“Yeah. It’s easy to die here.”
My friend Alexa tilted her head and acknowledged my conflicted facial expression as I rode on the back of her motorbike. Driving through Phnom Penh from the airport, I felt my senses heighten. My fingers clenched the seat, looking for anything sturdy to grab hold of as we wound through traffic. To preface, I’m a native New Yorker, and have been led to believe that all other experiences fall short to routinely driving through Manhattan. Yet, what I saw in Cambodia was an entirely new batch of curious sights, smells, and sounds.
Families of four or five were cramped on motorbikes roughly identical to the size of mine. Road signs and traffic lights were merely suggestions – driving on the main roads was like a dangerous game of chicken. On smaller roads, traffic was dictated by the size of your vehicle and the speed at which you were traveling. The more dangerous you were driving, the better, since others were theoretically going to yield to you (theoretically being the operative word).
As we sped along, I recalled Alexa had a deeper understanding than most of the fragility of life in Cambodia. A few years ago, she had gotten into a motorbike accident here. Her boyfriend had been driving when a speeding car rammed them from behind. Alexa landed on the windshield of a parked vehicle, her boyfriend lying on the street. The driver then reversed course, attempting to run over her boyfriend again – a practice common in Southeast Asia to ensure the death of the other driver and a one-time retribution payment (instead of his survival and a lifetime rehabilitation payment). If not for a group of expatriates who intervened, the outcome could’ve been another statistic.
That night, as we parked along the famous riverside in Phnom Penh, Alexa went for a jog and I lagged behind, intent instead on absorbing the scenery. I was sitting on a ledge taking it all in when something began to happen.
A European man who had been strolling by spotted me in his field of vision and started speeding toward me. He was intercepted by a local Cambodian man, smaller in stature, and they started into a heated exchange. My heart quickened as my brain processed possible ways to react, sensing danger but unsure of the reason. All of a sudden, the European man pointed at me and yelled. That’s when I felt it – my bag snatched out of my clenched fist. I turned and saw a shadowy figure run and jump on a motorbike with two others waiting for him, taking off. I knew immediately that my chance was gone, along with my bag.
Incredulous at first, my brain started processing what my heart already knew happened. A crowd gathered as the European man was still yelling, and Alexa returned and started gathering information from locals. As I observed the reactions of people, I realized that there was zero pity for me. Instead, there was indifference and a resigned acceptance of what had occurred; these things happen all the time. You had something. You didn’t protect it. It was taken.
Sinking to my knees, I could hear my mother’s patronizing voice about the perils of traveling alone. The warnings about being a female exploring a “dangerous” third world country were shouting in my ear, and at that moment, I hated Cambodia. I hated the opportunistic and adversarial atmosphere that had enveloped me since my arrival and made me a victim on my first night in the country. I just couldn’t understand why this had happened.
A few days later, after things had settled down, I traveled into the countryside of Sisophon to visit a local Khmer friend. Her “house” was built on stilts and constructed of wood and bamboo. It was home to three generations of family, and the other side was used as a makeshift restaurant for workers. As we walked in, she barely acknowledged our arrival – something seemed off.
Squinting through swollen eyes, she told us that her grandson (a Cambodian police officer) had been attacked the night before as he left a wedding with his coworker. His coworker had been driving when another motorbike passed them, decapitating the driver and wounding her grandson with machetes. As she spoke, the old woman gathered her belongings and began to make arrangements to sell her motorbike in an effort to raise enough money to pay her grandson’s doctor. I consolingly tried to convince her to take time to process what had happened, but my friend interrupted and explained that time was actually of the essence – the doctor wouldn’t medically treat her grandson unless he was paid first.
Listening to the grandmother’s story and watching her life unravel, I couldn’t find a trace of anger or rage within her tone. Instead, I saw acceptance, as if she had expected this. My friend reaffirmed the sentiment: what I saw as tragedy, the Cambodian locales saw as life.
Near the end of my travels, I finally made my way to the Toul Sleng museum in Phnom Penh. Toul Sleng, a former prison, documents the horrors and deaths the Cambodian people met with at the hands of their own Cambodian leaders decades before during the Khmer Rouge’s genocide. Toul Sleng felt like a slap in the face when I got there – the brutality, degradation and deception that characterized the Pol Pot era was all on display for me to witness.
Standing in the museum registering the pictures of the genocide’s victims, it hit me. I began to understand. I understood how past and present were entangled, I understood how history permeated the country’s current culture, and how past horrors contributed to the people’s present realism.
The Cambodian people lived day by day, paycheck to paycheck, in anticipation of surely-to-arrive terrors. And when such terrors did in fact arrive, it was met not with righteous indignation, but rather as proof of the predictability and inevitability of life. The Cambodian people targeted tourists as reprisal for a deep-seeded cultural resentment to those who they held responsible for their plight in life. And who could blame them?
These vestiges of understanding did not dampen the shame of my mugging in Cambodia. It did not morph anger towards this experience into love for the country. But it did reinvigorate my passion for traveling despite its struggles and tussles. I travel so that I can see. I travel so I can experience. I travel so I can understand.
What seemingly bad experiences have you had that ended up teaching you a crucial lesson?
About the author:
Tiffany Chang is a health care professional from New York City. She has made multiple trips to Asia and Southeast Asia, always eager to return home and share all she has absorbed overseas. Attempting to live up to the diverse nature of the city she lives in, she seeks to travel and learn from the world around her.