Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

From my 2003 South East Asia travel diary

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

August 20, 2003 (continued)

As I wandered around the National Museum in Phnom Penh, I felt curious eyes on me and heard soft, following footsteps. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young, small figure. When I turned to see more clearly, I saw that it was young, neatly dressed Cambodian schoolgirl. The girl with a young, fresh face asked me where I was from, and strolled along side me as I looked at the collection of unlabeled artifacts- unfortunately, I couldn’t discern their significance- historic or otherwise, but I imagined that these relics and ruins offered a preview of what there was to see of Angkor Wat- my next stop tomorrow.

I looked at her long, dark, wavy hair which was neatly pinned back and told her that I was from Canada, that that’s where I grew up and the passport that I’m traveling on. She told me that she was a university student. I would have guessed she was a high school student from her neat appearance; she wore a white buttoned down shirt and navy skirt which at first glance resembled a school uniform.

Then she asked, “How long will you be in my country?”

I noticed her crisp white shirt and the letters USA embroidered conspicuously on one of the collars.

“I just arrived today from Bangkok,” I told her. “I will be here for one day. Tomorrow I’m going to Siem Reap to see the famous temples of Angkor for three days.”

“It’s so wonderful that you come to visit my country. Are you traveling by yourself?”


“I’m so happy you have come to visit my country. You are so brave. Many people think it’s dangerous. They don’t want to come they are worried about the election. It’s so great that you have come. If you want to know about something in the museum you can ask me.”

Cambodia held its National Assembly elections on July 27, 2003. It was feared that the violence and instability surrounding past elections would plague this one. The results were officially announced August 8, 2003 .

Her charming, heartfelt sincerely had won me over. I asked her if she had ever been to Angkor, to which she replied no, because she was too busy with her studies. I urged her to go, telling her that people from all over the world come to Cambodia just to see Angkor Wat.

“What are you studying?” I asked.

“Chemistry. Are you finished with your studies?”

I smiled and told her that I was much older than she thought.

“I’m close to 30,” I told her. Actually over 30 to be completely truthful, but what’s a few years give or take at this point?

“Oh you look so young,” she gushed.

“Thank you.”

I told her that I was living in Taiwan and working as an English teacher. When she humbly apologized about her poor English I assured her that her English was quite good, which it was.

When I asked her about some of the artifacts, she told me that most young Cambodians don’t know the significance of all them. Not only were the artifacts not clearly labeled, they didn’t seem to be categorized or placed in any systematic order.

“Are you going anywhere else today?”

“Yes, I’ll be going to the Grand Palace and Silver Pagoda.” Visiting the Killing Fields had proven to be so emotionally draining that I knew I couldn't bear visiting the S-21 prison.

“I have to go now. Have a good trip.”

“Good luck with your studies.”

And just like that she was gone.

I stepped outside of the museum, into the stark noon sun. Just in front of the museum was the admission booth- there, the same emaciated, legless man sat in a wheelchair, just the same as when I had arrived an hour or so earlier. One look at him made more than a few foreign tourists reach in to their pockets to pay for more than just the museum admission.

Sadly, decades of war have left behind landmines that maim the innocent people of Cambodia daily.


  • At 5/19/2005 6:56 PM, Anonymous Christine said…

    Not to be pessimistic, but the same kind of treatment happened to Bob Hsiung when he was doing a visa run to the Philippines. He met these two really nice old ladies at a church who befriended him, offered to make him dinner, took him home and then drugged him. Stole his passport, money, etc. and left him on the street where he eventually woke up. It could have been one of his internal organs, know what I mean?

    Thankfully he was able to get help from the U.S. Embassy (as he couldn't leave the country to get back to Taipei without a passport), left us all very worried when he called back to Taipei for help... the guy is 6'2"!

    Moral of the story is, the kindness of strangers isn't always for the purpose of being kind.


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