Touchdown in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Stepping off the gangway into the Phnom Penh International Airport, we were immediately greeted by a persistent heat slick with humidity. Apparently this is a cool day in Cambodia, at only 32 degrees Celsius. In good ol' Canadian fashion, we politely rushed forward with the rest of the passengers to the counter that granted visas in the atrium immediately off the gangway exit. All the travelers who had lined up orderly to board the plane were now congregated messily towards the one visa counter. After a slightly chaotic process, the team finally got our visas and we were ready to step out onto Cambodian soil.
Outside the airport Lakena Knight and Sokren picked us up in vans and off we were to begin our journey in the capital! Phnom Penh has really changed over the past 5 years. Driving in from the airport, the city looks quite similar to other southeast Asian cities. Straddling two lanes, our drivers expertly maneuvered the chaotic roads while motorbikes weaved dangerously close in and out between the cars. The architectural style of the whitewashed and brick buildings coupled with massive portraits of important figures in saturated tones hanging off sides of buildings and gates reflected an era of the past. This was contrasted by Cambodians on the road in modern clothing (all long sleeved to prevent getting dark from the sun) talking on phones and texting while weaving traffic!
After we had settled into our rooms and freshened up a bit at Green Pasture Inn, we experienced our first authentic Cambodian meal prepared by the resident cook in the mess hall. There was a good variety of fish, chicken, and beef. Almost all dishes had some sort of pineapple in it. Our server Jahnthi taught us some food-related Khmer so we could give our compliments to the chef. Once our bellies were full we filed into two vans again to go explore the city. The first thing to learn while exploring on foot was how to cross the road. No more than groups of three at a time so that you don't overwhelm the traffic, walk in a constant pace so that drivers can anticipate you, and a heavy dose of courage because nobody stops for you and vehicles slip by closer to you than is comfortable. Mentality must be: you are being absorbed into the traffic like how a twig tossed into a rushing river is directed by the currents. Needless to say, an adrenaline rush for sure!
One of the the things we immediately noticed now that we were walking through the streets was the amount of questionable looking older Caucasian males lounging in cafes, patios, and restaurants. As a group, we were also constantly approached by adorable children (approx 5-8 years old) with hand-woven bracelets on hangers and knick knacks in baskets in tow. Walking by one of the tourist attraction temples, we were accosted by more children who would come up with their hands clasped together in front of them in a begging stance, looking up at you with puppy dog eyes and maintaining that eye contact for a very long time. It is sad to think that these children, many of whom may have been kidnapped, were now so well-trained to capture the sympathy (and hearts) of foreign and unsuspecting tourists. Each time we had to shake our heads and say no thank you. The kids who were selling things were typically more playful and bold, with good English skills. If they stuck around even after we said no to their peddled goods, we engaged them in normal conversation as we would do with any child back at home. "What sports do you like to play?" "Your English is good, can you count to ten?"
In the evening, we met up with Kevin and Lakena Knight to eat dinner at a restaurant called Happy Herb Pizza. We did not order pizza and picked only traditional Cambodian food from the menu. If you want to order pizza, you must say "no happy", or else they will put marijuana into your pizza. This restaurant is famous for their weed pizzas. How very amusing! Over dinner conversations with live geckos decorating the walls, we learned from Kevin that the area we are in is the sex district. Many of the alleyways have KTVs, bars, cafes, and restaurants that sell sexual favours. In fact, foreigner customers only make up about 5% of the clientele. The other 95% are locals. Back home in Canada, a typical Friday night activity would be for men to go to the bar for a couple of drinks with friends. Here in Cambodia, the typical Friday night involves going to a bar and getting a prostitute. With an extra dose of peer pressure to partake. That was a sobering conversation to end our night with, but it reminded us of the brokenness under the veneer of normalcy, and how much God's love and compassion is needed here.
We were fed, and ready to go to bed after a very long two days. After our first day of experiencing Cambodia, our minds and hearts were primed for God to further shift our perspectives and show us what He cares about when we visit the S21 Museum and Killing Fields tomorrow.