I had just finished my delicious seafood fried rice and dragon fruit smoothie at a local Khmer restaurant down the street from my hostel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I started heading back to the hostel to fill up my water before going back to the yoga studio where programming was that day. As I made it into my room, I quickly realized that I had misplaced my sunglasses (an absolute necessity under the scorching southeast Asian sun). I tore my room apart trying to find them, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. I half-heartedly accepted the loss, but as I walked back I stopped at the restaurant anyways. I asked the hostess if I had left my sunglasses at my lunch table, but she told me the staff hadn’t seen any. I thanked her and walked away from the restaurant. I crossed a couple busy streets with tuk-tuks, motorcycles, taxis, and people on bicycles weaving in and out of the traffic, and I eventually made it to a sidewalk when I heard someone behind me yelling. Assuming it was a street vendor or tuk-tuk driver trying to get my attention, I ignored it. But after a few seconds, I turned around curiously. A man on a motorcycle stopped next to me and waved. I recognized him from the restaurant as he handed me my sunglasses. He smiled as I thanked him repeatedly, and then we both carried on in our opposite directions.
This all took place on my first full day in Cambodia, and I feel that this little anecdote fully encapsulates my 3-week experience in Cambodia. Earlier that same morning, we had been with our regional director who was giving us an orientation of the country. He told us the precautions we needed to take in order to prevent theft and assault, and how to maximize our personal safety. Given that it was my first day in a new city, country, and continent, I had my guard up, especially with my newfound knowledge of Phnom Penh’s dangers. My experience with the man and my sunglasses completely altered my view of the Cambodian people, and shifted my perception of where I was.
As most of my friends and family know, I hate big cities. They tend to be overcrowded, loud, dirty, and congested, all of which are things that stress me out. I hardly find myself going out of my way to get into a city; typically, I do just the opposite. Being from both Washington State and Colorado, I have become accustomed to living in more rural and natural environments with easy access to the ocean and rivers and forests and mountains. First trimester’s somewhat rural settings of Wyoming, Belize, and Costa Rica were right up my alley. But upon arriving to Phnom Penh, I knew it would be a challenge for me to assimilate to “big city living.” After my encounter with the man from the restaurant, I found myself looking for more positive aspects of being in a big city rather than dwelling on the things I hated about it. No longer afraid or extremely weary of my environment, I naturally became more accustomed to Phnom Penh, and genuinely appreciated what it had to offer, even though it wasn’t where I was actively choosing to live.
I went out of my way to break through my own discomforts about being in the city, which didn’t come as naturally to me as it did to most people in my group. I forced myself to cross the street without hesitation, holding my ground with the motorcycles and tuk-tuks zooming in and out around me (and not letting myself freak out). I stayed open-minded about eating the local cuisine by eating at different restaurants and cafes, night markets, and street vendors. I even made an effort to take Natanielle’s advice of “speaking smile” by smiling at the locals, even if I couldn’t speak with them in their native language.
The overarching lesson I learned from that occurrence on my first day in Phnom Penh is that both receiving and giving little acts of kindnesses, especially while traveling abroad, can become pivotal moments that alter your view of where you are, how you act, and the culture around you. I want to thank that man from the restaurant, wherever he is and whatever he is doing. His act of hospitality and kindness allowed me to see Cambodia for what it is: an amazing country that has gone through immense loss, yet is filled with some of the kindest and genuine people I’ve encountered.
Thank you to that man, and thank you to Cambodia.