We spent an entire week in Phnom Penh before we moved on to our next destination. By now, we’d really begun to take note of a culture that transcended the borders we’d been crossing. Theravada Buddhism is everywhere, of course, and it exists mostly on a personal level. That is, although a vast majority of the population share this common spiritual background, each person applies it to their own lives in a way that (hopefully) brings about internal peace and allows them to be a better person on a day to day basis. The notion of karmic reciprocation is a factor as well; the energy you put forth, and the decisions you make, are returned to you evenly.
Of course, in the real world, people are people and they are as varied in Asia as they are in my home country of Canada. I think Buddhism is a powerful spiritual tool for some people, but the way it is applied is just as varied as those who are applying it.
That being said, pretty much everywhere we went there was more of a sense of emotional calm within most people. That’s not to say that there was a lack of exuberance or enthusiasm, despite the mood, but people didn’t want to be seen as losing self-control in public or giving in to anger when a disagreement arose. But people also didn’t want to be seen as backing down either; it really is an interesting social dynamic.
Thinking back to Chiang Khong, I remember Don, the American ex-pat from Alabama, telling us about how doing business with the locals required an altered approach, especially when it came to pitching ideas. He told us that he couldn’t present himself as the person who first thought of a concept, or a business model. He had to make his potential partner feel as though he was the one who deserved the credit, and only then could any sort of relationship go forward. Saving face, it seems, serves a high function on many levels of Southeast Asian society and we would see it time and again throughout our travels.
But what does this have to do with Cambodia, and Phnom Penh? Simply that despite the sweeping presence of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia, the people and the history are consistently distinct even within the national borders. From the history of the former Siamese, the Khmer who saw to the construction of some of the most magnificent architecture in human history, and the humble Laos, once a scatter of kingdoms, now born out of the ashes of colonial rule as a struggling but beautifully persistent nation. The ancientness of where we were was really beginning to settle; thousands of years of history under our feet.
Images Teresa and I captured in the National Museum of Cambodia in the heart of Phnom Penh
We are truly lucky to be around in this time, the 21st century, when this part of the world is so accessible. But as I’ve mentioned before, and which has been an ongoing debate forever, in pretty much every country in the world, is the dual nature of increased tourism. Most of the countries we visited depend on the tourist dollar; it’s undoubtedly a major part of their economic intake. The fuzzy line is drawn at the question of how much is too much? It’s difficult to regulate this industry, and money is hard to come by for a lot of citizens. We were always on the lookout, in order to avoid, unsavory business practices with anything we had planned for ourselves. We also came across a lot of great people, working their asses off every day, in order to feed themselves and their families. We were privileged to be asked to join many of them in a conversation, a home cooked meal, a sharing of one another’s experiences and cultures (I know, I say culture way too much).
A corner restaurant in the heart of Phnom Penh was a daily spot for us (the one with unlimited rice, placed in a large pot on the table to be enjoyed with any of the variety of dishes cooked fresh, outside in the concrete expanse of the city). A gentleman who owned a hotel across the street hung out there quite a bit and would always engage us in conversation, inquiring about our home land, what we thought of Cambodia and the people and food here. Of course, we were always alert for anyone looking for a bit too much info on our plans and whereabouts, but this guy was legit and we genuinely appreciated the friendly discourse.
It wouldn’t be our last time in Phnom Penh…we weren’t 100% sure about how to plan out the way we traveled in this country. Everywhere else had been a bit more straightforward up to that point, but the way Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville are situated, and because of the way we came in, through the south of Laos, we ended up having to backtrack to Phnom Penh twice. No complaints there, though. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
Through our guesthouse, we arranged travel to and from Siem Reap where we would behold a creation that everyone should see before they die, and where we had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever eaten in my life.