I sometimes feel like I have become the kind of tourist that I used to mock when I was in Cambodia. You know, the type who gets easily frustrated at small or big inconveniences. I sometimes scold myself in my mind and say, “Don’t be a self-entitled tourist.” I am ashamed because it is such a privilege for people to have the opportunity to travel and it should not be taken for granted because most people in the world aren’t able to leave their communities let alone their countries.
It took me months to develop strong relationships in Siem Reap and I was very happy when I got to the point where I had enough friends to always have someone to hang out with and even having an adopted Khmer family to always be there with me to make me feel like I always had a home base in Asia. I also had the wonderful guesthouse staff who let me use their Wi-Fi anytime, my morning sandwich lady, my vegetable lady, the Cambodian hair wash place and other go-to places.
Even after eight months in the small city centre in Siem Reap, there are still new experiences I had. Even when I came back to the city for 2.5 weeks after being in Laos, there were still adventures to experience. I cycled new bike paths with my Khmer (Cambodian) friend around his village, had lunch at a wedding during our bike ride, went to my first Khmer engagement party and went for the opening of my friends’ new restaurant.
But when I started going to different countries where I didn’t know anyone, it was sometimes hard to “restart” in many ways. Figuring out where things are, trying not to get scammed, finding people to hang out with and so on. I became like a tourist who I used to laugh at when I was in Cambodia catching myself with thoughts like, “In Cambodia, I can just get a SIM card anywhere, everything was so easy,” or, “Why is it so hard to find reliable Wi-Fi? In Siem Reap there are coffee shops everywhere.” The I feel ashamed of myself for feeling like the world has to be at my convenience at times.
I knew deep down though as much as I loved being in Cambodia, I had to push myself to keep exploring new places in Asia, meeting people and getting out of my comfort zone. And when felt alone and down sometimes, I had to learn to be present with those times and know they all happened for a reason.
Of the past 11 months I’ve been traveling, 8 months was in Cambodia, mostly Siem Reap. The remaining 3 months in Laos, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and Philippines was filled with countless connections, adventures, spontaneity, sightseeing and reunions with friends. As someone who thrives on adventure and randomness, even thrills have a saturation point and it feels like I’ve experienced everything I wanted to and more.
My experience is like someone who starts a new drug and everything is exciting and new. Then you need to have more of it to feel a high. But once you’ve experienced everything, it’s not exciting anymore and you don’t feel as happy no matter how much you take after consuming it for a long time.
I’ve been so fortunate to be able to move wherever I want to go and see what I want to see, but I’ve often been antsy at the same time the past few months because I haven’t worked on a meaningful projects in a long time since my volunteer term ended in October. Even when I was still in Siem Reap, I felt I had a purpose to help around the house with my adopted Khmer (Cambodian family) or give my time to visit people to learn more about their lives.
One of my good friends recently asked me, “What do you think your purpose is right now?” And I replied honestly, “I have no purpose right now, I’m trying to find one.”
There comes a point where no beautiful beaches, jungle treks or bike rides in new cities will make me as happy as seeing my friends and Khmer family in my Asian home Siem Reap. At the beginning of January, I was seeing signs that were pulling my heart to see friends in Siem Reap: First, I was sleeping for most of the two-hour train ride from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. Then I woke up for a bit to see the view outside and it suddenly changed to rice fields and coconut trees that look exactly like the landscape in Cambodia.
Secondly, I don’t hear much from my Khmer friends because they are busy with their projects and one of them just said “miss you nas” (miss you very much).
Thirdly, today I spent hours busing around Bangkok to try and get to one of the islands and when we finally took the bus, I ended up in the wrong part of Thailand. Since we had to wait 11 hours for our next bus, we decided to spent the day in a coffee shop. I found out in the hour that the staff member who was serving us is Cambodian and I practiced speaking Khmer with her. Later I found out most people in the city speak Khmer because they are so close to the Cambodian border. They also had the same openness of Khmer people.
Finally, I haven’t heard from Konnitha, my adopted Khmer mom in awhile and when we were just chatting briefly online she said, “I miss you so much.”
I’ve never been as homesick with Vancouver, Canada where I left for Asia as I have been with Cambodia. Of course I often miss my family and friends the most but I haven’t thought, “I can’t wait to go back home” since I’ve been here. When I left, my mind and heart were open to the unknown and ready for the best and worst in a completely new place.
When I am alone, my thoughts drift most often to one of my closest Khmer friends Konnitha and wonder how her and her family are doing because they have been the most part of my daily life in the months I was in Cambodia.
When I was staying at her family’s house, I would often go for a bike ride or check my mail and come back to prepare lunch with the family and eat together. I got so integrated with the family I started feeling guilty if I didn’t have dinner with them almost every day. Whenever I was away for a few days in another city, Buntha, Konnitha’s husband, would text me to check on me to make sure I got to my destination safely, which is really sweet. My mom in Canada feels better knowing people are looking out for me.
It’s taken me over a month to get used to waking up to completely silent mornings. While most people love and appreciate silent mornings, I enjoy waking up to the sound of chanting monks, the family getting getting ready in the morning or prayers coming from mosques. When I started waking up to completely silent mornings in Bali, Indonesia, I was even missing the annoying rooster that would crow every day at 5 a.m. in Cambodia because it was too quiet.
I never liked totally quiet environments since I was small and that’s why I can sleep through most noise, and I’ve slept through music blaring between two stages 24 hours a day, people talking in the morning, and even a jackhammer during a renovation. Maybe the sounds just show me there is life and people outside starting their days and the world is waiting for me to interact with it.
As much as I’m having a wonderful time in the cities I’ve been, I’m looking forward to returning to Siem Reap for a few weeks to spend precious time with my friends and my Khmer family one last time.
Of all the beautiful places I’ve been, it’s not the sights that I remember the most, it’s the people I spend time with that are forever engraved in my memory and heart. I remember the times they made me laugh, their silly jokes, when they helped me get somewhere, cooked with me and told me about their dreams.
I knew before I left Vancouver that there are many people that I was meant to be friends with and I feel I’ve connected with most of them. Our paths were meant to cross.