The power of spontaneity

The bus from Ho Chi Minh took around 6 hours, seems to have come straight out of the seventies and doesn’t have air conditioning. Once I got to the border, I had to get off the bus and literally had to walk across it, hand in my passport and get the entry visa. Then another 3 hours to Phnom Penh, where I arrived around 10pm. Tony, the tuk-tuk driver that offered to take me to the hostel, is a really nice guy and proposes to come and pick me up the following day to take me to the S21 prison and the Killing fields for 15 dollar, which is the standard price there. Deal.

The next day I act smartly and, at breakfast, I start “stalking” everybody, asking if someone wanted to come with me and share the price of the tuk-tuk. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I meet Nikita, a 26-year-old English girl who, in a blink of an eye, accepts my proposal. The tuk-tuk takes us about 15 km outside the city, exactly at Choung Ek, home to the Khmer extermination camps.

Bracelets to remember the victims of the genocide in one of the mass graves in the Killing Fields. Photography by Matteo Pizzinato
View from the second floor of one of the school buildings at S21 prison, now home of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Photography by Matteo Pizzinato

The visit with the audio-guide is fundamental and, through a journey in stages, allows you to fully understand how “life” was in the camps and more generally the historical phases that led to the occurrence of this genocide, caused by the absurd dictatorship of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouges. Here, as in other places of this kind, one feels halfway between the sadness, the utter dismay and the “positive” feeling of being more aware of what has happened.

After the journey, our tuk-tuk takes Nikita and me to the S21, a former school turned into prison for the detention of subversives, intellectuals and hostiles citizens to the regime. This visit is also very touching. The prisoners were not only detained but also tortured and interrogated with the most atrocious techniques before being sent, if still alive, to the extermination camps. It is shocking to think that a school, where children normally roam, has been the scene of such actions.

Cambodians gather in public squares and parks rather frequently. One thing they like is spending a lot of time with friends and family. Photography by Matteo Pizzinato
Creatures you wouldn't dare eating, or maybe... Photography by Matteo Pizzinato

Back in the hostel, to take a break, I decide to take part in a walking tour. Mien, a nice Cambodian guy, takes us around the streets of Phnom Penh between temples, huge buildings and a beautiful riverfront. The capital is full of night markets, and in the evening it is even more alive than during the day. We talk a bit about Cambodia, its people, its contradictions and, after a good beer, we go back to the hostel.

Take a walk and spontaneity will strike

The day after I decide to take a break and I stay basically all day by the hostel pool. Towards evening, however, I decide to go out and, in one of the squares of the center, something special happens to me. A group of boys is playing with a strange contraption, it looks like a badminton “ball”. They are in a circle and they pass it on with their feet. Intrigued, I remain for a while staring at them until one of them looks at me an says: “Hey, wanna join?”. “Why not?” I tell myself.

We start playing. The aerodynamics of this objetc is a bit difficult to interpret, but with some reminiscence of my years as a “footballer” I’m able to give a decent performance. I find out that the gadget is called ‘sey’ (Jianzi is the original chinese name) and that it’s very common in Cambodia. It’s nothing but a feather with attached plastic disks that bounce thanks to a game of rubber bands.

Me and my new friends from Cambodia after playing a game of 'Sey'
A beautiful gift that I now proudly keep home.

After the “match” I stop a bit to talk with them and I find that they are really interesting guys. They are all aged 19 to 22 and attend college here in Phnom Penh, even if they come from the surrounding provinces. They ask me a lot of questions about what Europe is like and they tell me they dream of going to study abroad. They tell me that Cambodia is not an easy country, how education is not accessible to everyone and that they would like to do something to improve it.

We talk for more than two hours and I realize how happy they are that a stranger stops talking to them. So much that, before saying goodbye, they give me their ‘sey’ (on which I had shown particular interest) as a present. It’s something I believe I will always remember. Not so much for the object itself but for the fantastic naturalness with which those guys who had just met me (and who live in conditions that are much more difficult than those of us Europeans) gave me something. Just like that, spontaneously. Without expecting anything in return. This is also the beauty of traveling.

If you want to follow Matteo’s adventures, you can do so in his personal blog and learn Italian in the meantime.