I was bouncing up and down in a tuktuk along a road outside of Kampot, my shirt glued to my back, the relentless sun beating off the orange dirt and the metal railings of the carriage, the only relief from the oppressive heat found in the slight breeze caused by moving through the air at a snail's pace. Maybe this country actually sucks, I thought, angrily glaring at a dusty shop set up in the open part of a home contructed of corrugated metal where a pants-less little boy stood lethargically watching the world pass by.
We passed another shack where a mother was bathing her naked child by pouring a bottle of water over him. The child squirmed with glee as the water fell over him, while the mother chucked the empty bottle into a pile of litter nearby.
Maybe I actually hate it here. This question had been percolating in my brain since arriving in Cambodia and finally surfaced now. Because unlike other places I've visited, it hadn't exactly won me over at first sight. I started racking through the countries and cities I'd been, trying to remember how they first made an impression on me; I had instantly loved Portugal and Italy and Hungary, was smitten with Madrid and London and Buenos Aires and Melbourne; had been swept away by the scenic beauty of Chile, Kyrgyzstan, the Alps, and, closer to home, the landscapes of Wyoming and Maine. Even India, as challenging as it can be, made an impression where the ultimate takeaway was one of being charmed -- once you got past the culture shock and despair and peoplepeoplepeople everywhere, it had a kind of mystique that made you want to discover more.
But, if I was going to be honest with myself, I had to admit Cambodia wasn't exactly the love affair I had thought it would be. Not that I had run around doing a ton of research on the country beforehand. Just operating out of a naïve mindset that everywhere we go has to be amazing, or we've somehow failed as a tourist and traveller.
A giant truck overtook the tuktuk, kicking up a storm of dust. I decided I was going to brave and publically declare to myself in my own mind that I did not like Cambodia. It was hot, it was poor, so far the people had been nice but not, like, soooo nice that you wished they were all your BFFs or anything and, in fact, I was getting annoyed at the feeling I was being ripped off all the time and being asked to pay prices higher than seemed fair or reasonable or even in accordance with what was listed on any travel blogs or website about the country. Cambodia was challenging. It was hard. And man was it hot.
The tuktuk arrived at my new hotel in Kampot. And by new, I don't just mean for me. It looked like it had just opened. The girl at the front desk gave me my key and said she'd already arranged a bus to Kep for me, per an email I'd sent late the previous night when I'd rebooked new accomodation for Kampot. In contrast to the place I'd just been staying, a rundown set of bungalows up the river overseen by a bunch of local kids who spent all their time listening to bad R&B music and giggling, this was a welcome change.
She showed me to my room and turned on the air conditioning. I stripped and immediately showered in my own bathroom, a priviledge I hadn't had since Siem Reap. I lay on my bed in a towel and dozed in the stream of cold air pouring out of the air conditioning.
A couple hours later, I made my way out into the heat to wander around Kampot before joining a boat tour set to depart at 5. Kampot was a pleasant surprise, with some old French colonial architecture (a few of which had been spruced up and painted in bright colours) and a mix of local and expat run shops and businesses giving the town a friendly, laid back vibe. OK, I do like this little lovely Kampot, I thought.
Slowly, as the hours passed on the boat, and then again that night in town, and then today on the road between Kampot and Kep, I began to find little bits and pieces of Cambodia emerging that began to unveil a certain charm: the relaxed way in which everyone moved about, riding packed together on a motorbike, swaying in a hammock in the shade, slowly setting out a new batch of fruit at a dusty road side shop.
As soon as I gave myself permission to hate Cambodia, I suddenly found that I kind of liked Cambodia. Sure, it had its annoyances (the ripoffs, for one thing) but there was something beautiful in the way everyone seemed to be alternating between two states of intensely working or intensely relaxing. (And who can blame them? It's hot, and not exactly the kind of weather that inspires you to do a whole lot if you don't have to.) Even more beautiful was the way everyone was always congregated together -- usually sitting together, cross-legged, eating -- or hanging out in front of a house or on their motorcycles, talking. I even began to see beauty in the places I hadn't looked before, the way a mango tree hung down in front of a house built of bamboo and corrugated metal, or how the palm leaves swayed in the gentle breeze, or how all the overtaking on the roads seemed to be done so gracefully, all the cars knowing just when to speed up or slow down.
I think too often we assume that all travel must be picture perfect, that we are obligated when we're out there in the world to just "love" everything, or be pegged a "bad traveller" who's close-minded and better off at home. Some places are just going to mesh with us more than others, and that's actually OK.
A day since making my decision that I didn't like it here, I've done almost a 180. Driving through the countryside today in a tuktuk to visit the pepper farms, everything starting to get green and everything in that sort of perpetual languid state of being, the cows slowly crossing the roads at their own inclinaton, the motorbikes piled high with people and things (yesterday I saw a guy driving about 4 giant freshly killed pigs!), everyone just sitting around doing nothing because it's way less work than doing something, this dusty, hot, mellow country is growing on me. All thanks to a strange change in attitude. Although a night of air conditioning definitely helped.