My husband and I stood on the lawn of the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh. I was taking a photo of a boy chasing pigeons in the grass when a young Cambodian woman approached me and said, “Madame, picture?” This was not the first time a stranger had asked to take a photo with me in Asia; I am young, white, and blonde. After the photo, I turned to the woman and asked, “What is your name?” When the woman only smiled, I tried a follow-up question. “Do you live here?” “Sorry, no English”, she said. I bowed politely, and we parted ways.
It is both a challenge and an advantage that, as travelers, we encounter so many languages we do not speak. As a resident of South Korea determined to learn the language, I often forget what it is like to be forced to connect with others without any common language. The truth is, it is hard.
In January, we took a short trip to Southeast Asia, a mere three weeks spent in Bangkok and various parts of Cambodia and Laos. Surely we knew this would not be enough time to get to know such vastly different countries, but onward we marched, as so many foolhardy travelers do.
If you asked me to describe my experience in Southeast Asia, I would say that you need more than a month to connect with a place. I would tell you that in this part of the world, commotion and stillness co-exist: hot, noisy markets flank one street, ancient temples decorate the next. The relentless calls of tuk tuk drivers cannot override the quiet joy shared between two young friends, a sunset, and their smartphones. I would tell you that Cambodians have the greatest rock music, and the Mekong River is magical, whether you are sitting on its hilly bank in Luang Prabang or sharing yakitori and Lao beer as teens pop wheelies on motorbikes along the boardwalk in Vientiane.
Pico Iyer famously said, “Nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.” He suggests using your eyes to find stillness through travel. So, what can you do, having found yourself in a new place, with no common language to guide you? Sit and find the magic. Inspect the details of the grand, ancient sites. Observe the child playing blissfully alone and the way the rain changes the textures of the sea during a storm. Gather that stillness, and carry it with you through the commotion of your world.