I enjoy being a tourist.
Too often, the word tourist becomes an unfavorable accusation—perhaps understandably but not always fairly. Frankly, I find the whole tourist/traveler debate to be tiresome, and I am the first to admit that in most cases, I am nothing more than a tourist.
Tourism demands different priorities than mere traveling. Instead of searching for the closest Laundromat, Wi-Fi hotspot or gas station, true tourists want to be enriched—they seek meaningful contact with whatever defines a place as unique and separate from the home they know.
In Cambodia, I was definitely and wholeheartedly a tourist. When you just have a single day in a country, there is really no other option than to pull on your tourist cap and embrace every opportunity that presents itself. Maximizing experience in minimal time is a classic tourist trait for which I plead guilty.
For me that meant waking up to greet the dawn at Angkor Wat, then dipping into a nearby Buddhist monastery to soak up the incredible chanting. The incense and flickering candles, the giant golden Buddha, and the rhythmic prayer that fell from the monks’ lips—all of it transported me so far away from my everyday mindset. I was no longer merely flying around the world with a drop-and-stop in Cambodia—suddenly I had floated down into a mystical way that has withstood the centuries of human destruction. You cannot visit a Buddhist country and not feel the separate peace of its practice made manifest in the smallest of ways.
For instance, after breakfast, we offered our leftover food to some of the barefoot children running around outside the monastery. One of the guests on our trip asked one little boy, did he not want to eat his food now? The boy pulled at his tatted clothes and shook his head no, finally explaining that he did not want to eat any of the food because he wanted to take it home to his family instead.
Travel is humbling in this way—no matter where you go, there will be someone to remind you that all is not right with the world and yet despite this unpleasant fact of life, most humans remain decent and caring.
Nowhere are the fortunes and misfortunes of the world more evident than in Cambodia, where the nation’s too-long tragic history is only now just righting itself. Tourism is a major part of Cambodia’s recovery—last year, nearly 3 million tourists came to Siem Reap. I was here exactly 5 years ago and in that short time, the growth and improvements to the city’s fortune are extraordinary.
My own fortune was told me by one of the Buddhist monks, whose tattooed body (I was told) symbolized his magical abilities. My future was told me in the form of a story, translated to me from the Khmer: “A hunter met the Buddha in the forest and gave him a gift. Thus, the hunter received many great treasures in return. This is a very good fortune to receive—you are lucky.”
I do feel lucky—and blessed—for many things. I am still feeling very lucky to be a tourist aboard the National Geographic Expeditions Around-the-World by Private Jet, and after a single day in Cambodia, I feel happily overwhelmed. Yes, my time in Cambodia was brief, but I tried to make every minute count for something—this is the National Geographic way and it is the best way to be a tourist.
This way, when people ask, “So, what did you do today?” I can respond with confidence that I did all the touristy things one can do in a day—and more:
I woke up at four in the morning and watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat; I rode an elephant, had my fortune read by a Buddhist monk, ate dragon fruit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, looked into the laughing eyes of a Cambodian child, sped across the Tonle Sap, waving at the families on their houseboats, collecting tiny silver fish from hand nets. I sniffed smiling pigs’ heads in the market, bought green silk pajamas, swam in a brilliant swimming pool, polished a silver rabbit with my hand, banged my head on the stone arch that was lifted into place some 900 years ago, waved to dancing Cambodian women, slurped fiery noodles, swayed to carefully-dancing Khmer women, and then came back to my hotel to blog it all down.
Traveling around the world like this means I will never be in one place for long, but it does mean that, without any apology, I get to be a tourist.
And this is not a bad thing.