I’m sitting on floor cushions at a table decorated by jasmine flowers, candle light, and a deep red tablecloth with a royal purple table runner. A man plays traditional music on a multi-stringed lap instrument behind me, and a table of curries and frog legs and sticky rice waits in front of me. From over the balcony, an evening breeze, a breeze perfectly suited to roll in after the heavy rain of a moment ago, cools my neck. Following the day 0f sight seeing and market exploring and magic of Phnom Penh, this is yet another idyllic moment of an idyllic journey.
But these idyllic moments are not so simple. Beneath every enchanting place, an undercurrent of humanity at the brink of survival exists. Earlier in the day I was witness to the Teoul Sleng Genocide Museum which depicts the atrocities of the mass torturing and slaughterings that happened here just 35 years ago. Some of the Khmer Rouge stand trial as you read this, though many locals are not so optimistic about justice prevailing.
In the Phnom Penh Post we read articles about illegal building companies possibly causing the ruin of historic stretches of the downtown waterfront, while other articles discussed the deforestation rampantly taking place up river, silting the lifeblood of the Tomle Sap waterway. And then we heard from our taxi driver about poor families evicted from city real estate sold to international buyers (expats need to build their dream homes somewhere, right?), and left to struggle and sometimes starve in the surrounding provinces.
These are dark thoughts, I know.
The privilege I have to even travel is staggering when compared to such realities. And to think that I have the audacity to begin dreaming about the next trip amidst the rice farmers with perpendicularly bent backs and landmine victims sitting in wheelchairs on the street, astounds me. I am so damn lucky to even be here.
I put my nose to the Jasmine flower, inhale, and remind myself that the ethical traveler can enjoy his amphibian curry and mango rice, as long as he stays aware of the complicated world and works to heal it, and remains thankful for the gifts he has been given.