I don’t think there has been a country that has touched me quite the way that Cambodia has.
We arrived about an hour before sunset. The AirBNB we were staying in also provided a tuk tuk that picked us up from the airport. Seriously, who has been picked up from the airport in a tuk tuk? So cool!
Mr. Kong was our tuk tuk driver and he was incredible. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would end up spending most of our time in Siem Reap with him. He helped us into our AirBNB, and taped to the front of the door was a welcome sign. There is not a doubt in my mind that Mr. Kong did this, and it warmed my heart. Our AirBNB was a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a large living room, a kitchen, and two balconies. We paid $60 a night for this. Cambodia is incredibly cheap. We had arranged for a microlight (or ultralight) flight the next morning and needed to get to the airfield by 6 am. Mr. Kong offered to pick us up in his tuk tuk at 5:20 am.
Before bed, we found a restaurant nearby and Amelia and I have a few Anchor beers. They were 50 cents for one large draft! The area we were staying in was near Pub Street, a popular party hang out in Siem Reap, with many restaurants and night life. We were situated along the river and the setting was surreal. It was, though, much warmer than Luang Prabang or Hanoi.
Siem Reap is famous for Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. It was built in the 12th century and is surprisingly in very good condition. We had arranged for a microlight tour over Angkor Wat and the other temples in the area. A microlight is a small plane, also called a trike, that has one propeller on the back and can take two passengers up. Our pilot was Eddie and he took us each individually up to about 700 feet. We spent thirty minutes touring the temples, rice fields, and Siem Reap from the sky in an open air plane. It was an awesome experience, and something I’m so glad I got to do.
While we each waited our turn to go up, Kong also waited. It was heart breaking to watch him take pictures and videos, I’m sure to show his family, but to never get the chance to go up. I wanted to give him the $150 and buy him an opportunity to see his homeland the way were experiencing it. It was so unfair…everything about it.
Kong ended up being our tour guide for the day. He drove us between the various temples and we bought him lunch at a restaurant recommended by him. A very good lunch too. His story was something I needed to hear. He told us that he lived in a home with his wife, two daughters, mother, and two sisters. They all lived in a metal framed house on stilts, to keep water out during high season. He showed us another home that would have been similar to his. It was about half the size of my apartment. At night, they each sleep on a mat that rolls up. There are no mattresses. They got electricity last year and water is pumped by hand each day from the ground. Kong never once complained and was grateful for everything. He was 38 so would have just missed the Khmer Rouge takeover. Kong’s smile and genuine nature were captivating, and I feel honored to have met him. We need more people in the world like him.
After our time with Kong and a painful goodbye, we visited the floating villages of Cambodia. There are several thousand people that live on Lake Tonle Sap – both Cambodians and Vietnamese refugees. They have floating markets, floating schools, floating hospitals. Literally everything that any other village would have…except for grassy parks. When I asked why the people live there and if they want to leave, the response was very clearly no. The people want to live on the water, without land, catching fish for a living, and living in homes that move around depending on the rainy season. It’s their home, their way of life, and it’s been that way for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. There are so many ways to live life. So many ways.
That evening, over a very nice dinner in Cambodia, I asked Amelia and Tony what defines a ‘good life.’ In our culture, we often look at someone’s life after it has ended and comment that ‘they had a good life.’ What does that mean? Is it the number of times they smiled in a day? The amount of money they had in their bank account? The joy they brought to others? I had seen so many ways of living over the past week, I had so much to absorb and process. I still don’t know that ‘a good life’ can be defined. Kong said he has a good life; the people floating in the villages say they have good lives; mine, very different than theirs, is also a good life. I suppose, like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.