Along rural dirt roads, children wearing nothing but massive smiles wave joyfully as I ride by on a motorcycle, weaving my way around wandering cows and through lush trails. Ancient temples, staggering in size and complexity, are consumed alive by centuries of dense jungle vegetation – and beckon the adventurous to climb and explore. Sprawling markets are dense with touts who are just as eager to laugh and joke as they are to haggle and deal ($3 is the final price on those pants)! Curious monkeys prowl the area, eager to rummage through the bags of unsuspecting explorers and pillage what they can. A family of four, precariously seated on a motorbike, barrel down the wrong side of the road, weaving within inches of other passing motorists. Two elderly women play a game of badminton inches from busy rush hour traffic.
Cambodia is rich with gorgeous sights and sounds like these – and incredibly friendly locals who adore the visiting tourists who sustain their economy. Particularly given the overwhelming local warmth, it’d be easy to leave this place with the idea that things have always been sublime here, aside from the rampant poverty that doesn’t seem to ruin anybody’s outlook anyway. But beneath the beautiful exterior and ceaseless smiling faces, Cambodia has a horrifically dark and tragic past – just 40 years removed from a brutal hell on Earth that will echo in history for centuries to come.
It’s this striking contrast that came to define my visit to Cambodia. Unimaginable beauty, joy, and compassion are present amongst recent echos of nightmarish pain, bloodshed, and brutality. It’s a place that has much to teach and share, and I was eager to see what it had to show me.
Just a few days before I was due to arrive in Siem Reap, I got a surprise message from a dear friend that absolutely made my day. I met Brij in late 2016 when we both travelled to Peru, where we came to bond over our shared experiences with ancient ruins and sacred shamanistic rituals. Brij has been embarking on a long-term solo journey not unlike my own, and he told me he’d love to hop a flight from Tokyo to meet up and explore some temples together, if I’d be up for it. Undoubtedly one of the best-spoken and most intentional, conscious individuals that I have the pleasure of calling a friend, I couldn’t have been more excited to have him as a travel buddy for a week. That said – it seems we’ve set a tough precedent for ourselves, considering we apparently only hang out together at ancient, exotic wonders of the world.
We began our journey in Siam Reap, the touristic town that serves as the hub to the incredible Angkor temple complex. The city itself is well worth exploring, bisected by a river and home to local cuisine, lawless chaotic roads (drive on whichever side suits your mood), a buzzy nightlife district renown for 50 cent draft beers and cannabis-infused pizza, sprawling night markets, and eight gazillion tuk tuk drivers who all desperately want to show you the town.
But the real draw to this place – and the reason people come in droves – is its position as the gateway to Angkor, the ancient capital that flourished under the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries and was at one time the largest city in the world.
Covering an astonishing 400 square kilometers, Angkor is considered one of the most important and stunning archaeological sites in the world. It houses hundreds of absolutely incredible temples and temple ruins – most notable amongst which is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. This magnificent temple, built entirely of stone, was erected by the backbreaking labor of 300,000 men and 6,000 elephants over several decades in the 12th century.
Here’s where things get mind-bending: Angkor Wat is a stunning mathematical reproduction of the universe, a mandala with features surmising a physical map of the cosmos. Stretching around the perimeter of the temple are 1,200 square meters of incredibly elaborate stone carvings depicting historical and mythological events from Hindu lore – such as the churning of the ocean of milk, a story that depicts the origin of the universe, the beginning of time, and the triumph of good over evil. In fact, nearly every square inch of this stone architectural behemoth is covered in ornate and elaborate carvings, with details so fine and so rife with symbolism that they completely confound the rational mind. The central axis is aligned with the planets, and the central tower is perfectly aligned with the rising sun twice a year, during the winter and spring equinoxes. It’s an absolutely arresting place.
After a day of acclimating in the core of Siam Reap, Brij and I chose to begin our temple hopping adventures in an unconventional manner, riding mountain bikes through wooded dirt trails through rural villages for a full day. We began with a visit to Angkor Wat at 5:30 AM to get a good spot to watch the sunrise, and continued our day riding to the rest of the archaeological sites best known “greatest hits”, including Bayon and Ta Prohm. Each of these sites is magnificent and offers ample opportunities for contemplation (How were these sites used? Who frequented these now-ruined monuments?) and beautiful photos alike.
We wrapped up the evening with a much-needed massage, administered by blind Cambodians who were given free vocational massage training from an organization called Seeing Hands. Despite their inability to see, these guys were incredibly skilled and really helped get out all those knots and pressure points – it was really great to be able to do good and contribute to their livelihood with our tourism dollars. The cost for this indulgence? $5 each, for one hour.
After seeing those magnificent temple sites in such a fun and unique way on day one, we knew we couldn’t settle for a typical tour for our second day of exploration, either – so we hopped on a pair of Honda XR250 dirt bikes and followed a local guide through truly remote jungle trails and far-flung villages, en route to the further hidden temples that reward only the more intrepid visitors. This was, without a doubt, one of the coolest travel experiences I’ve had so far. After straying from the touristic hotspots, we were treated to 6+ hours of riding through the real Cambodia: gorgeous dirt roads through humble villages full of curious children, errant cows and oxen to dodge, and lush jungle vegetation with far more off-the-beaten-path ruins to explore.
Riding for a full day in this stunning region, through countryside and to moving temple ruins that felt surreal and otherworldly, was an experience that I will never forget. After an afternoon nap, we used this evening to visit a local performing circus with an incredible philanthropic mission, called Phare. Phare is a wonderful social enterprise: it’s a circus that combines dance, theater, live music, traditional puppetry, and incredible acrobatics. The performers are all graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center that provides FREE training to poverty-stricken Cambodians, teaching them an art and profession that allows them to thrive and feed their families. Nearly 80% of profits from the nightly sold-out performances fund this mission and transform the lives of 1,500+ students, hundreds of whom go on to become professional performers.
These folks put on one hell of a show, with acts evocative of Cirque du Soleil, but with a distinctly Cambodian flare, encompassing traditional song, dance, and puppetry arts. Knowing that these performers were all given their skills and education at no cost, and rose from destitution to become incredible artists, made for a truly moving experience.
Our final day in Siem Reap was a lazy one – we took it easy until we boarded our 11:30 PM night bus to the capital city of Phnom Penh. I alluded earlier to Cambodia’s dark, haunting recent past, and it was in Phnom Penh that we sought to understand this gut-wrenching period and reflect on the darkness that humanity is capable of. We were in for an absolutely devastating day – but an important one. All too often, journeys like the ones we’re on are a relatively hedonistic romp through the world, overstated with fun and blissfully insulated from the troubles of the world – but this heartbreaker of a day provided a poignant dose of reality, and a reminder to be incredibly thankful for the lives we’re privileged to live.
Phnom Penh: Unveiling Cambodia's Dark and Bloody Past
WARNING: This is a tough, graphic read.
So – time for a quick history lesson. In the ’60s and ’70s, the US was embroiled in bloody warfare with Vietnam, in a conflict that we call the Vietnam War – and locals in Asia remember as the American War. Cambodia shares a border with Vietnam, but was a neutral party with no skin in the game. However, Viet Cong militants were using supply routes that cut within the borders of Cambodia and Laos, and American intelligence suspected some amount of Vietnamese presence within these borders.
Despite Cambodia’s neutrality and the undisputed innocence of the vast majority of its rural populations, this was reason enough for President Nixon to greenlight – without the knowledge of Congress or the American public – a four-year campaign of hellfire, during which 2.7 million tons of devastating bombs were dropped on the Cambodian countryside – killing more than half a million innocent and impoverished Cambodians and displacing countless more, many of whom would subsequently starve to death. I realize a figure like 2.7 million tons doesn’t really mean much to the layperson, so let’s think of it in these terms: that’s nearly 1 million MORE tons than the total we dropped on Japan throughout WWII – including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We’re talking hell on Earth here.
This grizzly new reality for Cambodians was propagandized with great success by a communist revolutionary group called the Khmer Rouge, who promised a new classless Cambodia – an agrarian utopia in which the impoverished were glorified and society would begin again with ‘Year Zero’. In 1975, just as the US pulls out of Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge comes to power, and parades into the streets of Phnom Penh to much fanfare from an excited Cambodian populace, eager for change and revolution. That excitement would not last long.
Literally hours after arriving in the streets of the Cambodian capital and thereby usurping control of the entire country, the Khmer Rouge, led by Marxist revolutionary Pol Pot, told urban Cambodians that another wave of American bombs was coming, and that they must evacuate to the countryside at once – but that they’d return in 3 days. Needless to say – that’s not how it went down.
While the KR quickly abolished all money, private property, religion, and education, entire population centers were emptied and driven into the countryside, where they were either forced into back-breaking labor or guerrilla warfare under brutal leadership, or met a fate far worse. You see, if you were an intellectual – or merely an educated person – if you were a teacher, a doctor or a lawyer – if you wore glasses or had soft hands – if you were a monk or a religious leader – if you were an artist or spoke a foreign language – or if you were merely suspected of any of the above – then you were brutally and systematically executed, and then dumped into a field to rot with countless thousands more bodies. Perhaps in front of your family, or perhaps after years of torture in one of the hundreds of prisons around the country – many of which were in former schools or hospitals.
Many believe or allege that the Khmer Rouge was actually aided by the United States, who appreciated the strategic advantage afforded by the weakened influence of Vietnam and the Soviet Union. And while these allegations are largely unproven – lost to the kind of shadowy and secretive behind-closed-doors conversations obscured by governments the world over – one fact is irrefutable: the U.S. voted to allow Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to occupy a U.N. seat as late as 1991 – well after these atrocities were revealed to the world. That’s a tough one to swallow.
Of course, this isn’t a blog about politics or military tactics, so let’s leave U.S. involvement out of the equation for a moment and get back to our story. The true number is unknown to this day, but it’s believed that in just 4 years, the KR murdered nearly 2 million Cambodians – their own people. That’s nearly 1 in every 4 Cambodians – dead and gone, just like that.
Imagine you’re a Cambodian in the 1970s. You live a simple life, but you’re happy and you live off the land. Until one day you awake to the sound of roaring jets overhead, and you watch your village – where you were born and raised – burn to the ground as it’s carpeted with bombs from an assailant unknown to you. You lose a child. You lose your home. You lose the land. And for four years, this is your life. Until one day, when it seems the bombs are over – and a glimmer of hope emerges in the form of radical new leaders promising a better tomorrow. So you wave their red flag, and you weep joyfully imagining that things will be better now. Instead, the surviving members of your family are imprisoned, worked mercilessly to the verge of starvation, or executed as you watch. And if you cry out – you’re next.
It sounds like a nightmare too brutal to be real, but this was very much real life, for all of Cambodia – and it was less than 50 years ago. Needless to say, the echoes of these years of bloodbath are very loud and very present. Any local older than 50 remembers, and will never forget. It’s virtually guaranteed that they lost a parent, a sibling, friends, or neighbors to the murderous regime or to the war that ravaged their nation unwittingly.
And yet, somehow, Cambodians today are content, happy, loving, welcoming – even to me — an American. They don’t forget the past, but they’ve moved on. Arts and culture are re-emerging valiantly, and traditional Cambodian culture, once snuffed out and replaced with pain and suffering, is again flourishing. Tourism, a strong boon for this nation, yields many opportunities for visitors to put their dollars to good use, and to leave having learned several important lessons. And that’s what Brij and I were after when we visited S21, the most notorious of Cambodia’s torturous prisons, and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, one of the countless mass graves and today the largest genocide memorial – both just outside of Phnom Penh. I didn’t take photos at these locations out of respect, but there are many online if you wish to have a look.
I’ll spare you excessive gruesome details of those places specifically, because I think you’ve already grasped what happened there and what purpose these places served. Seeing them in person, with the assistance of audio guides, painted a nauseatingly vivid picture. Prison cells retained beds and shackles, untouched – and photos on the wall of each cell show exactly what Vietnamese rescuers found when they discovered the gruesome prison. The Killing Fields were worse still – thousands of skeletal remains are preserved here, and the earth is pitted with so many of these crude burial sites. Most heartbreaking of all is the Chankiri Tree at Choeung Ek; If you want to know its purpose, I implore you to Google it on your own if you feel emotionally prepared.
Why am I telling you about these things? Well, for one, because this is what I came to learn in Cambodia – the story of their recent past. And beyond that, I’m telling you because it offers a lot of lessons for those who take the time to listen and learn: the cost of our freedom, the reality of just how easy these kinds of genocidal takeovers can happen, the potential for evil in humanity and the potential for resilience and recovery. The privilege with which most of us live, the incredible advantage of not having to wonder whether you’ll be alive tomorrow, the true extent of what the military deems acceptable ‘collateral damage’, the importance of vitality and family over wealth or possession. There’s a lot here to unpack and to think about.
When Brij and I were ready to decompress on our last day in Phnom Penh, we chose to go to a tiny independent local cinema that shows daily screenings of two films about the conflict I just described. The first and less impactful (IMO) is 1984’s The Killing Fields. But the other film, Angelina Jolie’s 2017 directorial effort “First They Killed My Father’, was visceral and gut-wrenching. It really culminated everything we’d seen and learned into a visual representation that allowed us to better FEEL these events. I highly recommend this film (available on Netflix), and I hope the context I’ve written helps you to better understand the events portrayed. For me, having seen the beauty and the pain in Cambodia and gotten to know its people over the last week – it was a real punch in the gut. If you’re really interested, the film is based on a (non-fiction) book of the same name, written by a young girl who lived through it.
Lest I give you the impression that Phnom Penh was all doom and gloom, that wasn’t entirely the case. While we allocated most of our time to better understanding this recent conflict, Cambodia’s capital also provided plenty to smile about. Aside from the incredibly friendly locals I’ve written about in great detail already, we also had a few really unique experiences here that contributed to good causes.
The first of these was a traditional cultural performance at the Cambodian Living Arts Center, a Non-Profit Organization founded by a survivor and refugee of Khmer reign who returned to Cambodia in post-conflict years to preserve and spread Cambodian arts traditions that were nearly eradicated in the 70s along with more than 90% of the country’s artists. Like Phare in Siem Reap, CLA provides scholarships, grants, fellowship, and support to young artists, and proceeds support their mission. The performance we saw incorporated traditional puppetry arts, song, live music, and most breathtakingly, Apsara dance – one of the most mesmerizingly beautiful things I may have ever seen.
Perhaps the most unique of our experiences in Cambodia was the dinner we shared on our final, departing night through an organization called Dining in the Dark. Dining in the Dark is an experience that’s meant to help provide a quick glimpse (forgive the pun) into the life and hardships of the blind, and demonstrate the value of our senses and the way they work in conjunction. A blind waiter leads us, by placing our hands on his shoulders, into a dark room where we’ll be seated for dinner.
Just so we’re clear: when I say dark, I mean DARK. Utter, absolute, can’t-see-your-hand-an-inch-away-from-your-face, pitch black darkness. It’s difficult to describe the disorientation that comes from that kind of dark – the kind you don’t experience even in the darkest of nights – just absolute nothingness. We’re told where we’ll find silverware in front of us, and three mystery courses are brought to our table one by one, when we’re simply told to dig in. But of course, that’s easier said than done – we have no idea what we’re eating, how much of it there is, and just finding the silverware in the first place is challenging.
The experience was provocative, and really instilled a deep appreciation for what it means to be able-bodied and of sound health. Specifically, it really created an empathetic thread through which to better understand the life and hardships of the blind, who live with this affliction every day. And ultimately, it turns out, we had a pretty delicious meal – at the conclusion, we were ushered back out into the light, and after several minutes of visual re-acclimation, we were shown photos and descriptions of the dishes we ate. I have my doubts as to whether the presentation of each dish was quite as handsome as the ones we were shown… but they were indisputably tasty, and our bill ($18 each, a small fortune in Cambodia) went towards employing blind workers with a healthy living wage.
SO – That’s Cambodia. An incredibly beautiful place, full of beautiful people, and with many things to teach and many warnings to heed. To visit a place like this, so recently devastated by war and conflict, was an eye-opening experience that proved invaluable. I came for the incredible temples of Angkor, but truth be told, meeting the people of Cambodia, learning their story, and coming to understand their resilience and see their reemergence from suffering came to be the more definitive and impactful experience from this journey. I’m so glad I came.
The next adventure is just around the corner, and it’s a really, really big one. It’ll probably be a few weeks until I have a chance to tell you about it, but I can’t wait until I can share. Gotta go for now, though – it’s nearly time to board my plane to Kathmandu. 😉