Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cambodia 2012 - Tuk Tuk Rides

Today was more of a "Ryan needs to recover from the flight" day, and so, without an agenda, I hopped in a Tuk Tuk and decided to explore the town of Siem Reap a bit.

My driver today was a guy name Rona. I knew from the moment I met him that I was in safe hands. He greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake, and just like that we were off.

If you've never ridden in a Tuk Tuk before, it's much like riding in a wagon connected to a bicycle. You're out in the open looking around as everyone is staring at you cause you're foreign. It doesn't go too fast, and traffic is always zipping by you...often too close for comfort. After a while, you get use to it and can relax and enjoy the ride. They're an awesome way to get around. You can hire a driver for the day for $5, and, if you're nice, he might act as your translator and tour guide as well.

That's what happened with Rona. He dropped me off in town for an hour or so and, after exploring the town a bit and getting the best $3 Thai massage ever, realized that I need some help getting around here. We met back up around 9am and I told him "take me somewhere interesting." I thought I could get some cool pictures, but what I really was doing was diving head first into Cambodian culture.

Rona took me through the side streets of Siem Reap, away from the hoards of European hipsters and Korean bus tours. He showed me the slew of Children's Hospitals and local shops making silk and silver statuettes. I would often wait a moment before asking if I could take someone's picture, which was often responded to with a giant smile and a silent nod. We would have a conversation, which often started with "Where are you from?" and "You are so young!". Rona would occasionally step in and translate, and we would laugh when the guys cracked a joke. Khmer men are hilarious.

It was a beautiful snapshot of their culture. They are so friendly and outgoing and, after years of war and violence, they are all looking for peace and happiness. They have problems, and they tackle them as best they can. The fundamentals of happiness are all there. I would even say they have it down much better than the Western world does.

Rona then took me to the National Museum, where I had a crash course in the history of the Khmer people. Turns out, Buddhism and Hinduism have been literally colliding throughout their history. Angkor Wat is a Hindu structure that is used by the Buddhists. Buddhist monks walk the streets now and days, and most of the culture is primarily Buddhist now. Their history is fascinating, and they were some of the greatest temple builders in the world. Think Indiana Jones....without the rolling boulders and priests trying to rip your heart out.

We cruised around town some more, just watching the people go by. You would see schoolchildren in uniform riding their bikes home next to a parking lot full of Tuk Tuk drivers try to get foreigners to hire them out. I was delighted to see that a lot of the 'tourists' here don't draw too much attention to themselves, although you occasionally had the teenage clown wearing his skinny jeans and baseball cap. 

Some things weren't nearly as delightful, and I was reminded yet again that this was a very poor country. I saw a child near the children's hospital peeing in the street while his mother held up an IV drip for him. He had no clothes, and looked like he needed an extra couple of pounds. He could have been suffering from some serious disease or it could have been something very treatable like a bad case of dehydration. Either way, he couldn't get into the hospital and so he relied on his mother to help him. I wish there was something I could do, and my heart bled for him, but I had to drive by. I didn't know his situation and wouldn't know where to start to try and help. Part of me wants to come here in the future and volunteer long term. After seeing how happy the people are when they have food on the table, how could you not want to help?

That's another issue I'm going to look at more while I'm here. As for now, I'm back at the guesthouse relaxing and getting ready to head out to Angkor Wat for sunset tonight. Tomorrow will be Day 1 of temple exploring. Now I just need to find myself a fedora...

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