As I reflect on my time here in Cambodia, I think of what has made this experience truly memorable. This would have proven to be more difficult two weeks into the program as my roommates and I agonized about missing home. But Seven Candles has become home, and a part of me will always be left here.
There have been many ways my experience here would have not been the same, if it were not for the warm and generous hearts of the Cambodians. Part of what has made my experience complete are the many different people that we’ve come to know and love – the Ly family, the staff of PLF, the students of the schools and dorm and the wait staff at the neighborhood restaurants.
In comparing Siem Reap to the other big cities I have visited in the region, the difference is the kindness the people have managed to preserve despite the increasing influx of foreigners. Many times, locals get frustrated with the high presence of foreigners that they develop an attitude of annoyance with them. I remember going on holidays to European countries where I was always scoffed at because I was a tourist and I did not speak the language. However, a simple “Ah-Khoon” (thank you) here is enough for your waiter or tuk tuk driver to light up and smile. I know this might be much of a generalization, and I am not saying that does not happen in other places around the world, but my five weeks here have allowed me to occupy spaces between the bustle of the city and the quaint countryside. Through these experiences, I observe the different ways in which the local Khmer people look at us and react to our presence.
However, I think that the interactions I have with locals are not as unique for them as they are for me. There is a strong sense of community between the everyday Khmer people themselves. Driving along the road on the countryside, I find it hard to not admire the azure skies and the villagers working alongside in the fields of luminous green where neighbors are most often treated as family. Too often, we are pushed to engage in the world as individuals and to “be our own person”, but in doing so we sometimes fail to recognize that the process of learning about ourselves involves the crucial participation of the people around us. Everyday is a journey and a new lesson as I work with my peers and the PLF team.
As I sit in the van on the way back to Siem Reap from Ratanakiri, I look out to admire the endless azure skies against the luminous green rice fields and empty grasslands. What I notice is that while the land varies from dense forest to flat cleared land the people remain the same. I know I will always remember the high-pitched ‘hellos’ and wide smiles; the joy and generosity people unknowingly transmit to me by simply offering a warm welcome.
The people of Cambodia have stolen my heart and I am happy to leave it with them.