The Kingdom of Cambodia is one of those rare places that makes an eternal imprint in your heart. Like many travellers before me and the many who will come after, I fell in love with this remarkable South East Asian country.
With every experience we have as we meander our way through this unpredictable life, we discover little things that forever change us and help us understand more about ourselves and, the world around us.
As part of my Life Lessons Learned series, permit me to humbly share my experiences in Cambodia.
Life Lesson Number One: I love sugar cane juice.
No, really, I do. Immediately after writing the above paragraph I sprinted across the road, I asked for a refill without ice.
Life Lesson Number Two: Monkey See, Monkey Run
I have never had an affinity for animals. The only ones I’ve ever really loved were my own. All others I am indifferent towards, dislike considerably or fear with an incontrovertible passion.
Can you blame me?
When I was about five years old, I was stung in my manly area by a jellyfish and I bawled like a five year old girl who had her cotton candy taken away.
A few years later while collecting donations for the Red Cross, yes while doing a good deed, I was almost mauled to death by an angry, unforgiving pitbull and once again, I screamed like a little girl, who was, well, being chased by a pitbull.
And in high school, while ensuring that my teeth were being orthodontically perfected, I stepped out of the dentist’s office, smiled at world and a crow attacked me, for no reason whatsoever, barely missing my left eye and I, not surprisingly, screamed like old lady strickened with fear.
Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is the pride and joy of Cambodians and rightfully so. It is truly a beautiful archaeological masterpiece. Designed to mimic a closed lotus bud, Angkor Wat is a United Nations World Heritage Site built more than 800 years ago. This Hindu temple is easily the most stunning made man structure I have ever seen. The details are dazzling. Your eyes dart in every direction hoping not to miss a minute detail.
The more you explore this expansive site, the more amazed you become. Several times as if in an unbreakable trance I whispered to my friend, “I can’t believe this was built by men so many years.”
As I roamed the corridors captivated by the intricate details, I stumbled across a hissing monkey.This brought back memories of a traumatising experience two earlier in Bali when I was savagely attacked by a baby monkey. Well, maybe I wasn’t exactly viciously attacked and perhaps the baby monkey just jumped on me wanting to play but I am not particularly fond of my non-homosapians primate friends. I remember being paralyzed with fear screaming at the top of my lungs, begging for help while everyone laughed.
As soon as I spotted the monkey, I sprinted faster than Jamaican Olympian and World Campion, Bolt. Once again in a religious temple where people usually find solace and enlightment, I found fear by a monkey who was not even close to me.
In life one person’s experience isn’t necessarily going to be yours. Your experiences maybe cathartic, a true spiritual awakening; it maybe therapeutic, cleansing your soul; occasionally disappointing, expectations weren’t realised, or sometimes, like me, it may be highly embarrassing but what does matter is that at the end of the day it is entirely yours.
Life Lesson Number Three: Where is that?
When you travel, one question will always be asked, “Where are you from?”
Being from the very small beautiful island nation of Trinidad and Tobago I have come to realise that most people in the world do not know where I am from and that’s okay. I am more than happy to educate them.
The thing is when people look at my face they often think I am the guy from “Slumdog Millionaire” minus the millionaire part, or from Pakistan, particularly on the days when I choose not to shave or, my favorite, Iraq because of my Saddam Hussein-esk features.
I have tried explaining many times that my country is in the Caribbean, not Africa, but because of linguist differences and sometimes, general lack of geography, most people simply don’t know.
In this trip to Cambodia, I noticed many people were familiar with Cuba, which I initially thought, “Close enough.”
So for the last few days of my trip I decided to tell people I was Cuban, but it bother me, mainly because (1) I am not Cuban, and (2) when asked to speak Spanish, a confused look always registered on my face with me uttering an unconvincing “Hola!” and then proceeded by a schizophrenic flamenco dance to conceal by obvious lack of Spanish .
Determined to not further embarrass myself, I since have gotten a map of the world and when people ask that predictable question, I will take it out, neatly unfold the paper, point and politely say, “That almost invisible dot is where I am from.”
Some will still not understand, but all that matters is that I tried, and hopefully some will understand that I am the young, flamenco-dancing, lost boy who is proud to call Trinidad and Tobago home.
Life Lesson Four: Hope is sometimes all we have.
Ashamedly, before visiting Cambodia, I knew very little of its sordid history,
In years between 1975-1979, Pol Pot, former leader of the Khmer Rouge, a former Communist political pary, killed more than three million people in the most unforgiving ways.
When I visited ‘The Killing Fields’ in Phnom Penh, one of the sites of the atrocious murders, I was overwhelmed with emotions.
It was heartbreaking.
On many occasions as the history of this tragic time unfolded itself before me, I was enveloped with sadness. The air I breathed reeked of despair.
While listening to the recounts of one of the survivors he said something that resonated in me.
After his family had been brutally murdered, after surviving on barely any food, after living in abject poverty, he said, “I always had hope. The strength of my own hope that someday I will be something.” This moved me to the point where an imperceptible film of tear glossed my eyes.
Sometimes in life it is our own hope that we will do great things that set us aflame. We are our own catalysts despite how horrible or disappointing our pasts have been.
Many times in life we all have dreams, big or small, unrealistic or attainable that make life so amazing because we all live in the unequivocal hope that one day it may come true.
Life Lesson Number Five: Everybody Hurts
After spending an incredible day discovering the countryside of picturesque Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, by motorbike and praying to God that I don’t fall off and die, I decided to end the night by attending the highly recommended Phare Ponleu Selepak (Battambang Circus).
Phare Ponleu Selepak is an NGO that supports disadvantaged children and teenagers by giving them the opportunity to excel in the performing arts.
This circus was pure magic, unlike anything I had ever witnessed. Inside this humble tent the audience is teleported into the enchanting world of theatrics, amusing cabaret and the most mind boggling contortions.
The diverse audience were swooning over the chiseled performers and their Adonis-like bodies. I would by lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit envious of their toned muscles and sauve disposition.
For a brief minute I even contemplated joining the circus but then, the thought of balancing on a ball and then balancing a dozen plates on my forehead with the possibility of it falling on my face quickly ended that dream.
Leaving my hopes of becoming Cambodia’s Next Top Circus Star behind, I went and sat in a tuk tuk (a type of taxi) waiting for my driver. While I waited, gazing at the stars, a young Cambodian woman, who coincidentally worked at the hotel I was staying in, asked if she could share the tuk tuk with me. Without hesitation I obliged.
We began talking about our lives, laughing and enjoying the other’s company when she told me she had broken up with her boyfriend that morning. The sadness in her voice was palpable. The grief in her eyes borrowed deep within her soul.
Looking at her, I saw my tainted reflection. I too had once lost someone I had loved very much and the pain stung, leaving behind seemingly permanent scars of a happier time. Her eyes filled with tears because she was now broken.
I unwillingly reopened the wounds of my past, and reassured her that she, like I, will be okay.
We all hurt, that’s an inherent part of life, but knowing and truly believing that we will be okay requires an inner strength which we may sometimes think we lack but we all have.
We will all be okay and we will all be loved.
Life Lesson Number Six: I am you. You are me. We are one.
When I was growing up, I always thought I was rich. My parents didn’t have much, they still don’t, but I always believed I was an aristocrat. I had it all.
You see for me life was an adventure. It still is. I saw only the best. I had a great education and always believed that anything was possible because I was always taught that.
On Christmas Day, my friend, Sheila, and I visited the Friends of the Orphan Children Orphanage (FOCO-Orphanage) in Siem Reap. It was a humbling experience.
Children who had nothing greeted us, strangers, with the warmest welcome. They invited us to sit with them and offered us a simple meal of porridge.
I remembered shamefully thinking, “This is the worst meal I have ever tasted in my entire life.” I looked around at the smiling faces of these children, happily eating their Christmas dinner and felt deeply embarrassed.
As the night progressed, and I chatted with them I saw myself many years ago when I too had limitless dreams. Dreams where I knew that I could and will change the world. Dreams where I could help those around me. Dreams where I could make my family proud. Dreams where I will be happy.
I am the luckiest boy in the world on most days. I am living many of my dreams but so many people live under such terrible conditions that their ability to dream slowly fades, not by choice but by circumstance, until one day it completely disappears.
As those born into endless privilege, we have a moral responsibility to help those who cannot help themselves. We are much more than we think we are. We are more similar than we are different. I am you. You are me. We really are all just one.
Jenson recommends: Visiting beautiful Cambodia, support their economy and get lost in the endless adventures that await you. =)
For more information: I contacted the orphanage and asked how I can help. Next month I will be sending a package to the orphanage, which I hope to continue after I leave Japan next year.
The children need the following supplies: writing books, pens, pencils, rulers, reading books, uniforms, bags, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, toothpastes, detergents etc.
I have already started collecting things from my students and co-workers and I welcome anything. I would also appreciate if anyone could assist in helping with the shipping costs.