Phnom Penh: Foreigners are Just That – Foreign (Day 1)
Twenty-four hours of crossing the world gave me plenty of time to conjure up an elaborate fantasy of my arrival to Phnom Penh. In my sleep-deprived mind, cheery airport workers were waiting just outside the gates, smiling and greeting us across checkpoints. What really happened: as soon as I stepped into the airport, I was shuffled through stuffy lines by disgruntled workers who could hardly hold eye contact.
I chuckle to myself as I write this. You’d think that, after all of my traveling, I’d know better than to allow preconceived notions of a foreign place shape my expectations. It’s a rookie mistake. The most satisfying way to travel is to expect nothing and allow the places I visit to pleasantly surprise me. Moments that could jeopardize my experience and set a negative tone for a trip come all too often. But they are also a welcome reminder that the world does not revolve around me, and that I’m in charge of choosing whether or not I will allow an incident – which in most cases has nothing to do with me and more so with circumstance – to affect me.
First Tuk Tuk Ride
As I rode to the volunteer house in my first Cambodian tuk tuk (take note: much more comfortable and spacious than Thailand’s), I had a bizarre thought. The streets of Phnom Penh, at least at night, strangely reminded me of Brazil. The similarities were uncanny: outdoor bars lined the streets, crowding the sidewalk with cheap, bright red plastic chairs and large promotional beer banners. Crowds of people, mostly men, lounged in the sticky night air, drinking beer with friends. Motorcycles recklessly zipped by, sometimes carrying as many as 4 people. Large commercial signs offering discounts loudly populated every other store front. The only quality that reminded me I was still in Phnom Penh was the unbelievable amount of trash littering the streets.
It never ceases to surprise me how cities across the world can have so much in common. It really comes to show that at the end of the day, despite the beauty of architecture, attractions, or nature, what shapes a city’s character is its people. A city like Phnom Penh can physically be replicated over and over again, but I will not be able to understand its soul without letting down some barriers. Unfortunately, I am not the only one that has them – the locals seem to have a natural resistance to foreigners.
Visiting Wat Phnom and the Royal Palace
I decided to spend my Sunday touring some of the main tourist attractions of the city, as I do not know if and when I’ll have the opportunity during my stay. I visited Wat Phnom, the tallest Buddhist temple in the middle of the city, and the Royal Palace, the residence of the King of Cambodia. Through my interactions, I quickly came to the saddening and unsurprising realization that to many of the locals, we foreigners are nothing more than walking moneybags. Every attraction entrance, tuk tuk ride, or even simple walk down the street was an opportunity to make a couple of extra bucks off of us. I felt this deeply in Thailand, and I was not expecting to also feel it here. Perhaps because I’m here on a volunteer trip, I was under a false (and thankfully short-lived) pretense that people would be grateful and not try to take advantage of me.
I’ll be the first person to admit how arrogant that sounds. Swarms of Western tourists have been storming through poor Southeast Asian cities for years, looking down on its inhabitants and waving their wads of much stronger currency in show of their “superiority.” I know there is resentment here – I can feel it. It’s completely reasonable that when many locals look at me, they likely see a representation of that foreigner pretension that has tainted their culture and disrupted their previously insulated lives. Yet, as someone who is here on genuinely good intentions, I’ll admit that it hurts to be seen this way.
Here is the thing, though – I’m in their city. I’m in Cambodia because I want to learn to open my heart and let people in, and help those people not exclusively through cash checks and services but rather through kindness. And so, I’m the one who has to try to prove that perception wrong. While I may not be able to single-handedly overturn an entire population’s relatively negative impression of foreigners (nor should I, because some of them really are obnoxious), I’ll be content just knowing that in a few people’s eyes, I was an exception.
And so, tomorrow, it begins.