Two shots of rice whiskey and twelve hours of sleep didn’t help. My head and chest felt like pressurized powder kegs filled with snot. My throat like a cheese grater. I stuffed every pocket with face tissues, double-checked my supply of Advil, and hoisted my daypack over my shoulder.
“Let’s go before I change my mind,” I said to my husband, Chris. Blame my lack of enthusiasm on the respiratory infection I picked up in Saigon, but I felt like our side trip to Cambodia from Vietnam would be a lackluster exercise in checking off sites from someone else’s do-before-you-die list.
We traipsed through the miniature rice paddies of our Siem Reap resort to meet our cheerful yet no-nonsense guide, Nita, and Chris’s lifelong friend Mike at the reception area. Mike’s arrival from Laos the day before had been perfect timing. While I slept off my fever under a mosquito net and a pile of Kleenex, Chris had a poolside drinking buddy to keep him company.
Bed, by any account, is where I should have stayed for another twenty-four hours. But I couldn’t stand the prospect of Chris and Mike on some kind of Indiana Jones adventure while I stared at the ceiling, listening to squeaky geckos and whatever it was chewing the wall behind the toilet.
Things were about to get interesting because we’d finally admitted to Nita the day before that we weren’t temple aficionados. That we really just wanted to see a few to get an idea of what all the hoopla was about. Of course we still wanted to see Angkor Wat, we explained, but otherwise we were templed out. Couldn’t we do something more off the beaten path?
Instead of condemning us as callow, spoiled Americans with no appreciation for culture, aesthetics, or spirituality, Nita laughed and then immediately gushed about families living traditionally in the countryside. “I will take you to meet some tomorrow,” she said.
As the tuk-tuk took us back to our glamp-hut hotel, Nita told us in heavily accented English about her own family. Her husband was a computer programmer, an American she’d met while he was training for a volunteer stint in Thailand. The two fell in love and he never left.
Now they have three young daughters, and while her husband programs, Nita leads tours for people like us. She says she loves telling tourists about her country. Not only about its archeological wonders, but also about its storied past. Including the tragic history that has inevitably intersected with her own.
“My father fought against the Khmer Rouge in the 70s,” Nita said. “He got a bullet in his brain. It’s still there because he didn’t want to risk losing his sight. He told the doctors, ‘I want to be able to see my children.’”
But it was a long time before he saw his daughter again. Pol Pot’s mass deportations and mass executions that ultimately killed nearly two million people had upended Cambodian society, and Nita was forced to beg on the streets as a little girl.
“Why aren’t you in school?” asked a Cambodian businessman when she begged him for food. When Nita explained her circumstances, that she needed the food to help her family survive, he asked to speak with her mother.
“He told her that he knew of an orphanage that could help me,” Nita said. “And he took me there. He saved my life.”
“Did you ever see him again?” I asked.
“No, I never did. So now I try to help other people. I try to make a difference in their lives.” She nudged her glasses up on her nose and looked at us intently, as if she were calculating the risk of her next statement. “If you are interested, I know of a way that you can help too,” she said.