The one constant I have seen throughout Cambodia is a simple smile. Everywhere I look people are smiling. It ranged from the family living in their tuk tuk to the familiar shopkeeper I purchased water from each morning. The Khmer are hard working, but are lighthearted in tough circumstances. A bit of humor has helped me through some of these tense times. Majority of the workers here work ten to twelve hours a day or more, earning maybe a dollar or two an hour. If that does not suck enough, they get maybe two days off a month. Hopefully the wave of Western influence can improve the working conditions and offer more opportunities among natives.
It is easy for any Westerner to float around Cambodia, which kind of irritates me. Of course I appreciate an English speaker from time to time, but I prefer a challenge. My first thought prior to arriving in the capital city of Phnom Penh was how I would manage to accomplish any task being that I have never been to Asia. Instead I wonder how to escape the wave of Western tourism that has plagued the Khmer Nation. I like being slightly overwhelmed by the confusion of unfamiliar signs and extreme hand gestures rather than picking one of the twenty foreign (American, Australian or English) guest houses.
The public holiday of Pchum Ben took place the week I arrived in Cambodia. The holiday is a fifteen day religious festival in recognition of their ancestors from as far back as seven generations. Though it is fifteen days, people mainly celebrate for three. Businesses returned to regular hours as they pleased, resulting in a week of funky schedules, bogus fees, and closures. I realized life was back to normal the morning I was sitting on the balcony of my dorm in Kampot (a city south of Phnom Penh), listening to the growth of Westernization resume. Echoes of saws and hammers filled the air as new guest houses were being constructed.
Seeing the entire town from the high-rise of the Magic Sponge Guest House, I concluded how lucky I am to visit Cambodia now. I was witnessing the skeleton of what will become Cambodia in the next few years. Our host mentioned how dozens of homes are going to be built throughout the National Park over the next several years. Already very prevalent, Western culture has exploited and bulldozed Khmer life and land.
A drip trip on motorbikes with fellow travelers was a cheap and leisurely way to see Bokor National Park before the urbanization begins. Lying ten kilometers outside Kampot, the winding park road is one of the smoothest I have ridden in the country. Once in the park, the road continues another thirty kilometers to the top of the mountain. Besides the ugly, gigantic casino blistering from the mountainside, many other attractions exist within the park.
The Lok Yeay Mao Monument and Popokvi Waterfall were spectacles themselves, but walking through the eerie, abandoned French Palace near the top was most exciting. The chilling clouds that we drove through to reach the top made the trip in itself, escaping the dreadful heat and humidity for a few hours. In fact, the structure was specifically built for troops in the 1920s for the same purpose. With the temperature drop and thick fog, a mystic presence existed here. A group of monks wandering the ruins as well enhanced the feeling.
The lush jungles stretching throughout Cambodia is the reason why I came; but the welcoming people, beautiful beaches, and extravagant temples are what convinced me to stay awhile. I also saw how development will devastate the natural state of Cambodia within the next decade. To simply sum up Cambodia in one post would be impossible, marking this as the first of a series that will detail my travels throughout the country. From the good to the bad, the deep jungle to island life, and cities to towns; all will be explained.