At home, I have the problem of talking too much. My words have a tendency to dominate conversations and oftentimes I’ll have an epiphany of embarrassment mid-sentence. My mind will scream, “Oh no, oh no. HIT THE BRAKES, CHANTAE! BEFORE YOU BULLDOZE ALL OF THESE INNOCENT PEOPLE INTO BOREDOM!” It happens when my brain connects how many words I’ve spoken and calculates how much time has elapsed. My parents can attest to this – they’ll hold up fistfuls of crumpled up report cards that say, “Pleasure to have in class… but talks too much.”
But I don’t have this problem when I travel.
In fact, it’s the opposite. I often find myself in situations where I’m eating alone and a stranger pulls up a seat next to me. One girl told me a long-winded tale of how she bought $11k worth of fake gems in Thailand. But the diamonds looked so real! And think — what if it wasn’t a scam! Such a shame that I’ll have to stop traveling early. Another girl told me (in excruciating TMI detail) about her long-distance romance with an Egyptian man. My parents would never approve. We haven’t met in person – but you can tell a lot about someone online. Most recently, a man told me about his mental health problems and hallucinations caused by taking too many antimalarial tablets, while he sipped an empty bottle of whiskey. But it’s inspired my to play music. And apparently the side effects only last for a few months, not like, forever or anything. I am always a faceless presence to them – a round blur that nods and hmms whenever a break in the monologue arose.
They never asked me my name.
On a six-hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang, I found myself in this situation once again.
Rusty corrugated metal houses teetering on wooden slits line the brown Tonle Sap river. Naked children splash, shout, and waved as our boat drifts by. Local Cambodians paddle out to the middle of the river in a canoe, kiss their loved ones’ goodbye, and hop aboard with chickens and luggage underarm.
The river is lifeblood for those who live along the Tonle Sap. The river is their bathtub, their food source, and main mode of transportation. The river is also the local dump, as evidenced by the myriad plastic bags clinging like leaves to every tree. At our only rest stop, I learn that the bathroom is simply a concealed hole in a wooden plank that hovers directly over the water. Just a few meters downstream, a woman scoops a bucket of water to cook rice. It churns my stomach to watch people suffocate their own major life source, one plastic bottle thrown overboard at a time.
The boat I’m on is wooden, small, and would never pass even the most lenient of safety standards back home. A mish-mash of local Khmers and their children, a few chickens, backpackers, and fisherman hop aboard for the ride. I see a local pay the driver $1 USD to jump on — a $19 discount from my ticket.
“If I wanted to see this – this poverty, I would have stayed in Sao Paulo.” A Brazilian girl sobs to my left, “I left eight years ago to escape all of this.”
“I know,” I wanted to say, “Your boyfriend already told me earlier on the boat ride.” Instead, I nod and hmm. Her boyfriend, a Londoner, set off on a trip to see the world and convinced her to join him. He told me about their relationship and how challenging this trip to Cambodia has been for them. They met in England – a place she moved to in order to escape the favelas and make a better life for herself. Meanwhile, he wanted to see the grit of the developing world.
He thanked me when I suggested that they take a break and go somewhere less demanding, like Bali, Thailand, or Singapore.
“Why did he make me come here? To Cambodia?” She asks herself, “I cannot stop crying for these people. I wish to go somewhere and not think about all of this.” She outstretches her hand to the thick brown river.
After a few more exchanges, I excuse myself to the roof of the boat where I can observe the scenery without the disturbance of clucking chickens and crying babies.
Under the hot sun, I reflect on her experience and agree. Yes, Cambodia is an overwhelming country.
I understand her urge to flee towards somewhere where you’re not constantly forced to feel anything but apathy.
This is exactly what Cambodia commands. At every moment, Cambodia commands your full attention.
It commands you to feel sadness from learning the history, witnessing the poverty, meeting landmine victims (many whom were not even alive when the bombs were planted), and experiencing the governmental corruption. It commands you to feel pure bliss at befriending an endless army of smiling people, admiring the vine-wrapped temples of Angkor Wat, and listening to the music played by men with glimmering eyes.
When it rains, the streets flood. When the sun shines, your skin burns. You spend days clutching your stomach in sickness and wondering if the fragrant noodles were worth all of the pain. The smells of one side of the street stir up your appetite while the other side of the road makes you retch. At many points of your trip, you are astonished that – despite all of this – you still have so much energy.
You wake up homesick — in the middle of a cushy hotel room — and still pine for the comforts of home.
If you experience Cambodia fully, then you will laugh. You will cry. You will always be filled with conflicting and contradictory emotions.
Cambodia commands you to feel alive.