My time in this welcoming, criminally underrated country has come to an end, with a flight to Hanoi, a flight to Hong Kong, and finally, a flight to London Heathrow just around the corner.
It’s a country I was told to be fearful of at worse, paranoid about at best. I was warned about the prying, watchful eyes, the beggars, the landmine victims, the poverty and the country’s dark, sinister recent history.
And then I came here myself, and realised none of the above was relevant at all. Not only have I seen so much with my own eyes, but I’ve had the good fortune to get to know the Kampot expat community very well, and between their tales and my own observations I’ve come to realise just how misunderstood this country is.
It’s easy to fear the dark underbelly of other nations, but it’s even easier to forget your own. No major-populated area on Earth has its lack of skeletons in the closet. Los Angeles is infamous for its gang warfare. South Africa is filled with heavy duty security compounds and constant robbery. Salvador is rife with shantytowns. Child prostitution is epidemic in Myanmar. Somalia is wrecked from the results of no government and wide scale looting. And I dare anybody to walk through certain areas of south London without a stab vest and a healthy knowledge of Wing Chun.
So forget about Cambodia’s evil past. Forget your paranoia, whether it’s self inflicted or gained from the words of others, and go visit it yourself. You’ll see the hospitality. The ease of movement around the country. And the sheer unstoppable warmth and friendliness of the people, despite the utter hardship and difficulties they face every day just to survive.
In the whole month I spent within Phnom Penh, Kampot, and Siem Reap, I didn’t feel unsafe for a single moment. And I know without doubt that if ever I got into a bad situation, there would always be a friendly local not far away who would bend over backwards to help me out of it.
And then there is the ancient, grand splendour of Angkor Wat. The otherworldly architecture of Bayon. The amazing interaction between temple and overgrown tree at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.
That’s it in a nutshell. Go to Cambodia and yes, familiarise yourself with the destruction the Khmer Rouge delivered to so many innocent people. And then see how far the people have come. See their resilience. See their limitless basic human compassion. And then see the true roots of the Khmer story. Suddenly, photos of human skulls and stories of landmines won’t seem so overbearing.
I’m now back at Gecko Hotel in Hanoi, where my journey has sadly come to an end for the time being. Tomorrow begins my long journey home. 15 hours by air, 2 by road, and 6000 years sat around waiting in airport lounges, sipping overpriced bland coffee and breathing icy, dry, processed air, whilst people in their thousands wheel their suitcases past me on their quest to see the world. I’ll have much more to reflect on when I get home, but if you take anything away from my journey, it’s that you should do the same…