During a ten-day stay in CambodiaÂ’s capital, Phnom Penh, I often found myself at CafÃ© Fresco.Â I went there because it was air-conditioned.Â And when I had hours of work to do, my over-heating computer appreciated the cooler temperatures.
One of the two employees who usually worked in the afternoon was Kunthea, who always greeted customers with a smile.Â Like many others her age (early twenties), she wanted to improve her already good English, and when not at work she was studying at university.Â Each time I entered the cafÃ©, there would be an exchange of greetings, which included a sincere inquiry as to how the other was doing.
When it came time for me to leave Phnom Penh, I stopped by the cafÃ© for a final cup of coffee and to say goodbye.Â As I sat at a table and neared the end of my cup, I looked up to see Kunthea behind the counter, her hand digging into the tip jar.Â She pulled out a 500-riel note (worth about 12 cents) and within two minutes had transformed it into a swan.Â The swan, I would soon learn, was to be my farewell gift.Â Often at the end of our journeys we lug home corny trinkets, most of which will never fit into the fabric of our lives unless we jam them there.Â IÂ’m still not sure where KuntheaÂ’s swan will end up in my own life, but I donÂ’t think it will need to be jammed anywhere.Â For now it sits, along with some spare coins, in the ashtray of my Â’91 Honda Civic.Â Sometimes when IÂ’m driving down the road IÂ’ll take the swan out and place it on the dashboard, and IÂ’ll wonder how a young woman in Cambodia is doing today.
I returned to the States four months after Kunthea gave me her gift. Wishing to let her know that her kindness wasnÂ’t forgotten, I sent her this photograph of the swan atop my
The sticker on the mirror shows the shape of Cambodia and the national flag
Traffic in Phnom Penh
A reminder that Cambodia, for all its riches, is one of Southeast Asia's poorer nations
Kunthea and myself on the day she gave me the swan
This story is adapted from my book 30 REASONS TO TRAVEL: PHOTOGRAPHS AND REFLECTIONS FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA
|Joel Carillet, Gather Travel Correspondent|
His articles, based on extensive travels in Asia and the Middle East, seek to shed light on humanity, both our own and that of others. They aim not merely to entertain and inform but also to develop a sense of connection between the reader and the world.
Joel's writing and photography have appeared in several publications, including the Kansas City Star, Christian Science Monitor, and The Best Travel Writing 2008. He is also the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. If interested in learning more about Joel or purchasing photographic prints, visit http://joelcarillet.com.
When not on the road, he happily calls Tennessee home.
Keep up with Joel's article series by joining his network, or subscribing to his content.