Posted by Lois on -
How does one penetrate through the layers of a country's culture?
By going to the destinations the famous guidebook suggests? By going on an expensive guided tour for a group of foreigners and be herded like cattle following the red umbrella? By taking photos of famous places and ignoring the people who live there?
If you answered any of these, you're just skimming the surface of what may possibly be a deep and meaningful travel experience. Just like one of our answers on Unblogged's interview about long term travel, we encourage you to
"...immerse yourself in the culture, get to know the locals, experience more than what the guidebook suggests."We took our own advice when we arrived in Ban Lung, Cambodia. At first glance, this place seemed like a dusty, godforsaken ghost town that would send any traveler packing and taking the next ride to the feel bad capital of Phnom Penh. But what made us stick around was a smiling, insightful young man named Mr. Kosal who had wisdom beyond his 20 years.
We had been walking aimlessly around town trying to find anything worthwhile to do. That's when we chanced upon Mr. Kosal and his trusty motorbike by the side of the road. He offered to take us around town for a small fee of $10/day for 2 people and we couldn't resist his offer. He had an easy smile and a boyish laugh and we couldn't help but smile back.
Mr. Kosal took us on a 3 day tour around Ban Lung to see its waterfalls, elephant parks and crater lake. But more than any other touristic experience, we enjoyed having a conversation with him. Even though his English vocabulary was limited, he read a lot of books. So he spoke in broken English peppered with highfalutin words like perseverance and loquacious. He had a no holds barred attitude unlike any other local. It must have been his youth. His audacity to speak about what others dared keep silent about in a country that's haunted by its past.
What amazed me about Mr. Kosal is that he would always show up at our guesthouse earlier than the agreed time, dressed in his uniform: spotless white undershirt, long sleeved shirt (despite the scorching weather) jeans, sneakers and a broad grin. We asked him to bring us to the local spots. "Bring us to where you always eat," we told him. And he obliged. He brought us to cheap foodie spots where the food is always good and the coffee always strong. And that's when he would be more talkative than usual, sharing stories about his family and his country.
Mr. Kosal is the breadwinner of his small family. His parents could no longer afford to keep him in school so he had to find a way to earn a living. He started to employ himself as guide for trekking the jungles of Ratanakiri. After he had saved enough money to buy a motorbike, he employed himself as a driver. He learned the value of hard work and the meaning of responsibility even at such a young age.
Let me share some snatches of our conversations with Mr. Kosal:
When I asked him if I can leave my bag unattended while we went to a nearby store , he answered in a serious tone:
"Prevention is better than cure."
He sometimes talked about the Khmer Rouge and this is how he explained their leader's grand design:
"Pol Pot wanted to have country that's like a beehive. Where every citizen had their own role and did their task efficiently. If you did your part well, you would be rewarded with food, shelter and even a beautiful wife. But we all know, that's not how things happened."
*****We had a serious talk about dreams and then I asked him, who is your idol? I asked him expecting he would mention Bill Gates, Brad Pitt or John Mayer. His reply was a big surprise:
"My idol? Why, Mr. Sophat, of course!"His reply put things in perspective. In a small town like this, everyone needed an idol. And good for him, he found one!
"Mr. Sophat, the owner of Lakeview Lodge where you're staying. He accomplished so much at a young age. He got a degree, put up a guesthouse, set up a lucrative trekking business and all before he turned 30!"
We only had a short 3 day stay in Ban Lung, and we had to say goodbye soon enough. We reminded him to pursue his dreams and perhaps he can achieve even more than Mr. Sophat. We told him there was no limit to what a man can make of himself. He just smiled and said,
"Goodbye to you, good people."Mr. Kosal was such a character, someone I couldn't easily forget. I hope his humility and good humor would be enough to earn him a better life.
If you're ever in need of a guide in Ban Lung, Cambodia, please contact Mr. Kosal at email@example.com or through his number 855 0973334626. You'll have an insightful and extremely humorous experience, we promise.
Always lovin' the local flavor,
Sole Sister Lois
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