The beef lok lak (meaning diced) is served with white jasmine rice, the beef flavored with local black pepper, accompanied by a tang of unexpected sweetness from the lemongrass and sugarcane in the sauce. Rice is, obviously, a staple in this region. My first visit to Asia was not in more developed (read: tourist-friendly) Japan, Korea, China, or even India. No, my first visit was to Cambodia, a nation nestled between Thailand and Vietnam. A number of our hosts frequently questioned if we were in Cambodia only as part of a trip to Thailand. I answered no with a smile. No, Cambodia was reserved as an experience in its own regard.
Cambodia is a country with huge green expanses and a population decimated by a too-recent bloody past. A past that still sullied the most benign facts of life in the nation. Even the rice served alongside nearly every meal also served as a reminder, a symbol of the less than innocent rice paddies that were a common sight out our bus windows.
I find myself ordering this dish repeatedly during the nine days of my travel.
A constitutional monarchy, Cambodia hosts a population of 15 million people, most of them Theravada Buddhists. The country’s economy relies primarily on agriculture and textiles, but it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world at an average of 7% GDP growth per year.
My partner, Danny, and I made the decision to travel to Cambodia after he suggested that we “go somewhere”. Both third-culture kids with plenty of international travel in our repertoire (him a Kenyan immigrant and me a Cuban-Canadian-American military brat), we were pretty comfortable with the idea of going to a foreign country at the drop of a hat. He wanted to go to Peru, to see Machu Picchu. To which I boycotted because I had lived and recently traveled to Latin America. An ode to my privilege, I was desperate to go somewhere new new.
So the decision was made where all good decisions are made: in a DC bar crowded over cocktails and the Google Flights map on his Android, looking for reasonable flight prices to different continents.
The famous Angkor Wat temple was the initial draw. However, a decent Priceline quote didn’t hurt, either. It was during the end of the wet season which was also the down season for tourism. The flight was booked, and the rest was planned out over the course of a couple weeks. Most of my Cambodia-trip-planning entailed:
- reading Cambodia travel blogs
- perusing HostelWorld.com
- watching Khmer language videos on YouTube
- worrying about the problematic aspects of being a Western tourist
- writing a blog post about the problematic aspects of being a Western tourist
- researching how not to be a problematic Western tourist
- buying my first decent backpacking backpack (your average black Nike pack I used for a week in the UK didn’t seem like it would cut it)
- praying that Mercury Retrograde would be merciful this time ‘round
- putting the Offspring of a Military Dad’s Constant Vigilance Checklist to good use (i.e. printing a billion copies of our passports)
- reassuring said Military Dad (and Mom) that the Checklist was being utilized
Overall, it did not really hit me until the two of us were in the car with our big ol’ backpacks in the trunk. This would be the furthest I’ve traveled from my native United States. My heartbeat ticked up a notch.
An acupuncturist friend of mine, Adam Miramon, gave me a travel kit of Chinese medicine for my trip. I was curious and, hell, anything to fight off the jet lag that hits you by being 11 hours ahead. It seemed to be doing its job, since I was sportfully climbing the ridiculous incline of about half a dozen different temples the morning after we arrived in Siem Reap. The climate in late September was comparable to a decent Florida summer; hot (averaged about 88 every day), humid, and sunny. We bought hats from the souvenir shops near Angkor and hoarded the free water bottles handed to us by our generous tuk-tuk driver for the day, Mr. Ravey.
The sprawling complex of Angkor Wat and the other temples, surrounded by what essentially amounts to a gigantic moat, rose as a magnificent dark monument amidst a semi-tropical forest. As hot as it was outside, the temperature dropped once we entered the cool dark walls of the outer stone building. Intricate etchings of apsara dancers, devatas, Hindu gods, nagas, verses, flowers, patterned the cracked and weathered stone. While Angkor Wat was mostly protected by the moat that surrounded it when the region fell into neglect during the 16th century, other temples weren’t so lucky.
Very romantic and very Indiana Jones. Well, Tomb Raider. In fact, that is the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed!
What I found fascinating about these temples was the clear mesh of two faiths: Hinduism and Buddhism. Many of these temples were originally dedicated Hindu temples. We marvelled at massive wall murals depicting famous stories of Vishnu and Rama. However, Angkor is in fact a working Buddhist temple, when the population shifted to Theravada Buddhism in the 12th century. So you see these altars and statues everywhere, clothed in gold and surrounded by flowers and incense.
On a more sour note, you also see these:
I knew exactly why those Buddhas were headless, without a tour guide or a sneak peek on Wikipedia. I knew because I understand what colonialism entailed. Exotic “souvenirs” were often similarly stolen by European colonizers in other nations. Google “headless Buddhas Thailand” sometime. I must take this time to say that your friend’s or aunt’s Buddha head in their yoga studio or study is not innocuous. They may not be legit Buddhas stolen from Asian countries, but they represent a history of violence, degradation, and oppression.
Perhaps due to this realization, partnered with the fact that many of the intact statues provided spaces for meditation and offerings, I felt compelled to stop at every shrine and pay my respects. Regardless of its status as a tourist attraction, Angkor Wat was still a working temple, a holy place. The fact that it was open to the public, that monks took the care to arrange the shrines every day, felt like enough of a reason to behave like a guest in a holy place.
So I lifted my pressed hands to my forehead three times in respect to the Buddha when I saw him. I lit incense, and offered my gratitude to the space and the people.
In many ways, this compulsion continued in my many interactions and experiences in Cambodia. Many say that the spilling of blood makes a land sacred. The word sacrifice means “to make sacred”. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sacrificed millions for the chance at agrarian utopia. While they did not accomplish that, the level of horror experienced by the people and the land cannot help but create a feeling of sacred in the aftermath. Why else do we treat places like concentration camps, battlefields, and other places of mass killings with solemn reverence, a reverence even deeper than we feel in churches? Blood makes a land sacred. Even if you do not believe in a supernatural aspect of sacred, you can’t deny that the knowledge of such history of a land disturbs us in a way that reaches into the depths of our humanity. It demands respect, reverence, even devotion to the idea of remembrance. Those are all aspects of what we consider sacred.
He kept complaining about the state of the roads.
I smile beatifically and pat Danny’s shoulder before returning to gazing at the rice paddies zipping by as we were jostled along the part of the main highway that had been washed away to red dirt. Every few moments or so there would be a pond filled with huge white and purple lotus flowers instead of rice paddies. Houses on stilts, reminding me fondly of living on the similarly waterlogged Gulf of Mexico, were often decorated by hammocks and little gold spirit shrines. One pond had a couple of kids—still out of school—playing in the shallow waters. I’m still a little sad that I never got around to buying one of those roasted bamboo sticks filled with rice and something else at the roadside stalls.
I have to admit I was becoming smug about the fact that I was taking this 6-hour bus ride better than my partner. For one thing, I have a competitive nature. For another, he was the one telling me back home that I was going to hate Cambodia because traveling is long and difficult.
Projection is a bitch.
Though, to be fair, once he realized I was unphased by our less than efficient journey, he relaxed. We were a pretty good team, everything considered. He was willing to follow me off to seek out a random bakery in Phnom Penh (pastries were the only decent thing the French left behind, let’s be honest), and I had no qualms with him fussing over his camera trying to get the perfect shot of the capital’s skyline.
After leaving Siem Reap and our hotel…
(with it’s incredible breakfast buffet. Like seriously, if you’re willing to pay more than your average guesthouse, check out the Saem Siem Reap Hotel. Waffle, egg, and noodle stations!!! Melt-in-your-mouth baguettes!!!!! Amazingly fresh fruit!!!!!! Anyway–)
…we made our way to Phnom Penh, the capital city. We would return to Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields and the Royal Palace, but this round we were only staying one night in order to travel further south to the coast. It was also my partner’s birthday, so we asked the owner of our guesthouse for recommended restaurants. He pointed us to a Friends International-backed venture for at-risk youth called “Friends Restaurant”, run by Cambodians employing Cambodians. Most of the graduates from the program go on to higher-paying jobs and often starting their own businesses. The food was outstanding and eating ethically is always a plus.
The smell of a salt water sea is universal, I think. Maybe it’s because I lived on the Florida Panhandle for the biggest chunk of my formative life, but there is something about the ocean that is instantly calming. Doctors used to proscribe moving to the seaside to their patients for the “good air”. And, in some ways, you can see why.
We walked from our bungalow nestled at the base of a mountainous nature preserve to the beach. It was about a mile walk, but the skies were sunny and clear and the sea breeze eased the heat. We passed the crab market, where we would eat the next day (well, I would…my partner eats two meals a day most days), and followed the coastal road to the man-made beach. Cambodian families were enjoying their Sunday, playing in the sand and amongst the waves. We spend some time there, sitting and just watching, soaking in the Gulf of Thailand and the truly gorgeous weather.
Kep had a lot of that for us. It was a lull in our trip in a way that I think was necessary. I know a lot of people who do the backpacking trip thing with a full itinerary, without a moment to breathe and actually experience the place you’re in. Kep was that, for me at least. It was quiet; a sleepy seaside town that was briefly a resort town for the royal family and the French until the Khmer Rouge came to power. You can still see the burned-out and stripped-down villas. It is now mostly visited by locals—we saw very few Westerners.
It rained on the second day, a heavy tropical rain that dripped through the thatch roof of the outdoor restaurant of our hostel. My partner and I played pool, drinking Angkor-branded beer. We bantered, teased each other. He won the first two by a long shot. I managed to win the final round, but only after we put two beers away apiece. There were only two other occupants of the little bungalows that dotted the compound that had amazing views of the ocean and the islands. It felt like we had nothing and no one else to worry about.
Yeah. Not bad.
Sugar palms are common in Cambodia, and throughout Southeast Asia. At first glance, they look pretty much like your average palm tree. Thin and spiky leaves, thick and flat branches with jagged edges.
The man on my audio guide told me that those branches were used to cut the throats of prisoners of Choeung Ek.
The Killing Fields were not something Danny and I took lightly in visiting. Both of us understood the gravity, and necessity, of visiting such a place. On our tuk-tuk ride, I mentally and emotionally prepared myself. I have been to places of pain and suffering before. Not, perhaps, to this extent.
It hardly covered a square mile. Tens of thousands slaughtered in such a small place. Every rainy season more and more bones and pieces of clothing wash up. The known graves are marked off with rope—huge depressions in the earth—but I nearly stepped on a jaw bone in the middle of the walking path, the teeth still intact.
Little spirit houses littered the compound, covered with thousands of small tributes by people who must have known it wasn’t nearly enough, would never be enough. A huge tree, one that once ran with blood of children smashed against it, was covered with bracelets like the one an old monk gave me at one of the Angkor temples.
I left behind a tiger’s eye stone, something I kept with me for protection for a few years now.
Blood spilt makes the ground sacred.
It was quiet, despite the milling around of a couple dozen tourists. People were listening to their audio guides, lost in the horrific stories that were being told about the exact ground that they were standing on. Between stories, before you tapped the next code for the next station, there was a pause. If you were quiet enough, you could hear a buzz like the noise of screaming turned almost all the way down.
You might not believe in ghosts, but it’s hard to accept that anyone could be fully at rest in that place.
We don’t end our day at Choeung Ek. We made sure to visit the Royal Palace to lighten the mental load. It totally looked like something out of the Fire Nation.
Aesthetically pleasing monuments to kings aside, I was emotionally and physically exhausted at this point, and ravenous. So after an early dinner, I also had a craving for pastries. Danny was reluctant to go wandering in the streets of Phnom Penh to track down this one bakery about half a mile away, but eventually he caved in to one last capital city adventure.
We weaved along back streets and on and off sidewalks. It was rush hour, so as we got closer to the main roads we were actively aware of the increasing density of mopeds we had to dodge. The bakery itself was not all that hard to find once we got to the main commercial area. It was a chain bakery, with high ceilings and glass—an air of a boutique rather than a pastry and bread shop. One of the workers would follow you and place what you pointed out onto a little red tray before taking it to the counter to get wrapped up and rung up.
We took our cakes and buns and went back into the ever increasing traffic jam of motorcycles. Danny would take a sharp right without me noticing (he had the GPS), and my blood pressure would rise as I had to keep track of him and the motorists at the same time. It was a little hair-raising.
Back at the hotel, we watched the lights of the city cast a glorious outline against a stormy night sky. Danny brought out his camera and took a few long-exposure shots.
We turned on the TV and snacked on our hard-won sweets and found ourselves inexplicably sucked into the classic whirlwind of a film: Inside Out.
Apparently it’s a very divisive film, critically speaking.
I woke up the next morning with the emotions of my dream stuck to me like a thousand tiny burrs. There was a mosque, and hundreds of people singing dozens of songs to different divines, and then a stadium where I gave a speech about injustice and intervening and killing. I woke up just as a choir of the Black Lives Matter movement took my place center stage.
The Killing Fields will stick to me for a long, long time.
We decided to book the hotel we first arrived at in Siem Reap. Again, that breakfast buffet.
I had tried to book a dinner at an Apsara performance the last time we were in Siem Reap, but had called too late. This time I contacted the concierge well in advance for an evening show. They recommended a performance at a resort nearby which had the traditional performers as well as a prix fixe meal. I was convinced, so I booked it for us.
The resort was very nice, and we were led to what appeared to be the dining room of the resort. There was a small stage in the corner, slightly raised off of the floor. We didn’t arrive all that early, so I was a little surprised to see no one else there.
Turned out that we would be the only guests at this performance.
Now, I am not sure if any of you have had the experience of being the only member in the audience, or being the performer for said only members of an audience. I have.
Well. The experience is what you make of it.
So, after shaking off a little bit of the discomfort, we settled back and enjoyed our first course. The first thing I noticed about the dancers that started to file onto the stage was that they were a little younger than me. I recognized the look of performers who were still learning. I remember all the weird spontaneous gigs—for old white folks, for tourists, for the President of Florida State University—I’ve taken just to have the chance to perform. We didn’t speak the same language, but there seems to be a universal conveyance for “well, this ain’t Vegas but let’s all have fun anyway” with laughs and smiles.
It’s common wisdom that music and dance are also universal languages. Even there, with young people performing for other young people, it was clear that this was something shared. I know as a performer that you feed off of the audience. It’s hard when the audience is so small, but I want to believe that those giggles and winks were encouraged by us two foreigners who made a point to show that we appreciated their craft.
Our final excursion was a short 3-hour tour to the floating villages on Tonle Sap, which is a lake/river that stretches between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. In fact, if you do not want to take the bus you can take the ferry to and from if the water level is high enough.
The floating villages reminded me of the Gulf, actually. House boats and generally poor and exploited populations. They are populated not primarily by Cambodians, but by Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnam War. Even without access to formal history books, I could gather that there was a significant amount of not-quite-covert racism and classism involved around these villagers. Back State-side, I have yet to spend a decent amount of research to figure out the nuances between Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, but from what I gather the antagonism certainly stems from the whole Viet Cong/Khmer Rouge ordeals…and the fact that Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge, occupied Cambodia for a bit in 1979, and was the country to expose the Khmer Rouge’s abuses. There are also some border disputes that continue to this day and some fairly recent anti-Vietnamese violence in 2014.
*According to Wikipedia. Again, not much research.
The rest of our stay in Siem Reap was spent at the open air markets to gather trinkets for friends/family and relaxing at our hotel. When my dad was away on trips to various countries around the world, he continually managed to find a Hard Rock Café. He’d buy my family T-shirts with the city emblazed on them.
Well, it just so happened that the Siem Reap Hard Rock Café had only opened two years ago. Finally, I got to return my dad the favor.
We eventually faced the final leg of grueling slog that is US East Coast to Asia and back economy class airline travel. I think I caught up with all the major films released in 2014. I also learned that I can only barely drift off when I am resting my head on the tray table. For all the lack of whining I boasted about during our trip…it was the flight back that turned me into a cranky travel monster. It probably didn’t help that I stopped taking the Chinese medicine as a way to test its effectiveness. Clearly, it works. At least when you are taking it.
Flight to Cambodia? 17 hours travel time, 3 hours of sleep. Flight from Cambodia? 48-hour day, 4 hours of sleep. Home arrival? Crashed immediately.