I thought after 10 months of travel I thought maybe I had become one of those hard bitten travellers, the kind that can use the most grotty of toilets without retching, bargain hard over something that would costs 10 times more at home and wave away someone begging for money in the street without batting an eyelid. Turns out I was wrong (which could be a good thing) and Cambodia was my undoing.....
Having already gone into shock in Siem Reap with all the children begging for baby formula, people begging for money, taxi drivers almost hysterically begging for the opportunity for the chance to drive you somewhere for 1 dollar I thought I would be ready for Phnom Penh but I was wrong again.
Over the days we were there we were confronted by the sight of people with no hands, arms, legs (victims of landmines), small children who are employed by adults to wander the streets alone late at night selling books or flowers, fat old German/Aussie/American/English men with tiny young Cambodian women they have hired for the week or the night and whole families bedding down on the street. A loud american expat brags in a cafe that he doesnt know whether he has more prostitutes or drug dealers on speed dial in his mobile phone, other expats and rich corrupt government officials slide past rickety cylcos and rickshaws in their brand new Lexus cars.
We tour the S21 prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured thousands of people - it's on the site of a high school and the KR used the kids playground equipment as torture equipment, we visit the killing fields where there are still bits of bone and pieces of fabric from the thousands of people murdered there under my feet as I walk. The barrage was constant, one night Ed and I gave our dinner away to a young boy with no arms, the next night we watched a little five year old boy be sent across the road by his desperate mother holding his tiny baby sister to beg for money. At one point the little boy placed this tiny naked baby on the side of this busy road next to the wheels of a parked car and wandered off to buy a bottle of water, the baby lay on the ground alone crying while various tourists and locals stepped over her without batting an eyelid. This was the last straw for me and I kind of freaked out, bursting into tears and making a bolt for the hotel running past the reception desk with swollen red eyes.
Later when Ed managed to coax me out and onto the streets again we were greeted by the lady at the front desk of the hotel who I nicknamed the Beauty Queen, mainly because she had these massive glamour photos of herself decked out like a Cambodian princess on the wall. As I stomped past with a red nose and swollen eyes I guess she decided to cheer me up, "Hey Lady" she said, "You are beautiful.......I see you!" Obviously a lie but it did make me laugh. The next day I walked past and she lit up when she saw me and again called out "hello Lady!", next time "How are you Lady, you look tired....I see you!" and another time after Ed and I admired her glamour shots she said "I can take you Lady, you can have photos too!".
Each day it was something different from the Beauty Queen and I must admit each day I also was able to start to see Cambodia in a better light. The problems the country has stared down over the years are horrendous, but the people are quite incredible, the country and the culture are unique and there is such a buzz in the air that things feel like they can only get better as time goes on. On our last day in Phnom Penh Ed and I wandered into reception and told the Beauty Queen we would be leaving early the next morning. She looked sad and said "Ohhhh Lady, you are leaving? I miss you........ I LOVE you." Can't say I have had too many Hotel staff tell me that they love me before but I have to say that thanks to the Beauty Queens efforts all week I got to see a happier side of Cambodia when all I could see was doom and gloom. So for that alone I have to say that I love the Beauty Queen back. Thanks Beauty Queen, may good Karma bring you all the glamour photos you desire in life.