'Before my first ever trip to Cambodia, I was so focused on travel prep that I didn’t really sink into the pure unadulterated pleasure of ‘I’m going on an adventure!’ until my plane broke free of the morning cloud over, according to the flight plan, the region where southern Laos becomes northern Cambodia, and I saw for the first time this unbroken bumpy green jungle, sweeping off into a glowing haze on the horizon. No rooftops, nor those telltale blue oblongs which signal ‘tourism’, ‘development’, ‘wealth’ to the inbound passenger above.
A fat gleaming ribbon mirrored the rising sun, and it dawned on me that this must be the Mekong River, its continent-spanning significance impressed into my mind by years of geography and history but - well, there’s nothing like the real sight of a phenomenon, is there. Especially when you’ve remembered to pack your contact lenses...
As the plane circled Siem Reap and I craned my neck trying to spot the Angkor temples, a water-world glinted below, the rainy season having just tailed off to leave the landscape soaked and erupting with greenery. I saw fields in outline only, full of water. In some places it was so deep that only treetops were showing. This would mean harrowing times and rising insurance premiums for an English home-owner, but Cambodia is a floodplain, and the annual ebb and flow of its rains and rivers defines nearly everything about it, from the stilt-house architecture and an easy relationship with boats, to cuisine and yearly social rhythms - with the rainy season over, 'wedding season' was just beginning as I arrived, and I would glimpse dozens of these noisy celebrations as I explored the country.
Someone else had made all my travel arrangements for a change, so I’d deliberately avoided asking what to expect upon landing, and just trusted in the Selective Asia process. I enjoy the smell of new places, so I tried to focus on my nostrils as I stepped off the plane, but they were busy being delighted by anything that wasn’t air-conditioned. All I got were exhaust fumes, a quick waft of some delicate flower, a puff of incense (of course!), and the very welcome full-body saturation of unclouded sunshine at about 32 deg C. I suppose that's not too bad for a first impression!
For the first time in all my travels I managed to make the passport guy laugh, which I took as an excellent sign for my encounters ahead, and happily trailed along with the ant-march of fellow travellers until we flowed out through the front door of the airport, squinting against the sunshine and a crowd of keen taxi drivers.
The people in front of me stepped aside and there was my name on a card held by a smiling man of about my height (ie, not very tall). He came forward and introduced himself:
'My name is Loung. Pronounced Long, although, as you can see...' - he gave it the briefest beat - '...I am a short man!'.
Read more about Cambodia in our blog post The Transformation of Phnom Penh.