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All I really need to know I learned in Siem Reap


IN the late eighties, an American book with the title All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was a bestseller. I never read it; the idea seems sort of lame to me. I personally don’t recall much from kindergarten, save for the facts that papier-mâché smells lovely but doesn’t taste so and that Ryan Cenky, the kid who sat next to me, was far better with crayons than me. Neither of those pieces of information have proven very pertinent to my everyday adult life. Even so, that book’s title has been playing on my mind over the past few weeks. As the date of my departure from Cambodia draws ever closer, I become more and more convinced that Siem Reap has provided me with far more lasting lessons than kindergarten ever did.

Goodbye for now, siem reap – and thank

“Incompetence is sometimes the most lovable thing about someone.”
In the West, we are taught to over-achieve if possible, so this first one was difficult for me to grasp. But in writing this column, I came to realise that people often seem to enjoy my weaknesses more than my strengths. It was when I was bumbling something hopelessly – breaking glass bottles at the Island Bar; mispronouncing sacred Buddhist prayers; endangering a family’s yearly rice yield with my poor planting skills – that people seemed most generous toward me and that I felt most at home within Khmer culture. Who needs another know-it-all barang? People like you far more if they know you’re working so hard to fit in that you’re failing miserably. And though expectations might be different back in America, I think that people the world over enjoy knowing that their help is needed.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.”
Before I left America, I was working for a psychology professor whose research sought to prove that travelling doesn’t necessarily make someone more creative or better at problem-solving – but living abroad does. Expats are forced to adapt to the culture in ways that travellers are not. I always thought it was a nice theory, but it wasn’t until I started writing this column that I began relying on it. “Surely,” I thought, while failing to learn to repair a motorbike and succeeding at getting sunstroke, “this means that I’ll be smarter; I’ll never lose my keys again. Maybe,” I thought while I was bracing myself for the kick of a rifle at the army shooting range, “this means that I’ll be able to be able to complete all crossword puzzles in pen from now on.” I suppose the validity of this second lesson will only be truly proven during some future test of mettle. But I haven’t misplaced my keys for a long time.

“Just when you think you know a place, it will surprise you.”
Siem Reap is so small it’s easy to fancy oneself an expert. But over the last couple of weeks, the place proved me wrong. I rode horses to a temple that I’d never heard of, cantering through rice fields under the rising moon. I tasted homemade borbor served up by a friend’s mother and finally learned the correct method of dismantling a jackfruit. And, on a tip from another pal, I found a quiet place near Angkor Thom, a place far enough away from the noisy crowds and camera flashes of Phnom Bakheng, to witness a sunset that was close to perfect. I won’t tell you where. It will mean more to you if you find it yourself. That’s what’s best and worst about learning anything: there’s always one more thing to figure out.

Goodbye for now, Siem Reap – and thanks for all you’ve taught me.



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