Cultural Constipation

By Grace Frances Nelson

Do you find yourself questioning the monotony of the culture around you?

Have you never experienced what it feels like to be a minority?

Do you purposely choose to isolate yourself from the world beyond your precious city, state or country?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions you may be suffering from a mild to severe case of what I call “Cultural Constipation!” But have no fear, the treatment for this diagnosis is quite simple: you just have to quit your job/school/ commitments, get on the next plane/train/bus to the most fascinating and far-off country of your choice and soak up everything the world has to offer. And as with all the best treatments, relief comes when you least expect it, but you’ll know when it does because your heart will stop and your breath will catch in the back of your throat for longer than you ever thought was possible. Relieving your soul from the weight of ethnocentrism is a lifelong process but the experience is full of adventure and discoveries.

Sincerely though, for myself and many of my fellow travelers on this journey, we felt this truly for the first time when we walked across the line differentiating the Kingdom of Thailand from the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Before leaving on this trip a wise older traveler gave me an iconic description of Thailand, he said, “Thailand is the Disneyland of traveling.” At first, I thought that was just a comical description of the country’s accessibility to tourists, but now I see the great truth in his statement. The minute we crossed the border at Poi Pet from Thailand to Cambodia we instantly felt a change in our trip. From the unexpected “health fee” (in the form of a 100 bhat bribe) during the visa application process, to our very first bus ride within the kingdom, where we drove around for an hour in a circle ending up in the same place we started before getting on a different bus and finally taking off again, it wasn’t hard to realize that the land just a few kilometers away was far different.

Driving through the countryside the first obvious change I noticed in the environment was the bareness of the land. Due to devastating practice of deforestation, Cambodia’s land has been exploited for its natural resources. As a result, the countryside was barren and devoid of any tall trees or thick jungles. Unlike the Northern region of Thailand where we have spent much of time so far, the land here is flat, with little hills to traverse through. The next thing I was struck by was the houses lining the highway. I stared out the bus window in amazement at the little shops and houses, old and falling apart, while their trash burned in the streets and children ran around playing games in the dirt and foliage. After about two hours of this, we arrived at our destination for the week, Ptea Tuek Dong.

PTD (as westerners call it) means house of the coconut water, in regards to the healing properties of coconut water and its use as an intravenous re-hydration method during the war and other desperate times. It didn’t take long to realize the great steps that PTD is taking to improve the lives of local people in Battambang. Not only does the NGO run a non-profit school for local village children, but they also help rehabilitate victims of the sex-trafficking industry and other victims of modern slavery in Cambodia and around Southeast Asia.

Our mornings at PTD were spent working hard in the garden behind the school. We alternated in two groups between transporting and smashing bricks to lay a new path through the garden and emptying out bags of compost to help nourish the land for a new garden. In the afternoons we spent time teaching the students English and playing games during their days off. The kids were incredibly engaged and excited to learn and play with us; they are so youthful and happy. We had so much fun with them its hard to imagine that they loved our company more than we loved theirs.

During our afternoons off, we ventured into the town of Battambang and explored the city. Our excursions included a visit to a local circus that trains students who were previously refugees, a trip to a local business where rice paper is made, a Sunday morning spent at a local Christian Church service and several stops at the familiar American ice cream parlor Swensen’s. Battambang is a charming city full of caring locals and lovely shops. Though our first city in Cambodia was unlike anything we saw in Thailand we were intrigued by our new destination and excited by the novelty of a brand new visa in our passports. Those little blue books promise so much freedom and opportunity. The potential within our passports is endless and provide protection and adventure beyond comprehension.

For me this trip is a dream come true. Everyday is a new journey full of wild possibilities and new opportunities. I am blessed to be here with my new family of worldly travelers. I am excited to return home with countless stories that can help encourage everyone to travel and relieve the static struggle of “Cultural Constipation.”