisp heat kiss my skin like the air that permeates in a sauna. This euphoric state proved to be short lived; I heard once before people fall in love with Cambodia only to be left heartbroken. Being Cambodian meant I received ‘special treatment’. I was quickly noticed; I was probed, poked and pulled from left to right. I latched on tightly to my mum’s arm and paced beside her with my head locked to the ground. My partner on the other hand had a huge grin on his face that could stretch to Africa, he welcomed every minute of it. I did not want the attention. The Airport was a harsh reality that I did not expect. The reality was in Cambodia, money is power and everyone has a price.
As we exited the Airport random people flocked to my aid, I ignorantly thought they were family so I willingly gave them my bags to put into our car. I was proven wrong; they were hagglers trying to hustle me for money and my bags. My mum gave the gang of five some riel and they were on their way.
Driving away from the Airport what I saw was a very dirty Cambodia. The thick air was now not a delight but a gloomy sadness. There were piles upon piles of rubbish on the streets. Children running naked with no parent’s insight. Locals alleviating themselves on the sides of the roads. I saw a cry for help, instead of seeing its true beauty I saw my people being lost in an everyday battle. My parents were one of the lucky ones, they got out. The Khmer Rouge era had left Cambodia with nothing but poverty and sorrow. Cambodia was a far cry from the perfection I had dreamt it to be as a kid.
At lunch, the restaurant was crowded with children and adults beggars. My mum could not force herself to eat; one beggar kept steering at her, her infant baby latched onto her naked breast pleading for help. My mum had not been back to Cambodia in many years and this was a wakeup call for her as much as for me. Reality slapped us in the face with what could only be called culture shocked.