Cambodia

Capital: Phnom Penh
Population: 15,205,539 (ranked 65th)
Size: 69,898 sq mi (ranked 88th)
Language: Khmer
Money: Riel (KHR)

I fell immediately under Cambodia’s spell. Rushing through the streets from the airport in the back of a tuk tuk, all the sights, smells, and sounds of Phnom Penh passing by was an elating first impression. This first foray into the tropics of Southeast Asia was nothing short of spectacular. The island of Koh Rong soothed me, the grandeur of Angkor wowed me, and the solemn fields of Choeung Ek tugged at every single heart string in my chest. The range of emotions Cambodia instilled in me, from the taste of the food to the elegance of the Khmer script kept all my senses alive. It was damn hard to leave.

The Best Part of Angkor Isn’t the Wat

It was the right kind of quiet. Not quiet as in to say there was no noise. There was plenty of noise. The chorus of any number of species of birds pierced the air; chirping, singing, warbling, and calling. The cries of monkeys, the rustling of leaves, the snapping of branches, the buzzing of insects. The jungle was alive with all the natural ambient noise that one would expect to come from it.

The humidity hung in the air like a weight. You could taste it on your tongue. You could feel it on your shoulders. I sat down, perching myself atop one of the many crumbling stone blocks. The rock was rough and cold to the touch. A beetle, as yellow and spotted as a jungle cat scurried over my fingers just before spreading its tiny wings and taking flight.

I was sitting in the middle of the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. The massive complex consisted of hundreds of temples constructed over centuries and through generations of rulers. People flocked from all over the world to visit Angkor. Most of them coming for the main attraction, the famous Angkor Wat. The Wat is the single largest religious structure in the world and arguably the most architecturally pleasing out of all the Angkor temples. Contested as a wonder of the world it is the only existing man made structure to be featured on a country’s national flag (spoiler it’s on Cambodia’s), its name can be easily uttered in the same breathe alongside the other global marvels such as the Great Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and Petra.

 

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Me and my two travel companions decided to spend the day exploring the hundreds of other ruins that made up Angkor and save the iconic Angkor Wat for last, going to see it just around sunset. As we walked through the winding dirt paths, we veered off at the first sight of dilapidated ruins. When we neared the site we each broke away from one another without preamble, letting our heightened senses lead us. That was how I happened upon my stony seat.

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The small temple, which I later learned was called Prei Prasat was a wonder in its own right. Staring up at the stone blocks around me it was like something out of a movie. Something out of my dreams. The aged and weathered rock looked fragile in some places and stout in others. Twisted vines, gnarled roots, and crooked trees jutted their way through the crevices. It was impossible to decipher whether the jungle was a part of the temple or the temple part of the jungle.

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“There you are.” Jessica said, poking her head out from around a corner.

“C’mon lets go.” she added with a wave of her hand.

We explored the ruins of Angkor in a similar fashion. Breaking off and enjoying the moments of solitude and exploration the different sites invoked. Each temple seemed more intriguing than the last. Ancient trees that grew from ancient stone, pillared corridors that led to cracked Buddhas, Hindu gods smiling back from etched walls.

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As we neared the famous Angkor Wat and grand finale there was a different sort of noise. The ambient jungle sounds were replaced with the bustle and clamor of people. Throngs of them herding across the causeway towards the rising towers of the Wat. Shouting, calling, laughing. Children crying, peddlers yelling, thousands of shuffling feet.

We weaved our way through the crowd, abruptly having to stop every so often so people could take that stereotypical posed shot in front of the temple. Single file with the masses we climbed the stone steps into the heart of the temple, passing security checkpoints and filtering out into the structure’s corridors.

Trying not to pay attention to the chaos around me I focused on the beautifully detailed bas-relief walls. The entire hallway depicted a carved recreation of the Khmer army in action. Speared warriors, rampaging elephants, and raining arrows covered every inch of the hall. The detail, down to the horror on each soldier’s face was remarkable.

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“Erhm.” It was the sound of a man clearing his throat.

“Excuse me.” a man said.

I turned towards the French accent. The source of the voice was a large man in a white buttoned down shirt. Sweat gleamed over his bushy eyebrows, his armpits were dark blotches, and his ample stomach protruded out from his waist. He was precariously balancing a camera tripod on top of the chipped remains of an elephant statue pointing it towards the carved wall. His two compatriots, a fanny packed woman and another man, tall and skinny, his own camera dangling from his neck stood off to the side with their arms folded.

His eyes hardened when I met his gaze.

“Move along.” he said with a swift shooing motion towards the corridor’s exit.

Aghast I didn’t know how to respond. Who does this guy think he is? I thought. His tone was uttered with such annoyance and bombast it was as if we had stumbled into the man’s home during a family dinner.

“Lets get out of here.” Jessica whispered.

“Just a minute.” Elliot said, loud enough for both parties to hear.

He then took out his own camera, snapping pictures of the relief and making a show of photographing the wall, taking his time.

The overweight French fellow grumbled to himself as we leisurely took our leave.

We exited out back of the temple. Getting away from the bustling crowds until their noise was nothing but a dull chatter. Sitting ourselves atop a stone wall we sat and waited to watch the sunset.

I tried not to let the vast crowds get to me. To have them take away from my experience. It seemed so many people were there just for that bucket list tally mark. Piling out of busses and tour shuttles, frantically snapping a bunch of pictures, piling back in, “Quick, next stop the Great Wall!”

These sites are world renown for a reason. Was anyone really taking the time to stop and take it all in? To experience it, learn from it, and try to understand it? It reminded me of a book by Paul Theroux, novelist and travel writer. Stuck next to a man on a plane he is subjected to listening to the man’s world tripping exploits. With each listed destination the man is corrected by his wife, incorrectly naming cities, mispronouncing countries, confusing islands like Tahiti with Haiti. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.” Theroux writes, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

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The horror struck me that I might be just as bad. After all was I not bent on globe tripping, hoping to see all the things and places I possibly can in one lifetime. I told myself I wouldn’t let it devolve to the point where it would just be something to brag about. I wanted to learn and grow from each awesome thing I saw. I wanted to savor the experience while I was there.

As the sun descended behind the temple taking away its light and drawing out that iconic silhouette I made my personal vow. I thought on how glad I was that we chose to wander around all of Angkor and not only hit the big hotspot. Those moments of jungle solitude would be the most memorable, they were what made Angkor a part of me.

The sun dipped lower. Angkor Wat rose high. The towers pierced the evening sky.

Of course I took a picture.

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Categories: Cambodia, Travel Insight | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Remembering Cambodia

“Surely all people were made for each other. To join in together when the days turn to dust. So let the prison walls crumble and the borders all tumble. There’s a place for us all here. And ain’t it enough?” -OCMS

Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Rich green grass sprouting from gentle rolling hills swayed softly in the breeze.  Fluffy white clouds moved slowly across a blue sky.  In the distance wildflowers grew at the base of fence posts.  Their yellow and white pedals stretching up to catch the sunlight outside of the shadows.  Paces away a bird dipped and banked overhead, perching on a nearby tree branch, it sang a song while the tree’s leafy branches rocked beneath the breeze.  At my feet a butterfly danced and fluttered around my ankles.  Avoiding my steps it drifted off to skim over the wild grasses.
I sighed.  The expulsion of air catching in my chest.
This was a terrible place.

This pain in my chest, this ripping of emotion through my heart and lungs was a feeling I’d felt before.  A feeling I’d felt brought on by places.  I’d felt it before walking passed the ovens of Dachau.  My footsteps echoing through the gas chambers of a place where a country thought the solution to its problems was through the act of extermination.  I felt it again on the silent fields of Gettysburg.  Gazing out at a spot where countrymen, brothers, fathers, and sons, depleted of powder and shot set upon each other with the butts of rifles, stones from the earth, and bayonets.  I felt it merely hours before as I walked through S-21, the high school turned prison and interrogation center.  Where a regime gone mad with paranoia spared no one of torture.  For all my love of “places” I understand the importance of visiting the ones that hurt to look upon.  Now the dull ache in my chest continued as I tried to perceive yet another one of the world’s most darkest places.  All the books I’d read, documentaries I’d watched, or pictures I’d seen could not have prepared me for Choeung Ek: Cambodia’s largest Killing Field.
I was standing in an unfathomably large mass grave.

The Khmer Rouge following a lengthy civil war, ousted Cambodia’s government and installed their communist ideals upon the country.  Citizens were forced from cities and made to work the fields of the countryside, in a fantastical vision of a pure self sustaining agrarian society.  It wasn’t long before the Khmer Rouge began the interrogations.  Paranoia set in, they saw enemies everywhere.  The educated, former government officials, the rich, the successful all posed a danger to their revolution.  Waves of executions followed and the madness only got worse.  Doctors, professors, people with glasses, people with soft hands, murdered.  The children of the condemned executed so as not to come of age and seek revenge for their parent’s murder.  During a span of five years it is estimated over 2.2 million people were murdered under the Khmer Rouge regime.

One not need be an archaeologist or crime scene investigator to uncover Choeung Ek’s dark past.  The gentle rolling hills were not gentle at all, but sharp, unnatural mounds lumped together by continuous churning and reburying of the earth.  Looking closely at the soil, you can see fragments of bone protruding from the dirt.  At the base of the leafy tree tatters of clothing can be seen sticking out of the earth, tangled in the tree’s roots.  The victim’s remains, too numerous to be exhumed entirely come to the surface every year following seasonal rains.  Every month, workers collect newly surfaced pieces of bone and fragments of clothing and place them in glass boxes around the site.  At the center of the field rests a massive stupa.  I’ve seen many a stupa through my travels in Asia and Mongolia but none were like this.  It stood tall, white and gold, the center, a hollowed out tower of shelves encased in glass.  Each level holding row upon row of human skulls.  The uncountable victims of Choeung Ek, of all ages and genders stared back through the glass in the most somber memorial I’d ever seen.  Circling the monument, it was difficult to look upon.  Many skulls of the victims bearing signs of grisly and painful deaths.  Staring back at them my chest hurts trying to conceive those final moments.  The whine of a diesel generator, the blaring of propaganda music, many with their last ounces of strength are made to dig their own graves.

“Never Again,” those two words usually echo on some monument or inscription at the end of these terrible places.  But I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve read the news.  The Holocaust, Cambodia, weren’t the beginning just as they weren’t the end.  It continued in places like the Balkans, Armenia, Central Africa, Iraq and the Sudan.  What can we do to make those two words seem not so empty?  The beauty of our differences, the evolution of culture, language, religion and ideas brought to a screeching halt when humanity becomes too drunk with power and too blind with hate.  I believe the preservation of these dark places exist for a reason.  Not to be visited and locked up in your conscious but to come away from these places and share what you’ve learned, what you’ve seen, what you now know man can do to one another.  Tell your friends, your family, complete strangers.  Knowledge and education is the best weapon against making “Never Again” not such a broken promise.  I share my experiences with you in Choeung Ek now for that reason.  If only that were enough.

“Ain’t it enough, to live by the ways of the world?  To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth.  Throw your arms around each other, and love one another.  For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?”

*If you’d like to learn more about the Cambodian Genocide and life under the Khmer Rouge there is an amazing and moving book called “First They Killed My Father,” a memoir by survivor Loung Ung.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The Thrill of a New Destination: Cambodia

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Senses were alive.  As the tuk tuk, the motorcycle driven cart sped through the paved streets of Cambodia’s capital I breathed deep.  The air smelled not of coal ash and soot but crisp and tropical.  It smelled like palm leaves and fresh fruit.  My eyes danced from sidewalk to sidewalk.  Carts full of tropical delicacies, papayas, dragon fruits, bananas and coconuts.  Electric scooters and tuk tuk’s weaved through traffic while tall palms swayed in the night breeze.  Colonial inspired buildings dotted the skyline, earthen colored clay roofs and arched facades.  Two years ago Phnom Penh was just the name of a place I knew.  An obscure world capital that I prided myself on memorizing.  Like Ulaanbaatar I could have never dreamed that I would be one day traversing its streets.  Yet here I was.  New sights, new sounds, new smells, a new culture with so many new things to learn.  Elation.  This is why I love to travel.

Koh Rong, Cambodia
I wasn’t dreaming.  I was floating.  On my back staring skywards.  Wispy clouds crawled across a blue sky.  Birds circled and danced across my vision, eventually flying out of sight to perch in the dense jungle of palms that dominated the small island in the Gulf of Thailand.  The water lapped lazily against the shore.  Gently the waves rocked me back and forth.  All around me an ocean of turquoise crystal, the most clear dazzling water I’ve ever seen.  Righting myself I could feel sand as fine as powder beneath my feet.  Looking down, tiny fish darted away from the reach of my toes.  A breeze swayed the giant leaves of the coconut trees.  The thatched roofs of the bungalows rustled and shell wind chimes jingled.  It was hard to imagine a mere day ago I was shivering on the frozen steppes of Central Asia.  I allowed the waves to let me fall backwards into the sea.  The waters of the Indian Ocean soaking away my coal callused fingers and easing my muscles.  Floating on my back once again I felt rejuvenated by the sun, the warmth, the air.  I closed my eyes allowing myself to be soothed.  I wasn’t dreaming.
 
        
“Oh Mama, ain’t it good to be alive?”
Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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