It all started on a tuk tuk ride…
I had just landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in Tacloban, Philippines.
Although I had never been there before, Cambodia was already the place I had decided to call home for the next year, or more. It was May 2014. The sky was still painted in black when I got off the plane and was engulfed by the warm and humid weather that, as I would learn over the following months, so much characterizes the country, especially at that time of the year.
As I exited the airport, all I could see was a chaotic frenzy of hands waiving and pointing to their tuktuks. They were all wearing similar clothes – sandals, a pair of pants and a shirt – and they all had big, unequivocally authentic smiles on their faces.
I don’t know if by instinct or pure luck, I ended up going with a driver who would later become a great friend of mine. Bunchai. His tuktuk was painted in red and it was so carefully and effusively decorated that it reminded me of the carnival parades we have in my home country Brazil.
As we cruised the quiet streets towards Tuol Tom Poung, a central neighborhood where a fellow photographer would host me until I found my own place, I just couldn’t believe in what I was experiencing. What was once just a dream was now a reality. I was indeed beginning a new life in Southeast Asia.
The Sun was just rising above the Tonle Sap and people were already doing choreographic exercises along the river promenade. Buddhist monks were walking around with their orange and red robes – some of them holding iPads -, and entire families were impressively balancing on the top of tiny and seemingly fragile motorbikes.
I fell in love immediately. I felt at home.
During the two years I was fortunate to spend in the country I obviously saw extreme poverty and shocking social-economic inequality. I witnessed – and documented – several and horrifying human rights violations. I learned about the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed by the Khmer Rouge, which took the lives of over 2 million people.
But I also saw remarkable resilience and an inspiring ability to find joy even in the most challenging circumstances. I saw generosity and kindness. Faith and Gratitude. Compassion and Happiness. I saw a younger generation trying to leave the past behind and embrace the future.
I explored remote and impressive temples from the 12th century; I spent relaxing days at paradisiac islands and sleepy river towns; I zigzagged through the chaotic traffic in Phnom Penh with my 1989 Vespa; and I had way too many beers with my local neighbors (most of them tuktuk drivers), who would always invite for a beer every time they saw me getting to or leaving my house. They never accepted a No for an answer.
I worked for magazines and I cooperated with many local and international NGOs. I photographed every single day during the time I was there and through this daily wanders I learned to see the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.
Cambodia has taught me lessons that I will forever carry on my heart and I hope I will have the chance go back in the near future. The recent news that the only opposition party has been dismantled is certainly worrying and it makes me think of all the friends I left there.
If up until recently Hun Sen – who has been in power since 1985! – at least tried to keep a democratic appearance to his government, it seems that now he is no longer concerned about exposing the true face of his (totalitarian) regime. Cambodians, who have gone through the horror of Khmer Rouge just a few decades ago, certainly deserve better and brighter days.
Bunchai, the first friend I made in the country, is still working at his day job and driving his tuktuk in the evenings and early mornings. The day we took that same way to the airport, but on the opposite direction, two years after our first encounter, was unusually cloudy and gray. I don’t remember seeing much during our ride. Perhaps I had too many thoughts and memories going through my mind…
When we finally reach the airport, after a trip that seemed to have last for an eternity, I give Bunchai a big hug and just can’t hold my tears. I ask him to take care of himself and his family, and I tell him that if he ever needs any help he must call me immediately.
He gives me that very same smile he had greeted me with two years earlier, and says, with both determination and confidence:
“No worry, my friend. I will be fine! See you soon!”
Bernardo Salce is a a Brazilian photographer whose work seeks to celebrate cultural diversity and raise social-environmental awareness. Having previously lived in Cambodia and Colombia, he is now based in San Diego, California. You can follow his work @bernardosalce.