Who am I after three and a half months in Southeast Asia?

Photographing Angkor Wat, August 2013.
Photographing Angkor Wat, August 2013.

Almost two weeks since I arrived back in Europe. Almost fourteen days thinking about everything I’ve been through in Southeast Asia and how I could put it down in words.

After a long time thinking I can say that it’s impossible to write about it – my broken English isn’t good enough to put feelings and all the stories down in a white page. I assume this is the best I can do – even though it’s pretty mediocre and it isn’t enough to describe with all the details some of the changes I’ve been through after living in Cambodia for three and a half months.

Doing my internship at UNICEF I had the chance to meet different realities of one of the happiest and poorest countries I have ever been to. I could meet children like the 12 year-old Sok Heng from a poor community in Phnom Penh – his dream is to become a writer and when he told me his life aspirations and what he writes about, I couldn’t be more touched and emotional. When I was his age I also wanted to be a writer – I had my notebooks full of stories of super heroes and small pieces about my own life.

Here I am, years later as a journalist traveling the world and somehow writing about it. But what are his chances? Of course he can pursue his dream but I keep wondering: how many challenges will he face in order to make his dreams come true?

During every visit to small villages or even walking in the streets of Phnom Penh I was shocked with a reality which isn’t really different from Brazil, but is way more dramatic: the social inequalities, the gap between the rich and poor.  People are begging for food while fancy imported cars are noisily crossing the streets.

I could meet rich kids with their drivers and Apple devices, careless about politics and the reality of the country. But I also had the chance to meet an engaged youth, blogging and trying to raise awareness about the national elections and other important issues in the country.

I have to admit that meeting this engaged youth voting and posting about the struggles of their country brought me more hope about the future of Cambodia. There’s engagement, there’s change going on there – the new generation, the Millenials, as I am, are going to be responsible for building a different country, more equal and democratic.

Yes, even after seeing a lot of different parts of the Americas, Europe and Asia, after field missions, after visiting concentration camps and many museums, after having “cultural clashes” in many parts of the world… After all that I still have faith that the world is changing for better.

But specially in Asia, seeing all those differences, I found the silence as a relief and it brought substantial changes in the way I look at the world – it may be a cliché but I’m sure Cambodia was responsible for one of the deepest changes in my life. I had the confirmation of a lot of beliefs, such as my passion for the unknown, the choice of a more minimalistic and simple lifestyle implying less consumerism and joy in the small details such as a typical dish, an afternoon visiting Angkor Wat or playing pool and drinking beers with some friends.

As a traveller and a student I don’t have much in life but a mind full of memories, thousands of photos and notebooks full of stories. I believe that all the confusion I have now may turn into something positive.

When I keep thinking about my future I remember those villagers living in the borders of Cambodia with Vietnam, without any connection with the world. They are the forgotten ones – who really care about them? Who know they exist?

I’m here now, thinking about a dissertation I have to write and also about what’s the next step (I’m freaking out about it), but I know all my dilemmas are nothing when compared to their struggles. And they keep smiling… When I close my eyes I can see their smiles and faces of contentment and all those memories make my fears and suffering seem superficial and selfish.


BUT I HAVE WAY MORE to say about Cambodia… the history (I’ll write a separate post about it), the best dishes (Fish Amok!), the amazing friends I made, Angkor beer and many other aspects that made my experience so unique.

I found out how incredible are the Cambodians, helpful and polite even when they can’t really communicate with you. I can say without any doubt that after the Brazilians, Cambodians are the nicest people I’ve ever met in the world.

The foreigners are all around – and being a city full of NGO’s and international agencies, Phnom Penh is an easy destination for people looking for a change in their lives. The presence of expats also brought infrastructure to the city and I never had major problems to order a dish in a restaurant, buy groceries in the supermarket or even find wifi connection in a café.

Nightlife? Well, I’ve enjoyed everything Cambodia had to offer – the nightclubs of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and so on. I confess that after three months going basically to the same places, I’m happy to be back in Europe having the chance to enjoy something else but not pop music, plus more cultural events. But, hmm… the atmosphere here is way different (!) – and I’m not even complaining about the weather.

Bad experiences? I think every traveller end up facing some sort of trouble during their adventures and it wasn’t different with me. I remember meeting a 30-something years old traveller in one of my trips around Europe and he told me:

“I think you are a free-spirited man. Keep yourself free if you want to continue crossing borders. But always remember: don’t fall in love for a place or for someone if you are far away, it may be trouble.”

At the moment I laughed at him. “How could it happen with me? I love the world, not a specific country and someone… someone what?!”, I thought. In fact I would like to meet him again, have an amazing time drinking some beers and tell him that he is absolutely right. That guy laughing was just a drunk 20-something without any knowledge about life!

I didn’t find the love of my life in Southeast Asia, but I’ve enjoyed “my youth” meeting many interesting people, dancing and having an amazing time with some characters I couldn’t ever think I would meet… And yes, I’m totally in love with the country!

I don’t think my life could be different and when I look back in 5 years, I can see that I’m exactly where I wanted to be. At the same time, now everything seems uncertain. When life is so good, what can I expect of the future?

I’m thankful for all my experiences around the world – they are helping me to find myself in the middle of this chaotic world. I’m thankful for each one I met during my journey in Cambodia – they are important for me, and even if I never ever meet them anymore, they’ll be forever with me.

I collect people! This is the magic of traveling!


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