As I returned from a recent trip to Cambodia, I reminisced of my first trip to Cambodia and how returning is always a real pleasure. My first time in Cambodia was in 2002 with a dear high school friend, Lynn. Back then, both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh were much smaller, food and accommodation was more expensive and the country was emerging and entering the throes of expanded tourism.
As we travelled to Phnom Penh on the back of a rickety bus from Ho Chi Minh, the scores of smiles and waves we got along the way was so refreshing. Here are a people who have endured a brutal history, and yet seemed so hopeful and joyful.
The roads were untarred with deep potholes, rendering the bus a de facto bouncy castle. Lynn however, unsurprisingly, was able to sleep throughout the journey even if our heads were bobbing with each pothole. Back then, the fastest way to reach Siem Reap from Phnom Penh was to take a large speed boat through the Tonle Sap. The boat was a comfortable ride, air-conditioned and I believe it took us about 4 hours to get to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh.
We were already exhausted from the bus ride and when we arrived in Siem Reap, we were plyed with a horde of voice proclaiming the merits of various hotels and guesthouses. We jumped onto motorcycles which took us to our chosen home for the next few days and explored Siem Reap. One of our first stops of the evening was a place which was filled with Angelina Jolie memorabilia from Tomb Raider followed by walks through Siem Reap town in preparation for our exploration of the Angkor temples the next day.
The next few days were blissful. We woke up early to experience sunrise at some of the architectural wonders of Angkor. Sitting cross-legged as we watched the sun rise behind a massive stone face and slowly wash our faces with warmth. We laughed, talked and had easy going days.
This trip was the foundation of the enchantment with Cambodia, with all the fine silks, silver and wood. I noticed the beautiful handwoven silks which abound in Cambodia.
Fast forward to 2011, I was living in Kampong Thom for 2 months teaching English, building schools, speaking at World Vision and interacting with the local villagers as much as we could. This is also the time when I learned of how many weavers were not able to earn enough money from weaving as they had to sell their pieces with very low margins to middlemen.
During one of our walks in a village, that we happened upon a lady chopping some wood and we decided to stop and help her. The lady asked a friend, Tom, if he had come to Cambodia before. Tom hadn’t. When we asked why, she told us about how her daughter was ‘adopted’ by an American man 10 years ago who looked like Tom. She has not heard from this man or her daughter since. All of us looked at each other, her story broke our hearts, we realised her daughter was likely trafficked.
Stories like hers were not uncommon throughout Cambodia and Vietnam. This is when the desire to work with the issue of trafficking was planted in my heart.