A roundtrip tuk tuk ride to the Cambodian Landmine Museum for the seven of us, which will need to include two carts and takes about an hour each way, costs eighteen dollars total. The leather on the seat is cracking and worn, but comfortable. Our tuk tuk drivers speak enough English to negotiate prices, but not to answer any questions that we have about the ride there. We don’t even know enough Khmer to say “thank you” yet, so we resort to smiles and grip the hanging handrails as we begin the journey. My tuk tuk pulls ahead slightly when the second has to pull over to get gas, a process which involves pouring something close to gasoline out of an old Fanta litre bottle into the fuel tank. Gas pumps are few and far between outside the city.
We weave through the streets of Siem Reap, and I can’t keep my eyes in one place. Half the drivers are on motorbikes, some with up to two other passengers casually perched on the back. Most of the motorbike drivers are Cambodian, ranging from kids on their way back from school in their white and navy uniform, to people in street clothes, which consists of solid colored pants and shirts. The only people in tank tops and shorts are tourists. They, like us, are lounging in the backs of tuk tuks, hiding behind pairs of Ray-Bans and shielded from the heat. Tuk tuks and motorbikes make up most of the vehicles on the road, but there are a few cars and buses in between.
The traffic patterns remind me of being a kid and dropping a chip on the ground and slowly watching ants engulf and extirpate it. It’s a system, but impossible to understand as an outsider. To my ignorant eyes, it seems like utter chaos. Lanes are nonexistent, everyone drives like they own the road. Even at a standstill, motorbikes swerve in between cars and tuk tuks to be the first to turn. I have yet to see a single traffic light. Yet there is a method, and they do own the road. The drivers look disinterested in what is just their daily commute, as I am completely engrossed.
As we head out of the center of Siem Reap the shops and buildings begin to thin out, and road stands take their place. They boast of discounted brand apparel, mostly knockoff Supreme and Adidas. Huge Chinese lantern stands gleam red and gold, almost spilling into the street. The dirt from the road turns from a gray brown to orange the further out we get. I initially try to move my hair out of my face, but eventually give up completely. The strands of dirty blonde flying in front of my eyes add to the experience. Nicole sits in front of me, her red backpack strap wrapped around her ankle. Motorbikes have been known to fly by tuk tuks and snatch bags. We yell to each other to be heard over the motor, but I don’t have much to say.
Now twenty minutes outside the city, road stands have snacks and piles of simple button down shirts and the infamous “elephant pants”, loose enough to fend off sweat stains, respectful enough to wear to temples, and trendy enough to pull off, all for only a couple dollars. These stands are made for tourists. There are also huge pots sitting low to the ground with billowing smoke. When we ask what they are, James buys us a sample of the contents, palm sugar drops. He tells us they also make palm wine, something that we shouldn’t try in our time here because there’s no way we have the alcohol tolerance. The palm sugar drops are smokey sweet with a grainy texture. I don’t want to eat any more but I can imagine that it would taste great wedged between the back of my cheek and my molars, laying underneath the sun in a hammock staring up at the leaves, as I see a lot of the people we pass are doing. We pass rice fields being burned to bring back the nutrients, one of the reasons that the sky is perpetually gray. It makes the palm trees look even more green. A shirtless teenage boy stands in a puddle a few feet deep with a fishing net. The kids on the side of the road smile and wave to us. We wave back.
When we reach the Landmine Museum, it’s tough to walk around. Founded by Aki Ra, a former child soldier during the Khmer Rouge, the museum doubles as a safehouse for children seeking an education. There are rooms full of the children’s paintings right next to the rooms full of thousands of disabled landmines. It makes you feel something you can’t quite describe, but it’s nothing different from what you felt on the tuk tuk drive over. After spending a few hours at the museum, we walk to the shake stand next door and drink out of coconuts. You can even get an Angkor (the local beer) if you want. I sit there watching, and something in the road catches my attention.
A motorbike rushing by hits one of the street dogs crossing the road. The dog starts howling and the bystanders stand up, some of them rushing to the side of the street. The driver falls, screaming, and the bike skids across the road. The woman who gave us our tickets rushes away from the scene with her now crying child. A couple people rush to help the man up, and he pushes them off and grabs his bike. The dog is nowhere to be seen. He wheels the bike over to the side of the road, dusts himself off, and doesn’t respond to the people shouting at him in Khmer. A couple minutes later, he gets on the bike and drives away.
I used to call myself a driver but now I no longer feel entitled to that name. The tuktuk drive to the Landmine Museum is beautiful, I never for a second wanted to close my eyes. But there is something else that eats away at you, something you do want to close off. It’s the feeling you don’t have a name for, not guilt, not empathy. It hollows you. It would be impossible to travel to a place like Cambodia and not check your privilege. You see it in your hotel mirror, in the thread count of your jeans, in the plastic cards filling up your wallet. The tuktuk drive has left me with orange dirt on my T shirt, a shirt which cost more than the entire drive. I am more thankful for the clothes I wear. I am thankful for the knots in my hair from the wind on the drive.