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Cambodia: on my own, but not alone

CAMBODIA | Monday, 11 February 2013 | Views [4077]

You are never too old for firsts. I am relatively well travelled, but until now I have never really travelled on my own. It was something that I needed to know that I could do. Sitting at the riverfront in Phnom Penh on my last night in Cambodia I had to admit to feeling a sense of accomplishment.

It was a strange feeling leaving the security and companionship of my tour group in Vietnam and setting out on my own; a new culture, language and currency to adjust to, four new towns to find my way around. But I quickly realised that I was not alone. The Cambodian people are so incredibly welcoming, helpful and respectful, and I met many like-minded travellers along the way.

I travelled to Phnom Penh from Chau Doc by speed boat, up the Mekong river, passing through Vietnamese and Cambodian border checkpoints. Surprisingly, one of the first things to greet me as we arrived in Phnom Penh was a New Zealand flag – one of a number of flags lining the river front near the royal palace. After being somewhat overcharged (not for the last time) by a smooth talking tuk tuk driver, I arrived at Kambuja Inn - my home and peaceful oasis for the next few days.  As I usually do when I arrive in a new city, I started exploring from my ‘home base’ in concentric circles – moving further afield as I got my bearings.

On my first full day in Phnom Penh I had a guide show me through the National Museum.  She explained to me the history and significance of the hundreds of statues and idols housed there. Unfortunately the Silver Pagoda was closed, but I was able to observe some of the preparations for the King Fathers funeral, including a rehearsal for the funeral procession. I spent the afternoon, lonely planet guide in hand, searching out some of the NGO run projects I’d heard about – buffet lunch at Hagar, and shopping at Daughters of Cambodia and Friends. I was all shopped-out by the time I got to the central market, but it was worth a visit just for the amazing architecture of the distinctive dome.

My second day in Phnom Penh was a Sunday. I hired a tuk tuk for the day, starting at 7am with a visit to Tuol Sleng: S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison where thousands of political prisoners were interrogated, tortured and killed in the most grizzly and inhumane circumstances. What struck me most was how ordinary the setting felt. Despite the photographs and displays it was still easier to imagine these buildings as a school than as a place of fear and death. The most overwhelming thing was seeing the faces of the victims, seeing the fear, hope, and defiance in their eyes. The Khmer Rouge were nothing if not meticulous about record keeping, and so we now have room after room of photographs, along with paintings, clothing and signed ‘confessions’ extracted by force. This was a place of death and of unanswerable questions.

I escaped Tuol Sleng just as the tourist buses started arriving, glad to have had a quiet morning to reflect. I headed across the road to the ICF church for their morning service. I felt like I was moving from death to life, from a place of sorrow to a place of peace and hope. It was so good to meet with other Christians; to worship the living God, not a god of stone, and to hear words of truth about reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness and grace.

With my heart refreshed and strengthened, I was ready to face the Killing fields, a bumpy, backstreet tuk-tuk ride 20 minutes out of Phnom Penh. For many people held at Tuol Sleng by the Khmer Rouge, this was where the journey ended – with false hope of a new life, and a tragic, brutal and undignified death. In an otherwise peaceful field, stands a tall, glass sided structure containing 17 levels of bones – just some of the remains discovered in mass graves at this one site. The audio tour was incredibly moving, leading visitors on a quiet, personal journey around the site, explaining what happened there and sharing the stories of those who lived to tell of their experiences.

From Phnom Penh I took the bus to Kompong Thom, a small rural town half way between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. My main reason for stopping here was the same reason for my coming to Cambodia in the first place – to meet my World Vision sponsored child. After a night listening to Geckos chatting in the rafters of my little bungalow at Sambor Village, I was picked up by World Vision staff and driven an hour out of town to Stong district, to visit some of their area development projects. I cannot speak highly enough of the work that World Vision are doing. It was fantastic to see the way that vulnerable communities are being empowered. I was particularly impressed by the fact that all of the staff were young Cambodians who were passionate about using their skills, education and time to bring positive change for their own people – not a foreign aid worker in sight! Meeting my sponsored child was a somewhat surreal experience, and I was acutely aware of the language barrier. Of course we had a translator, but I would have loved to have been able to chat with her properly. She was quite shy – though I could sense a quite strength in her that I hope will see her through the challenges she is facing.

Siem Reap was the next stop; two days to do the tourist thing in the land of Angkor. And with a list of must-see’s to tick off I got sick. Just a cold, but it was enough to knock me out for a bit. On my first day, nose running, I spent nearly ten hours clambering around the Angkor temples. Up and down steep stairs, through passages and chambers, over crumbling stone and teetering walls engulfed by tree-roots. These are the sights that tourists come to Cambodia to see. So I joined the tourist hoards trying to capture the perfect photograph, trying to understand the sense of wonder that brings people back here for a second or third visit.

There is no doubt that the ruins of Angkor are hugely significant and represent a major feat of engineering. And in the few moments you are alone, away from the tour-groups and post-card sellers, you can imagine how amazing it would have been for the explorers who discovered this place hidden in the jungle. However, I couldn’t rouse myself to feel any great emotional connection with this place – not with the stone, or with the history. My focus, and my camera lens, kept being drawn away from the temples and towards the people living there.

Near the end of the day my tuk tuk driver stopped at what must have been my 10th temple – this one was never finished, abandoned during construction. As I dragged my self-up yet another step stair case I found myself mumbling, “why am I bothering with this unwanted pile of stone, I’m hot, hungry, dirty & tired – I’d rather go back to my hotel!”. But as I got to the top of the first level, I was met by a little girl in school uniform, the ubiquitous basket of bracelets around her neck. “Hello, where are you from… come, I will show you where to take photos.” She took me by the hand and started chatting – her sales pitch abandoned, she just wanted to hang out. So we had ourselves a little photo-shoot. As she bossed me around, instructing me how to pose and showing me over the ruins, she shared a bit about her life and her dreams to be a writer. This is what I came to Cambodia for, people, not temples.

On my second day in Siem Reap I abandoned my travel to-do-list and gave myself permission to have the day off.  As much as I was looking forward to exploring Tonle Sap and the floating villages, the thought of another 6am start was more than I could handle with my head full of cold. After a good long sleep in and a morning of rest I revived enough to head into town for a nice lunch, a spot of shopping and a free tour of an artisan school. And that was it. It was a good lesson in slowing down and being, rather than doing.

Another bus trip took me to Battambang, a great little town to the west of Tonle Sap. I stayed at Battambang My Homestay, where the owners, a retired lawyer and his wife, took care of me like family. Just before sun set I took a ride into the country side on the bamboo train – essentially a flimsy bamboo platform on sets of wheels with a motor that runs along the warped and broken French-built rail line. Wind in my hair and bugs in my face, I felt like I could relax and just enjoy the moment for the first time since I had set out on my own. I loved the slower pace of life in Battambang and the fact that I could easily explore the town by foot.

On my second evening I hired a tuk tuk driver to take me out to Phnom Sampaeu – a limestone outcrop topped with a temple complex. A quick motorbike ride up the path took me to the Killing Caves, the site of yet more Khmer Rouge atrocities. Like the Killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, this site was used as a mass grave – people were bludgeoned at the top of the hill and their bodies thrown down a hole into a cave that was once used by the locals as a theatre during harvest festivals. The cave is now a memorial and a place of worship, with a reclining golden Buddha taking centre stage. Further up the Hill, amongst the cluster of temples buildings, lives a troupe of macaques, “monkey people”, with a partiality for bananas. I spent some time feeding the monkeys and taking in the views of the Cambodian countryside before heading down to the base of the hill to claim my spot for the sunset show. Every evening, at about 6pm, hundreds of thousands of bats start their nightly commute from a cave in the side of Phnom Sampaeu in search of food. In perfect synchronicity they streamed out of the cave as a giant, continuous, snaking swarm. After five or so minutes watching the bats fly overhead from the mouth of the cave, my driver took me to another spot in a field where I could watch the snake of bats skimming along the treeline and off into the distance. I watched until it was nearly too dark to see and they were still streaming out as I left the field. What an unforgettable sight.

Back to Phnom Penh for my last day and half. I spent much of the 8 hour bus ride down chatting with the guy next to me who was a really interesting character; a well-travelled architect-turned-acupuncturist from New Orleans on a spiritual journey to discover god in the Hindu Vedas. Arriving in Phnom Penh this time was like coming home. It was really nice to know where I was going and how things worked (and how much to pay for a tuk tuk!).

Several months before coming to Cambodia I had contacted World Vision to organise the visit with my sponsored child. I had also asked if it was possible to meet with my previous sponsored child, Sokha, who had grown up and left the programme. At the time they told me that the chances of finding her were not great. However, a week after leaving New Zealand, they emailed to say that they had found her and would be happy to arrange a meeting. So on my last day in Cambodia I had the immense privilege of meeting 20-year-old Sokha, her husband, mother and father. It really was a very special day with a beautiful family. It was such an encouragement to see that she was happy, healthy, and planning a bright future within a loving family. Her family were very open about sharing their lives with me, and were curious about life in New Zealand. I left feeling very blessed to have this connection with Cambodia, far beyond the usual tourist experience.

Cambodia is a country of fragile hope, trying to find its way forward amidst the ghosts of the past and the challenges of modern South East Asia. As I flew out of Phnom Penh I prayed for the people and thanked God for walking with me and opening up doors all along my journey – I may have been travelling on my own, but I was never alone.


Tags: battambang, cambodia, kompong thom, phnom penh, siem reap, temples, world vision


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