I arrived here in Cambodia on Tuesday, travelling overland from Thailand. Within eight hours of crossing the border, eight people or groups of people had made warm and friendly contact with me. This left me deeply moved, and in love with Cambodia. Completely different from Thailand where, as in Europe, everyone is too rich, too congested with people, and ignores you.
- A hassling, fluent English, border truck tout. OK, not the best start and not the most friendly of people, as he hassled and lied about having a pick-up to Battambang. However, he was friendly, and helped me across the border. When I then refused his father’s pick-up, which had no other passengers yet, he was helpful and found me another one. And he taught me the essential first two phrases of Khmer, “Hello!” and “Thank you!”.
- People on the back of the first pickup truck. The most fun and cheapest, and if you don’t book the only, way to get from the Thai border town of Poipet to Battambang is on the back a pickup truck. They fill the thing to bursting, you never quite believe what small space, and precariously balanced cargo another will sit on. An old man sitting next to me held my knee in the kindest, warmest, most unconscious way possible, as he couldn’t reach part of the truck to hold onto. A very young boy fell asleep with his head on my lap. Innocent, friendly, spirited togetherness.
- People on the back of the second pickup truck (had to change truck at Sisophon). Three friendly smiley young women, an older guy with two children and two dogs, who tried chatting with me in English.
- Sombat (aka Bat) at the transport stop in Battambang. Fed up after the tout at the border, I was first of all rude to him, but he turned out to be a great moto driver and guide who took me out to surrounding sites for the next two days.
- NGO man in restaurant. He was sitting at the next table to me, working for an educational charity in the villages, and just started talking to me. He was Christian, and told me a bit about their work.
- Group of friends at the dessert stall. Cambodia has great fun night markets where you can buy food after 4pm, including Khmer dessert stalls. Sickly concoctions, of jelly or rice sweets with condensed milk, ice, or a strange almost potato-like fruit. More fun to eat than delicious. I sat a dark and candle lit stall. The young people who ran it and their friends, were chatty, jokey, and warm.
- Hotel staff playing cards outside. They invited me to join as I went in to go to bed, although I declined.
- Receptionist. Amusingly, after giving me my key, he then changed the television channels to show me which one was the (best?) local porn channel. This is some kind of level of service that I’m not used to!
Since then I’ve been giving English lessons to Buddhist monks, having teenagers teach me to count, and being offered to join a group of people at the next table in a restaurant (Cambodian saying: “The more people at a meal, the tastier it is!”). On the country roads all the children wave to foreigners.
So why are they so friendly, as they were in Burma? The cynical side of me says that people who are poor, people who have lived disconnected to the world, or at war, are happier and more excited to see “farang”. Foreign visitors are both a sign of stability, and a source of local wealth. My moto driver said that the children and visitors are so friendly to me because most white people in the area work for NGOs. The villagers believe the NGOs have done actual valuable work in mine clearance, education and healthcare. This is great to hear, and very sweet, but not really a privileged welcome that a tourist is deserving off.
The other side of the coin to this cold explanation is simply that the people are warm and friendly. They live more in communities, and haven’t had their soul sucked away by television, and by more wealth than they know how to organise as a society in a sensible way. All the travellers seem to like the countries which aren’t developed more than those that are, because of this warmth and friendliness. What are we developing?
I’m now in Siem Reap, jumping off point to visit the temples of Angkor, one of the wonders of the world. So, it’s overflowing with tourists, many of whom fly here and don’t see anything more of Cambodia. Not that I’m much better, rushing on next week to Vietnam.