Surviving Cambodia: Finding a silver lining amidst a country of poverty and corruption
You really don’t realize the impact the world has on you until you’re traveling it. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to learn and understand more about the world and human nature, and how the two can be both cruel and life changing.
Three friends and I decided to spend the weekend traveling Cambodia. We thought we were prepared. We thought we knew what we were doing. We thought nothing would go wrong. But we were naive. And little did we know, everything would go wrong.
We arrived in Siem Reap, the northern part of Cambodia that is a highly populated tourist area. We spent a day and a half there exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat and planned to take an overnight bus to the south that night. We were assured by the bus company workers that we would be there by midnight and the city would still be active, bustling and safe.
We arrived at 4:30 a.m. The streets were abandoned without a person in sight.
Four girls were dropped off on a dark, desolate, abandoned street corner where tuk tuk drivers waited at the bus door as we climbed out. I was very hesitant and felt extremely uneasy about the situation.
We got out onto the street and tried to walk away from the crowd of men. But we had no idea where we were or where we were going. Finally one came over to us and asked where we needed to go. We gave him the name of a hostel and he handed us over to another driver who began driving through the uninhabited streets.
Suddenly the driver pulled over to a hostel that was not the one we asked for. We looked at it and as we were distracted, two men on a motorbike sped over to us and swiped my friend’s backpack right off of her lap and drove away, only looking back to grin at the horror that they had just caused.
And just like that, she lost everything–money, wallet, phone, camera, and most importantly, her passport. We couldn’t do anything about it.
The tuk tuk driver took us right to the “police station” where the officers were not awake nor were they wearing pants. They were unprofessional, unkempt and useless. He then took us to our hostel and told us he would come back at 7 a.m to take us to the tourist police. At 5 a.m we checked in and used the hostel’s computer to figure out what to do next.
7 a.m came quickly and we were stressed, scared and sleep deprived. The driver stayed at the hostel and waited for us but we were not prepared to leave that early so he left. We found another tuk tuk driver who took us to the tourist police station. This man was actually a saint because he drove us to all of the places we needed to go and spoke English so he helped translate when needed and even bought us water. He was one of the few truly kind souls we came across in this country.
We got to the tourist police station and were in disbelief at how they handled these types of emergencies. There was no urgency, no concern and they seemed bothered to actually have to do paperwork. It was vastly different from when I lost my wallet in Thailand.
What was even more shocking was the amount of corruption within the police and government systems. The man helping us did not want to help us. He took us into a small, windowless, filthy room with a desk and plastic table where he began doing filling out a report. It looked like a room from a horror movie.
He questioned my friend about the incident as the rest of us fell asleep in our chairs. Finally it was done. But, he refused to get the paperwork stamped, which would allow her to get a new passport.
Until we paid him off, he would not stamp the paperwork. I was appalled. How could a police officer ask for money from a girl who was left in his country with absolutely nothing? He got up, walked out and locked the door behind him. I had never been more scared in the hands of people who were supposed to be safe.
He came back, we paid him what we could since we had no choice and left. The driver then took us to Western Union so my friend could get the money sent to her and then returned to the hostel, never wanting to walk out onto those streets again.
But then, we found our saving grace whom was our silver lining.
My friends boyfriend called the U.S embassy in Cambodia and told them what happened. As we were sitting in the lobby of the hostel, three women walked in. They were from the Embassy.
We told them everything we had just been through in the last 24 hours and they saw the sorrow and disappointment in our eyes. Two of the women were a mother/daughter duo from Africa who worked at the Embassy. They gave us words of encouragement and ultimately made us realize how much we had learned and how lucky we were just to be alive. Not all tourists make it out of these types of situations. We told them we canceled the plans we had for the day because we had almost no money left and were scared to leave the hostel.
They wouldn’t allow it. They gave us $50 and told us to go and see the Cambodian genocide fields we were planning to see.
But the third woman really saved us. She got us a tuk tuk driver she knew who she paid to take us everywhere, gave my friend money and even brought her a cell phone to use. She then arranged for us to spend the next day with her until we had to fly back to Thailand.
We woke up and her driver picked us up at our hostel and took us to have brunch with her. She then treated us for massages followed by a trip to a catholic high school she helps teach at. We told the nuns there what had happened and spent an hour with the Cambodian students who seemed fascinated by us.
The trip had turned around as we had been taken under the wings of this amazing woman. It was honestly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She spoke with us about her life and all she has accomplished—and to say I was inspired would be an understatement. Her advice, encouragement and wisdom helped me learn so much.
This experience was something like no other and made me garner so more about the world and life itself. The world can really be a cold and cruel place, but this woman (and even the tuk tuk driver) is a reminder that there are decent, good-willed people out there.
I’ve learned that once you step out of your comfort zone and into a place unknown, you become vulnerable and susceptible to the horrors of the world.
But from every bad situation stems something positive, a silver lining of sorts that reminds you that life is all about learning. Learning from the good and the bad.
When I opened up the menu in the restaurant at brunch, this quote was boldly featured on the first page. It couldn’t have been more fitting.
It’s nice to see a handful of good and kind people in a society filled with not so good ones. As she told us, “shit happens, man. But life goes on. Don’t let the bad moments take away from experiencing the good ones.”
I realized in the future I need to be even more cautious no matter where I am or who I’m with. And there will be a future of traveling and more experiences to come because I refuse to let this misconstrue and contort my perception of the world as a whole and hinder me from experiencing it.
I’ve lived and I’ve learned, but I won’t let life stop me from living.
The Thai Kindness Continues
I still can’t get over how wonderful and kind Thai people truly are. This past weekend, I met up with a Thai girl whom I got in contact with from a long line of people. My mom has an old friend in Florida who has a niece who spent some time in Thailand. While in the country, she befriended a Thai girl named Nui who she still keeps in touch with.
Long story short, I ended up contacting Nui and she was thrilled to hear from me. When I got here I told her where I lived and she offered to show me around Bangkok one day.
I didn’t know if that would actually happen but to my happy surprise, it did.
First, she insisted on picking me up. I could have easily taken the bus right into the city and met her at the bus station but she truly wanted to pick me up from my house. It took her over an hour to get to where I was with the horrible weekend traffic. She didn’t seem to mind one bit though (I guess this goes back to how Thai’s are patient, worry-free people).
I then spent the whole day with her. She took me to different landmarks in the city, explaining so much about the city and culture along the way. We went to one of the biggest malls and then to one of the biggest weekend markets that gave me such a real taste of Thailand culture. It was like I had my own personal tour guide; I couldn’t be more pleased.
Nui spoke English, but not very well. She was beyond friendly and tried so hard to be able to talk to me so I could understand, as did I with her. Though it was difficult, I couldn’t be more appreciative of all she did for me. She was so thrilled to be able to show me around her city—the place that she calls her. Her kindness and generosity for someone she didn’t even know has really made me assess how I can be a better human being. I think we should all have genuine kindness like Nui and always take the opportunity to help someone we don’t know.
After all, you might even form an unexpected friendship. I had such a great day and I think Nui did as well because she offered to explore the rest of the city with me if I have another free day to do so. Her generosity and enthusiasm completely blew me away. And to top it all off, she even drove me all the way home.
Living on Thai time: when punctuality is nonexistent
I knew coming into this country that Thai people are very laid back and laxed when it comes to doing things and getting things done. However, I didn’t realize to what degree this would be true.
I’m finally realizing it.
Using traffic as an excuse for being late is 100% acceptable here, especially for those who live, work and/or travel around the heart of Bangkok. There are traffic jams almost 24/7; it’s absolutely horrible. Just last weekend it took my friends and I nearly two hours just to get about halfway across the city. So blaming the traffic for being late is completely normal (considering many of the times it’s actually the cause).
On the other hand, it seems like this trend of tardiness spans far beyond the realm of traffic.
People are constantly late or running behind. It’s like being “fashionably late” is the only way they do it around here—and for EVERYTHING. If class starts at 2 p.m, you can expect people to start showing up around 2:05 at the earliest. The class will then start around 2:10 or 2:15. As someone who is always on time and tries to be early for everything, showing up at 1:55 is completely pointless. If anything, I get these looks from other students who are probably thinking “why is she going in the room so early?”
It’s 1:58 and class starts in 2 minutes. Why not stop and grab a coffee? There’s plenty of time. Even grabbing a cup of coffee here is so much different then ordering a coffee at Dunkin Donuts drive-thru, pulling around and seeing the employee holding your coffee as you drive up to the window. At orientation about 10 students walked into an empty coffee shop and it took about 40 minutes for me to finally get a coffee.
40 minutes. To get COFFEE. American Starbucks’ would go out of business if that were the norm.
They take their time. There’s no rush, no urgency, no stress. And everybody’s cool with it. So 10-15 minutes later when your coffee is done you can stroll on into class and no one turns a head or questions your lateness. The professor might not even be there yet.
For someone who likes to be punctual and get/do things in a timely and efficient manner, this is not the type of atmosphere I’m used to at all. It’s been a month now and it still shocks me when students walk into class 20+ minutes late and it’s totally fine. But it makes me wonder what the U.S would be like if everything was done “in good time” and “when and as we feel like it”. Would we be less stressed? Would our expectations be lower? Would we then need less coffee ourselves? Who knows?
One thing I know for sure is that this country may have a lot of things going for them, but punctuality is not one of them.
It’s about the journey, not just the destination
Some times we get so focused on where we’re going that we don’t stop and take a moment to appreciate the road that gets there. I have already realized how important this is in my short time in this beautiful country.
On the weekends my friends and I usually plan a trip to go somewhere. Usually these trips are at least 3 hours long (usually 5-7) and include multiple bus rides/various forms of transportation. Like I said before, traveling can be brutal and quite stressful, and in those 5 to 7 hours the only thing that seems important is to get to wherever you’re going as quick and as painless as possible.
However, I quickly realized not to overlook the traveling and to really pay attention to the (long) road that gets you there. This country has an abundance of breathtaking scenery once you get out of the more urban areas.
On my way to see the Erawan waterfall, which consisted of a taxi ride followed by two long bus rides, I realized the journey could be just as beautiful as the destination. During the second bus ride—where all the windows were open, allowing us to feel even more apart of the nature—I was mesmerized by the landscapes around me.
The mountains, the small clusters of villages along the road, the rivers—it all made me feel so much more in touch with the nature and culture of the country. Even though we had already been traveling for almost 5 hours at that point, I was so thrilled to be on that second bus, taking in every moment and appreciating every second of it. To be quite honest, the journey was definitely just as good as the destination.
An amazing country with even more amazing people
A Thai man saved my life. I was sitting next to the bus driver on the last bus home from the national park I was at with friends. Upon arriving at the bus station, my friends and I immediately went to go buy tickets for the next bus we needed to get on. My wallet was gone.
After dumping my bag and not seeing it I quickly ran towards the parked buses to try and find the one I was on. Every single one looked the same. A security guard looked over and saw me panicking in the lot and ran over to see what was wrong. He barely spoke any English and I barely speak Thai but he understood.
Before I knew it I was behind him on the back of a motorcycle headed to track down the bus that had left the lot. Three gas stations later and we found it parked. It was locked and we could not see the wallet around where I was sitting. Even the women working at the gas station all tried to help.
He then took me across the street to the tourist police and I struggled to explain what happened. Then I was in a police car with two officers who attempted to unlock the bus but couldn’t. After making phone calls, they then drove me half an hour to the bus drivers house. He said my wallet was locked in the safety box in the bus and gave the officers the key. We drove all the way back to the parked bus and they were able to get my wallet. Not one thing was missing.
What amazes me is that this man clearly does not have much. He has a very tiny house on the side of a mountain in the middle of no where. I have no doubt that wallet and money would have helped him significantly. But he called the tourist police and told them he had it.
The actions taken by the security guard, police officers and most importantly the bus driver have left me completely in awe. And for being such laid back people, the urgency they placed on the matter was even more unbelievable. If I was home I probably would never have seen my wallet again. And to top it off they even arranged a ride home for my friends and I. This country continues to amaze me more and more every day. Their kindness, respect, and sincerity is by far one-of-a-kind. And this isn’t the first time the locals have gone out of their way to help me in the short time I’ve been here. I couldn’t be happier to be in such an incredible place with truly incredible people. I will definitely be paying it forward. Kob khun ka, kind souls.
Adjusting to life and culture
One of the weirdest feelings in the world is waking up wondering where the hell you are. When we arrived at the international house it was about 1 a.m and I was exhausted. After finally showering (in which my roommate and I had to use the blankets from the plane as towels since we didn’t have any of that stuff yet), we passed out. I wanted to get up around 9 but I slept until 3:30 in the afternoon, woke up for a bit then fell back asleep until 6:30. I guess that’s all part of traveling and adjusting. But waking up was just so strange. I felt so disoriented and had to remind myself where I was for a minute. It was crazy that I was finally in Thailand.
Adjusting to life here wasn’t hard but it definitely wasn’t easy either. Everyone in the house is so well traveled and I’m just like “hey yeah I’m here in Thailand…first time ever leaving the country”. It definitely takes a certain kind of person to spend a long period of time in an atmosphere like this.
Immersing yourself in every day life and doing what the locals do can be quite the challenge. It’s not like you’re spending a week lounging on the beaches of Koh Samui. You have to adjust and adapt to the customs practiced in every day life. And there’s so much you have to keep in mind so you don’t disrespect the culture or people. Simple things you wouldn’t think about like how you address people and how you place your feet on public transportation can easily be troublesome. Not only that but just basic communication is extremely difficult at times because some locals speak very little to no English. I have pointed to pictures and used many hand signals in my time here thus far.
It takes a lot to be plucked from suburbia and thrown into a place like Thailand. But I knew that if anyone could handle it, I could. You absolutely have to be willing to leave your comfort zone for sure.
And they say it’s inevitable you will experience serious culture shock especially given the fact that I am not too well traveled. However, it didn’t hit me as hard as I thought. I’ve spent a lot of time in poor/low income urban areas in which labeling conditions as poor would be an understatement. So I was pretty accustomed to the atmosphere. That’s not to say their every day rituals, customs and norms haven’t shock me at times. Seeing mothers with very young children riding on motorcycles all without helmets is completely normal. And the process it takes just to go to the bathroom…don’t even get me started. Even wearing a uniform every day has been a big change.
There’re so many insignificant things we take for granted in the U.S that are considered luxuries in this country that I’ve already grown to appreciate so much more.
The dreaded struggle of traveling
I never understood why people would say traveling is so awful. But, after traveling for 30 hours, I completely get it. Traveling is honestly a bitch. You think it’s going to be fun and exciting at first but then you’re stuck in a tiny seat for 20 hours. And in between those 20 hours your find yourself taking selfies in the airport bathroom in Tokyo after just realizing 1. you haven’t showered in a day and 2. You’re wearing a fanny pack.
Traveling is just stressful. Especially if you’re traveling alone and have never traveled far alone before. Surprisingly, I didn’t run into any problems and was able to easily go from one phase of my travels to the next. However, it’s not always that easy and I consider myself very lucky.
In reality though, my journey wasn’t all smooth sailing. I have never felt such body soreness and fatigue in my entire life. And when you’re stuck in the window seat and the sleeping man in the aisle seat doesn’t wake up when you tap him so you can pee, you realize how much it sucks. Not to mention the fact that basic communication in another country can be extremely difficult.
When you think about it, traveling itself is incredible; touring a foreign place you’ve never imagined you’d go is truly life changing. It’s the actual transportation of getting there that can be brutal. However, if you’re willing to go the distance, the time and energy lost getting there will almost always be worth the destination.