Backpacking, exploring, or holidaying through South East Asia undoubtedly brings memories to last a lifetime.
Thailand brims with culture and customs unique to anywhere else in the world, Laos – the landlocked section of the Northern region – has a mysterious undertone that’s attractive to adventure seekers and remote explorers, and Vietnam is now an easily explored destination which has rapidly grown in popularity over recent years. Cambodia though, remains the peaceful little sister of the region, and in 2010 my insane curiosity took me there; a trip I’ve never forgotten. Cambodia, of all the travels I’ve been lucky enough to do, hits the top 3 list of serene, peaceful, beautiful, travel experiences.
Beginning in the busy capital city of Phnom Penhn, time is spent exploring the streets by foot. It’s a big city with signs of having lower wealth – begging, bereft of skyrises or a cosmopolitan CBD, shoeless locals. There’s not a great deal that sets the place apart from the likes of Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, and it doesn’t seem to have the same peaceful charm of the rest of the country. Still, it’s interesting observing the local people go about their daily routine, but just two days’ here is plenty.
As a way to observe the countries history and better understand the turmoil that occurred as recent as within my lifetime, I spend a day at the killing fields, and the Khmer Rouge prison. Guest houses arrange day trips, and they appear to be a common activity for tourists.
Witnessing these horrendous places makes it clear the extent of the countries suffering. Under the Khmer ruling a genocide occurred, and to this day clothing and blood of the dead make their way to the surface of their burial sites, at the fields. One such tree was the place where babies and children were thrown against; just one demonstration of the monstorous crimes which took place. Throughout the entire country – not just the countryside on the outskirts of Phnom Penh – the country has suffered gastronomically.
On day three of my Cambodia travels I take a ferry boat up the Tonle Sap River, to Siem Reap. While many travellers bee line directly to the UNESCO heritage site of Angkor Wat, the ferry ride is a wonderful decision, allowing an opportunity to see lesser frequented parts of Cambodia- particularly as there is still so much of the country unavailable to tourists.
This is where the country, for me, begins to show signs of peace. Unlike catching a ferry across the English Channel, this journey has a serenity about it; Quiet but for the whirring sound of the boats’ engine running despite the number of travellers on board. Each of us sits in a contemplative state, simultaneously enjoying the present moment.
Moving past us on the banks of the river are small clusters of floating houses. Some are entire neighbourhoods, although airily alone, and I imiagine the community to be very intimate. The wooden homes, are likely those of fishermen and their families, positioned perfectly to make the most of peak fishing hours, to supply the cities with their fill. The air is humid, and the water murky, but the vibe very much calm.
The ferry ride takes around 6 hours, although flies. In fact, time throughout Cambodia altogether seems to stand still; there’s a general feeling of calm, stress free, throughout the country, which is backed up by its people.
While Siem reap is known for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat, there is so much more to offer than simply that. Siem Reap for me, is an enchanting, spiritual place.
Here you’ll find a touch of class which is a direct reflection of the desperation to capture tourism. The village is lined with markets selling quality local crafts and products, there are unique bars and cafes, plenty of yoga Dhaka’s and opportunities to listen to Buddhist monk teachings, and the harsher history of country shines through in a different way.
Mine victim amputees perform exception music on the street in an attempt to bring income from the selling of their CDs. In the hotels there are warnings of child prostitution in the room compendium, and road signs wanting of live mines in the area are dotted around the countryside.
To explore the UNESCO world Heritage Site of Angkor Wat I elect to defy the norm of ridding a tuk-tuk, in favour of taking a push bike. It turns out to be one of my favourite decisions of all travel experiences to date. For the cost of USD$1 I have an old push bike at my liberty for the entire day, and ride leisurely inand out of the Wats, beneath canopies of large green trees, and alongside birds and monkeys. Much like the gentle whirring of the ferry ride down the Tonle Sap, the rhythmic pedalling of the bike compliments the environment beautifully.
Many of the ways resemble the one before it, with large stones packed to create a building that has withstood time; some with mature tree roots winding in and out showing the ruins age. But there is one way which stands out from the rest, boasting reflection pools built in front, giving a greater impression of grandeur.
Many of the wats are disused, but there are some which are home to monks in robes. The bright saffron or deep brown fabric draped over the monks bodies capture the true essence of which Angkor Wat was erected for.
Just one full day of biking around the ruins is sufficient, and he following day spent riding further afield on the hunt of a waterfall; though staying en route is imperative as the live mines dotted around the countryside are a very real danger.
With the heritage sites absorbed, and clearly so much support needed in the community, I spend two days helping at an orphanage. It’s hard to gauge just how much or how little the orphanages need, although clear they need less than I have. Although the one I choose to work in is currently building new toilet facilities which will allow the girls to have privacy – something I take for granted – I have no skills to offer here. Instead my time is better spent nurturing the youngest, sharing stories in English with the primary school aged children, and offering an ear to the teenage girls.
I ask their dreams and consider how I can best help more once back in New Zealand. The common answer is they want to grow up to become cultural dancers; perhaps an answer that is reflective of how best they will make ends met in the future, with the rise of tourism.
At night I find myself sunk into a hammock which is strung from pillars in a hippyesque cafe. I can’t describe the emotion running through me but it’s considerably unique to my normal state. There’s something Cambodia does that slows the soul, bringing it rightly so, into the present.