“Can you speak Khmer?”
The customs officer asks me this with his eyes squinted. It’s 10 p.m. at the Phnom Penh airport and I just got off a six-hour flight.
“Can I speak—no, no, I can’t,” I answer him, blinking.
“Where were you born?” he asks.
Literally, you have my passport in your hand.
He frowns. “You look Cambodian.”
Oh, if only I could speak Khmer. That would help dissolve the sense of otherness I feel as I step out of the airport. The sights, smells, and sounds are so different to anything I have ever experienced.
Well, okay. If I can be honest, it feels, at the same time, strangely familiar. My mind flashes back to India. The air feels thick enough to touch. Tuk tuks dot the pickup lane. As we’re taxied to the hotel, we pass motorcyclists—one with an entire food vendor attached to the side. Families share meals in the driveway of a restaurant. My heart swells with joy.
This is the Asia I have missed.
The next day, my family and I take a tuk tuk to the Russian market, a grid of kiosks selling two-dollar T-shirts, packs of coconut candies, and jackfruit. We sidestep through the narrow aisles. I jolt with excitement when I see my favorite style of clothing: drop-crotch harem pants.
The smell of hot oil and curried veggies wafts through the air. I hear the nasally accent of Cambodian shop owners as they bicker over stacks of pashminas and plastic-wrapped Crocs.
When we emerge, the sun bakes the skin off the back of my neck.
We end the day with a small boat ride across the Mekong River. Our fellow passengers are also foreigners. They savor the ride with wine and fancy cameras.
When we dock at the other side of the river, my gaze falls on something I see on the bank. A cluster of tin-roof huts are stacked on top of each other.
“Dad, is that the—”
“Oh yeah,” he replies. “That’s the shantytown.”
My eye twitches. I’m perched at the edge of the boat, poised at the beginning of our pleasant Cambodian holiday, and, seeing the shantytown, I feel my privilege. I feel it very keenly.
I love riding the tuk tuks. It offers you a glimpse of Cambodian life you wouldn’t otherwise see. Schoolgirls pile on pink Vespas. Dads balance their babies on their laps as they slither through traffic. One motorcycle carries a mother, a toddler, and a grandmother.
I peer out of the tuk tuk and the toddler, a little girl, sees me. She stands on her grandmother’s lap and cackles, baring a front row of missing teeth. It’s possibly the cutest thing I have ever seen.
At the end of the day, we get dinner at a North Korean restaurant. I see dog meat on the menu and ask Mom if we can order it. She says no.
On day three, we set off for the Central Market. With the sun on our shoulders, we trek along the edge of the road, sometimes with a sidewalk, sometimes without. Tuk tuks, motorcycles, and food vendors park on the curb. A little barefoot boy with a mohawk spoons curry into his mouth. One food vendor has an entire seating area of plastic tables and chairs.
I peer at the grill they have set up over a charcoal fire and smell the sweet meat sizzling.
Gosh. I wish I could stomach the street food.
The Central Market looks like an old train station with a high-ceilinged dome and four arms branching out of the center. Like the Russian Market—which, I found out, is called ‘Russian’ because of a nearby embassy—there is an abundance of cheap clothes and jewelry vendors.
On the outside rim is a series of beauty care stations. As we weave through the aisles, we pass manicurists and hair stylists. My elbow brushes a man whose hair is soaped up and dripping down his neck.
Later, we visit the school that my dad donates to. (Read about that experience here.) The students ask if we’ve tried Khmer food. I tell them no but I’m too afraid to say why. I feel like we’re not embracing the culture or that we’re being stuffy and offensive when we insist on bottled water, not tap.
I want to tell the Khmer students that I’m all for embracing their culture.
My Westernized stomach is not.
On our last day in Cambodia, we head to the Royal Palace, dropping by shops along the way. Oknha Chhun Street is a tree-lined promenade for expats, flowing with boutiques, a chocolatier, and, to my delight, an English bookstore.
At the palace, I’m declined entrance because of my sleeveless dress. So I tug on a gift shop T-shirt and join my brother and dad under the sun.
It’s ninety-seven degrees.
The palace courtyard is dotted with buildings that gleam gold. There’s a silver pagoda that houses an emerald Buddha statue made of crystal. Apparently, it’s adorned with 9,584 diamonds.
The wall surrounding the palace is paneled with a never-ending mural of stories which involve monkeys, giants, and decapitation. I love it.
One of the things that has struck me about Cambodia is the people’s eagerness to share their history with outsiders. Most notably, the Killing Fields. Tuk tuk drivers light up when they hear we have yet to visit it.
“Wanna see the Killing Fields?”
“You’ve got to see the Killing Fields.”
“Only five dollars to the Killing Fields.”
Maybe it’s a sign of how the city now thrives on tourism. But I like to think it also represents their attitude to outsiders.
Yes, please see the Killing Fields.
Please explore the palace.
Please understand what we’ve gone through.
Dinner tonight is in street 240 ½, an alleyway glowing with street art. We pass an ethically-sourced gift shop, a bar called Bong Bong Bong, and a clothing store called
Aim Apparel where all the purchases go to fighting sex trafficking—a cause I’m all about.
Our restaurant is ARTillery Café, a quirky ocean-blue hotspot for expats. Reading through their menu is a journey through all the different ways to mishmash Asian and Western cuisine while staying vegetarian.
Our appetizer: kimchi quesadillas.
Then I chow down on a jackfruit barbecue burger which is…weird. Jackfruit can very easily look like meat and still taste like plantains. Afterwards, Dad and Chris taste beer from the Box Office bar around the corner.
Again, I’m struck by the split worlds: the locals who enjoy their street food beneath fairy lights, and the outsiders who nibble on meals that their Western stomachs can handle.
I don’t like to feel like an outsider. For me, the object of the game when traveling is to be like one of the locals. But in Cambodia, I can’t help but take on my role as an outsider.
However, I think there is a right way to be an outsider here.
- Learn the history.
- Learn what’s happening now.
- Ride the tuk tuks.