The culture shock had hit us the very minute we descended from the steps of the airplane into the soils of Cambodia. Back in Singapore, we would be kept in the air-conditioned comfort from the very moment we stepped out into the connector corridor that would bring us into the cool and brightly-lit Changi Airport. In Singapore, we would enjoy a speedy customs check. Yes, the door opens right out into the open sky, with the glare of the sun and its immense heat beating upon your shoulders, your back. Despite that, we were in high spirits, marvelling at the under-developed airport.
“!(imgleft)http://static.flickr.com/25/61448961_89fc739fb5_m.jpg!(A very untidy me at the airport)”:http://flickr.com/photos/trevorise/61448961/
The next thing that you notice would be the many doors that would confuse you. There were no clear signs or directions which door you could enter and you simply follow the crowd. Once inside, you notice the humidity that slaps you right in the face, and the high entry tax of US$20 that you have to pay. Like an obedient sheep, you move from counter to counter as you hand in your form for the visa, get the visa and then get your passport stamped.
We were met at the airport by a driver who was effusive with his greetings and was sincerely enthusiastic at meeting us. We soon learnt that this is a trait that was shared by majority of the Cambodians. Service staff greet you with a smile and a hello and they answer your every request and question with utmost courtesy and a slight bow. Singaporeans definitely have much to learn.
Once we had left our luggage in the safety of our rooms, we decided to explore the little town that would be our home for the coming week. Eschewing a guide and armed with map-reading skills, we made our way into Old Market, the centre of activity for the town of Siem Reap.
The meandering roads were dusty and it was hot like it never was in Singapore. There was no shade to provide us with a brief respite from the seemingly unending heat and there were no air-conditioned buildings to escape into. Air-conditioning is not a thing that the country could afford as yet, and only hotels, guest houses and limited watering holes had that luxury.
“!(imgleft)http://static.flickr.com/33/61257916_ab6c9db866_m.jpg!(A vegetable seller at Old Market)”:http://flickr.com/photos/yannie/61257916/
As the sun gradually set in front of us, a noisy and chaotic scene unfolded. Cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks zoomed around on dirt tracks functioning as roads, cutting one another’s lanes and criss-crossing one another in a seemingly haphazard manner. There were few road signs and lesser yet traffic lights. Dust and dirt covered every inch of us, kicked up by the traffic and we were forced to cover our noses in a vain attempt to stop the sediments from being sucked into our lungs.
Old Market itself is a lively hub, teeming with tourists, tuk-tuk drivers, beggers and hawkers peddling their wares. These beggers and hawkers could be anybody, ranging from victims of landmines missing an arm or a leg, or worse, both, adults with wailing babies clinging at their hips or young children with bright eyes hoping to siphon off some of the notes in your bulging wallet.
When these children approach, I never know what I should feel. Mostly, there is a sense of sadness at their state of lives, especially when they whine piteously for food. And when I see them rushing to polish off the unfinished food that I had left behind, my heart breaks a little more. Some of them are intelligent, beautiful and rather sweet-natured and I cannot help but wish that they would have a better future than this. And because of this, I feel a sense of guilt gnawing at me, because, appalled at the over-priced goods that they try to foist off on me, I bargain.
“!(imgleft)http://static.flickr.com/30/61257917_fbce884cb2_m.jpg!(Cute children playing by the roadside)”:http://flickr.com/photos/yannie/61257917
While it seems rather callous, it got to a point when the annoyance sets in at being assailed by cries and calls with every third step that I took. I wished they would stop bothering me, because I cannot give them what they want, and I would end up feeling that twinge of guilt again. Is this wrong?
Sometimes, I cannot help but wonder how such atrocities as those which had befallen Cambodia could have taken place. How the world could allow the genocide, the torture, the crazed destruction to continue for years and years. In such chaotic times, it is often the children who would suffer and even in the small area of Old Market, you could already see that happening.