Siem Reap: Colorful Characters

The most exhilarating part of traveling is chancing across an intriguing, colorful array of people along the way.

This trip to Siem Reap not only led us on a journey of self-discovery and service, but brought us on an adventure to meet a myriad of different characters, each with their own riveting stories.

Often taxi drivers turn out to be some of the most interesting people. There aren’t any taxis in Cambodia (unless you include tuk-tuks, which were prohibited by the school over safety concerns), but we hired a van, and sure enough our van driver was a captivating old chap – Udom.

‘Udom means excellent – name excellent, but person not excellent,’ Udom repeated over and over again in earnest the moment he introduced himself. He nodded and shook his head with an ardent resolution to fend off any compliments we showered on his amiable personality, ‘I not excellent!’.

Udom. Quite an apt name, I must say – Udom is an incredibly genuine and benevolent character; eager to please and hearteningly humble in his demeanor. It was a great source of amusement letting him know that he could be confused with a type noodle in Japan!

One morning another driver showed up – Udom had overslept that morning. When questioned about it the next day, Udom apologized profusely and said: ‘I had friend over last night, had too many Cambodias!’ Laughing, we said he must have had a lot of beers – Matt jokngly asked if he had twenty. ’No, no – I cannot anymore, at most ten!’ He replied intently, his wide eyes indicating his genuine shock (I don’t think he realized Matt was joking about having twenty beers).

Matt’s conversation with him eventually led us to discover many things about him: his views on politics in Cambodia (drivers tend to be the most opinionated about local politics; they hear so much and meet so many people, it seems impossible for them not to adopt some sort of viewpoint); his life; his mother’s cancer and the years he spent in Vietnam accompanying her in undergoing treatment; his troubles and his wage… For the hefty US$40 we were paying to rent the van for each day, Udom only received US$3 – hardly enough to buy himself a proper meal.

It wasn’t the lowly wage that shocked me; in poverty-stricken Cambodia, having a stable income is considered above par. It was his humility and his drive to keep on working at life that touched me: even amidst his struggles he faced his work with alacrity and showered us with his hospitable welcome; even amongst his troubles he kept on going. Three dollars, my word! Such a wage couldn’t possibly sustain him, let alone his family of ten! He probably lives on tips – but when asked about it, he quite dejectedly shook his head and said that tourists don’t tend to tip him much.

Life is a struggle for everyone. But I don’t think we realize how incredibly fortunate we are. If our most pressing problems include not being able to purchase that phone, dress, or knick-knack we’ve always wanted; or include not getting that one mark higher in that test – we’re forgetting that these are just trivial matters in a world with much more urgent issues.

We’re so obliviously sheltered in Singapore – so steeped in our little world, our society and all its rules and conventions; our paradigm. We’re blinded and restricted by our microclimate – but there’s so much to learn from the people who live such different lives from us. Udom’s situation reminded me of just how fortunate we were to be of a wealthy background; to have the chance to forge a better future for ourselves. Udom’s resilience showed me the strength of human determination – doesn’t matter what we have, we just make do and live our lives. There is nothing we can do to change the past, we can only take charge of our present situation and work towards the future.

George Nickels. Our photography tour guide for a day – but calling him our ‘tour guide’ would be a complete misconstruction and perhaps even demeaning for so interesting a man. Garbed in a black coat, wielding a grey hat and a bulky, protruding camera bag, George hurried stiffly around with a slight limp. I hadn’t wondered much of his character or life – I was much too captivated by the amalgamation of bright orange and deep pink hues that dappled the morning sky above Angkor Wat. Completely preoccupied with fiddling with the buttons: the shutter speed, aperture, white balance, and so on – I had hardly taken notice of the man directing us. My intrigued was piqued only when began elaborating on his life story at lunch.

As a photojournalist, George travels the world at his own expense, covering stories he’d like to cover (with no guarantee of a source of income; he can only hope that a newspaper would be interested in his photos, or that his photos would eventually win prizes to cover his flight costs). It’s a very different life from the rigid, structured, life we have (or will potentially have) back in Singapore – most probably with a stable job tied to a desk – and  completely incongruous to our entire lifestyle or anything we’ve encountered. The tension and fearful awe was palpable in the air when George told of his travels to Afghanistan and various places in the Middle East, and outlined how he was once tortured and had to resort to sticking his memory card up his anus to hide his controversial photos.

And yet there he was, sitting in front of us, chatting with a lopsided grin and an occasional insouciant shrug.

The mysterious people that populate this earth never cease to amaze me.

San Kim, on the other hand, is an 18-year-old teacher at Savong’s School. It was surprising to hear that he spoke fluent Khmer and English; it was even more of a pleasant surprise to learn that he knew a bit of Korean, Malay, Japanese, and Chinese as well. The great eagerness to learn, and the open-minded adaptability of the Cambodians struck me – these people seized whatever opportunities they had and made something of them. We have the access to so many resources here; and yet with comparatively so little the youths of Cambodia know so much.

It is through the people we meet that we see ourselves, and see what we lack in ourselves – and it is through them that we learn.

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