When we touched down in Cambodia, we were expecting a challenging time volunteering in a rural village.
A week so far removed from our normal everyday lives, our everyday comforts.
But what we didn’t expect was to touch down in Cambodia, and in the first 15mins, question every decision that led us here.
— — 5mins in Cambodia — —
When we entered our cab, the soothing hum of the AC provided us momentary respite from the 70% humidity that governed the Cambodian air.
Our cab driver was navigating us to the rural village where Lem, Yaz and myself were to be volunteering. It was an hour or so away, and the cab driver (Vin was his name) was nowhere near pleased about having to drive us there.
He commented about how the roads would be shit, how the trip would drain his fuel etc etc etc.
*side note, Vin also loved using his phone while driving
and 5mins into our trip, a Tuk Tuk hit our car. Like in Australia, it would’ve 100% been classified as an accident. Vin was not as phased as we were though.
— — 20mins in Cambodia — —
After recovering from the collision that Vin didn’t seem to care too much about, Vin asked if we had our contacts number (our contact was Mr Pean).
We gave him the number at which point he pulled out his phone (yet again) to call Mr Pean.
This is where things got a little unsettling — Vin puts his phone down, turns to us and says — I’m taking you guys to my house, Mr Pean is gonna come get you from there.
The three of us exchanged nervous glances — a guy we just met is taking us to his house — to wait for a contact we have never met. Furthermore, we had no idea if Vin actually ever called.
This moment was truly an example of fight or flight.
Year 12 psych textbooks should use this as the definitive example.
Having been brought up to have a complete distrust in strangers, my gut told me get out.
But something told me that it be alright — maybe it was Vin’s trusting eyes, maybe it was the narcissist in me that told me to take the lead and make a decision, or maybe because it was just filthy hot, and I didn’t wanna stand on the side of the road with no plan.
— — 30mins in Cambodia — —
So Vin is driving us to his house, which I quietly hoped was on the side of the main road we were on, visible for all to see.
Sadly, I was wrong.
We went down back allies.
We passed a field of cows.
And flooded dirt roads.
The struggling tires cut through the palpable nerves that hung in the air.
And finally, we pulled into a plot of land laced with stray dogs and stagnant ponds.
— — 45mins in Cambodia — —
Vin told us to get out of the car, and we reluctantly obliged, lugging our backpacks with us, but leaving our luggage in his car.
He dusted off some benches and told us to sit.
I turned, to see Lem and Yaz miles behind me (this is metaphorical of course; in reality, they were a good few paces behind me).
So I sat with Vin at this make shift dining set up, and twiddled my thumbs nervously.
It was in this moment, that I realized I had gone about this all wrong.
From the moment we met Vin, we had been focused on what he could offer us — a relatively affordable ride to our remotely located village.
Instead, I should’ve focused on what I could offer him — company and conversation for the long drive.
So putting all my fears and apprehensions aside (with Lem and Yaz still sitting oft in the distance) I decided to get to know Vin (even if there was a slight chance that we were being kidnapped, to be held hostage and exchanged for a less than hefty ransom cos lets be honest I’m not worth a whole lot).
— — 60mins in Cambodia — —
And over the next 15mins, I engaged with Vin (even though there was a terrible language barrier) and learnt a lot about him, his family, and Cambodia’s political climate.
Every time a car rolled in, I just had to ignore the nervous gasps that my friends would emit (for fear that the new car would be the car to take us away), and focus on understanding Vin.
And then, Vin said something that stunned me:
‘I normally would just leave people to wait on the side of the road — but because you guys are volunteering at one of the poorer villages and orphanages in the area — I felt a need to give back to you. Hosting you here was my way to say thanks. Because without people like you, our people would suffer.’
I wish that my camera was rolling to capture the moment he told me that — because my slight (and only slight fears) were replaced with a mixture of disbelief and guilt.
Guilt because we thought we were low-key getting kidnapped.
Disbelief because the age-old story of strangers being bad was completely disproven in that one moment.
Now, I’m not saying that you should hop in the car in a random country with a random man and go to his house when he says so.
You have to read the room in a sense; snakes will be snakes, but inherent human goodness is a universal language — it is just a connection between us, and when it’s there it’s impossible to ignore.
And when Vin turned to me and said that it be better to just wait at his house; he may have been fluent in Khmer and me, in English — but part of me understood that there was inherent goodness there waiting to be recognized.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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