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A corner of the Phnom Penh Airport showing what I felt was an unfortunate color

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views …cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. ~ Mark Twain

In 2008, Cheyenne and I traveled to Cambodia. My main purpose was to interview Wayne Matthysse about his journey from twenty-four years as a missionary to identifying as an atheist. I will probably always be fascinated by missionaries as a subculture—proselytizers of various faiths, missionaries of unbelief, secular missionaries, the hands and arms of colonizers the world over, change agents for better and worse. In 2008, I was writing a book with the working title Missionaries: Demons, Saints or Mortals? As the work progressed, I realized that it was too broad and that people who would be most interested in reading about missionaries would very likely not be interested in what I had to say about them. But the book was still on the table at the time and was the motivation for our trip to Cambodia. In addition we would visit Angkor Wat and spend several days at Wat Opot, the children’s community that Wayne co-founded for AIDS orphans.

At the time of our trip, I kept a blog on Live Journal, and I published “Cambodia Journal” there. As a follow-up to my previous post from The Gallup Independent, “Travels to Places of Change,” (see January 4, 2016), I am reposting a somewhat revised version of my “Cambodia Journal,” drawing attention to lessons learned each day. When “Lessons from the Journey” is complete, I will repost Wayne’s story, “From Christian Missionary to Atheist.”


Maybe it is because Albuquerque isn’t a hub for any airline that 6 a.m. seems to be a popular departure time from the International Sunport, which, incidentally, is the most beautiful airport I have been through. Massive carved vigas, wall and floor tiles in warm desert colors, sculptures and paintings bring Southwestern cultures to life.

When I think of the Sunport, I am tempted to rate some of the other airports I’ve passed through, but you will be spared, as this is not a story about airports. It is about Cheyenne’s and my trip to Cambodia to interview Wayne Matthysse, a man who, in his words, went there “to convert souls and became enlightened.” If you’re not interested in missionaries, you may still enjoy “Cambodia Journal,” because it is not about missionaries, but about the trip itself and especially Wat Opot and Angkor Wat.

Because of the early departure time, Cheyenne and I found ourselves at the Sunport at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the 18th of November, 2008, flying from there to San Francisco, to Seoul-Incheon, Korea, and to Phnom Penh, Cambodia–total air time 19 hours. Despite my disclaimer, I have to say something about the walls of the Phnom Penh airport. From corner to corner, they were painted a deep coral pink, leaning heavily towards red. I thought of the tremendous bloodshed during the Pol Pot era, having worked in a Cambodian refugee agency in the 90s. Red is a fashionable hue for walls these days, but I couldn’t help thinking that, given the recent past, designers at the Phnom Penh Airport had exercised an unfortunate color choice.

We arrived in the airport at 11 p.m. when the queue for visas was short. At customs, however, we got behind a white American family of six. They were pushing four carts stacked high with boxes labeled “dishes,” “linens,” “books,” etc. The young children looked shell-shocked, as the parents tried to explain in slow, careful English to officials who seemed to grasp very little, “We’re moving here. These are our personal belongings.” I felt sure they were missionaries. Considering my own mission, I smiled to myself at the synchronicity. The customs official recognized the simplicity of Cheyenne’s and my needs and waved us ahead. Before we had gotten a taxi, the missionary family had also made it through. Another white man hailed them eagerly; clearly he was their new colleague. Cheyenne with her sweet self was relieved that someone was meeting them because they looked like such lost lambs. But enough; I have promised that this is not a story about missionaries.

Wayne had told me to arrange the cab fare before leaving the airport and not to pay more than we agreed upon. Ten dollars took us through dark streets, into one area and then another. We passed tall apartment buildings from the French colonial era. They were falling into various states of disrepair. We saw Western-style shops and beside them boutiques that were little more than corrugated iron sheds. Charcoal braziers in front of some shops gave off dim light, creating an atmosphere of mystery. Small motorcycles and scooters breezed by. We suffered our first heart-stopping traffic experience when two of them crashed into each other inches from the hood of our cab. Our driver chuckled and drove on, obviously never considering that a stop might be in order.

Lessons from the Journey
        1) The effects of colonialism are evident
        throughout most of the world.

        2) Not everyone identifies the same events as life-
        threatening, perhaps because of a history of living
        with danger.

        3) Cheyenne is a wonderful traveling companion,
        who has so often taught me to have compassion
        for people I might otherwise judge harshly—in
        this case possibly the missionary family.

© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved
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