By Katie Hanczaryk
After a grueling six-hour bus ride, we drive up to our hotel in Siem Riep and I feel like I have stepped into paradise. The terracotta tile steps are lined with outdoor lighting, orchids, and tropical trees. Our pool looks like something out of a magazine with an azure color, as defined by the blue tiles that surround the water, and stone sculptures mimicking those from Angkor Wat. There is a small pond of blooming lotus flowers, and a beautiful covered area with oversized brown wicker chairs and big fans. Around this area is a pool table, and a full bar. We have access to ice (a NICE delight), deep fried spring rolls, and even chicken wings with a lemon pepper oil sauce. I’m convinced I am in a dream. We have endless mango smoothies, tuk tuk drivers on call, and A.C. in the rooms. It’s heaven here. We are truly traveling in style. I have a great sleep that night, sans bug nets.
The next morning I take a walk up to the tower located next to the pool. It’s the highest point in our neighborhood, and the best view of Siem Riep. Up there I can see the whole town, even parts of Angkor Wat in the distance.
I see a large trash pile, which I didn’t see before because of the big brick walls surrounding our hotel. A dog sniffs through it, and I see chickens and roosters and really skinny looking cows. I see many people cruise past on motorcycles, sometimes with three or four people riding, usually with baby on board holding on loosely. There are kids in uniforms going to school, riding bikes that are much to big for them. I smell smog, and gasoline, meat and fish. I sat up there for a while, until the sun came up.
I decided to make this my daily practice, going to the tower for meditation and contemplation. One morning I heard music coming from a temple over a couple of loud speakers. It was such beautiful and strange music to me. As I walked down the long spiral staircase to go to breakfast, I bumped into one of the hotel workers who lived in a tiny windowless room in the tower. He was very embarrassed that I saw him with his shirt off, so he hid his body behind the door with his head poking out and said hello.
I asked him about the music. He said it’s played as ‘celebration’ after someone has died. They play this music for 10 days during mourning. He said that Cambodians are reminded of their own mortality when they hear this music. He said that if a Cambodian is poor, they can’t afford a funeral, and asked what families in the United States do when people die. I told him about life insurance, a funny concept for Cambodians. He said that in China they have insurance, but definitely not in Cambodia.
This whole experience struck a chord deep within me. Here I am, a wealthy, white, American tourist living in a beautiful stone mansion hotel, while surrounding me is poverty, and real authentic Cambodian life. No A.C., no life insurance, no pool. It as if I were in a big bubble with thick stonewalls, as if to keep all the cleanliness inside.
I am faced now with my own white guilt. Never before have I thought about not being able to afford a proper funeral. Never have I been scared to be trafficked, or have to sell things on the street to help support my family.
After the turmoil of sadness mixed with grief, I realize that underneath those uncomfortable feelings was a sense of gratitude. I am so lucky to be from a family who put me through many, many years of education in a country that is extremely privileged. I know that poverty exists in the United States, but I am rarely faced with images of starving children, desperate mothers, and so much dirt, mud, and free range chickens……….especially in Boulder.
These challenging experiences are one reason why I love to travel. The other side of my guilt is my glory. I am able to see a different way of life, not for better or for worst. I get so caught up in the everyday pleasures and even find myself frustrated when I don’t have eggs in the fridge to make pancakes, or when my Internet goes out for a moment. Here, in Cambodia, I am slapped in the face with a sense of reality. This is how the other half lives. I am grateful for that tower which gave me perspective on my own privilege and wealth, and a small taste of Cambodian culture.