Weeks 23-25: Cambodia or, A pensive walk through history

 

I haven’t posted in four weeks and I’ve done very little writing during that time. I think I was too busy living to stop and put it all down on paper. On the flip side, I am now also excited for the next two weeks back in Manila for a bit of a travel break. It will give me time to reflect back and take in everything I have experienced and learned in the last month. I’m filled to the brim with memorable experiences to share.

I spent two weeks in Cambodia with my partner (Aug 12th-24th) and 6 days Island hopping in the Visayas, here in my country of residence (Aug 25th- 31st). I am posting today on my trip to Cambodia and will write about my week by the ocean shortly.

 

Cambodia Itinerary

Landed in Siem Reap

4 days in siemp reap

3 days in Phnom Penh

1.5 days Shianoukville

2 .5 days in Koh Ron-Lonely beach

1 day Shianouville

1 day in Siem Reap

You will note here that most of this trip followed the tourist route. We decided to stick to this more conventional itinerary as we had limited time to plan and, as my partner gets very limited vacation time, we wanted a hassle free trip to maximize relaxation and rest.

Siem Reap-Angkor : Take my breath away

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Angkor Wat and surrounding temples are famous, and for a reason. We spent most of our time in Siem Reap and Angkor (which are nearby to each other) exploring the temples. It was absolutely breath taking. True, there are many tourists and you are never alone in your exploration, but having gone at the burgeoning of the rainy season we managed to avoid long line ups, most of the time. We visited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Phnom Bakheng, the elephant terrace, Ta Prohm and Bantay Srei. A friend who spent the better part of one year travelling in South East Asia had recomended that we not try to see everything but rather explore at our own pace. He also recommended we cycle around angkor. What great recommendations those were! While we did hire a Tuk Tuk on our last day to see the women’s temple (Bantay Srei), which is a bit further away, the bike rides allowed us to fully take in the beauty of not only the temples themselves, but also of the surrounding, encraoching jungle. That way it was easy to stop and take pictures or simply take in the inspiring energy envelopping the whole area. I recommend biking through Angkor to anyone who feels so inclined.

biking

That being said, Siem Reap is also an interesting city to visit. With it’s colonial history, the architecture is interesting. Its popularity as a tourist destination means cool shops and commercialized markets abound. Nevertheless, we spent most of our time in Angkor proper. Angkor was the expereince of a life time taking in this testimony to the power of faith, visiting the largest religious structure in the world.

Personnally, I would have limited our tour of Angkor to two days, as exploring ruins, though magnificient felt a bit repetitive after the second day. My partner, though, was desirous of seeing more, more temples further into the jungle, and I am not sorry I agreed to keep going. We also visited the history museum in Siem Reap and roamed the streets at night. The museum truly enriched our experience and understanding of the meaning of the temples we visited.

Phnom Penh : a glimpse at the complexities of a nation

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The Phnom Penh portion of the trip was to me, a very educational one. I enjoyed meandering along the road bordering the Tonle river, seeing the central market and visiting the art history museum, but the highlight was definately S-21. If you don’t know this already, S-21 was the main torture camp under the Khmer Rouge,  where thousands of people were disapeared, tortured and killed. Visitng S-21 is hard. Frequenters of the memorial site are not spared, The audio guide details the events that took place in this harrowing place, adding to the heaviness of the experience. That being said, it was well done, honest and full of encouragement for visitors to take breaks, step outside for a moment or stop their visit at any time. While survivors wait at the end of the tour to greet you, it did not feel exploitative. All efforts were made, it seems, to reconstruct the meaning of S-21 with the explicit objective of transforming all those who walk through it’s hallways today, witnesses to history towards a collective resistance to its reoccurrence henceforth.

I am sure there are political objective woven into this project, perhaps towards consolidating the legitimacy of the sitting prime minister  and royal family or for garnering support of the international community. This inital thought made me question the choices of what was detailed and what elements may have been left out.

I’ve worked with multiple survivors of genocide in my early career a a social worker. I also volunteered with an oral history project, documenting the experiences of witnesses of the Rwandan genocide. With this in mind, I particularly appreciated the effort of S-21 curators in recording for visitors the narratives of individuals who directly or indirectly witnessed S-21 in the late 70’s, emphasizing these voices over those of academic experts. If we are to bare witness to atrocities, we must first and foremost give up space for those who carry the heaviest cost of those events. I thought this memorial met it’s objective with profound dignity.

In addition to visiting S-21, in the Cambodian Capital we saw the royal palace and expored the art museum, all of which felt like an important aspect of any trip : ensuring that I educate myself in one way or the other, of the land and people, who’s spaces I am trespassing on. If anything, though difficult to put into words exactly, the kind of trip I had helped me get a glimpse into the complexities, nuances and contradictions which inevitably form the history of any country, and it’s current impact on human experience within it’s borders and beyond. I will surely be comming back to these encounters long after my year in South East Asia has ended.

 

Shianoukville-Passing through for a drink or two

This beach town wasn’t my favorite. It definitely shares that feel that most other beach resort destinations in South East Asia have. The experience sold here is packaged similarly to Phuket or other such locations. But of course, it is also unique. And, I am glad I went, but not sorry that we were only passing through on our way elsewhere. I did enjoy the opportunity to sink into cushioned seats, directly on the beach, by restaurants that line the coast while sipping fruity drinks. The beach is nice but my more recent trip in the Visayas definitely filled my beach craving much better than Shianoukville ever could. If you want a cool beach town with a side order of tourist party central, Shianoukville is the palce to be and a little less crowded than it’s thai counter part.

 

Lonely Beach-Getting lost with ease

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Probably my favorite destination of the whole trip. Lonely beach is housed on the far side of Koh Ron and completely away from the party central located on the island’s continent-facing coast. Rented and built up by a completely charming couple, Lonely beach is a set of hand built bungalows, complete with a pristine beach, warm staff and an unlikely grouping of peculiar travellers. If you like beautiful beaches but are looking for a more remote experience then beach resort destinations, but lack the local know-how to find less advertized sites, I highly recommend this place. The accomodation is fully solar powered, bucket shower equipped and offers quiet and peaceful times.There isn’t much to do there, unless you decide to help out with building or any other tasks that patrons can engage in. Bring a good book and some board games if that’s your thing. It is even possible to stay for free or very low cost through a service exchange, pretty much whatever skills you have to offer. Time in our porch’s hammock looking out onto the beach was relaxing, talking to the residents and visitors stimulating and a great source of information on more adventurous trip possibilities. Lonely beach is what my dream society looks like, I could not recommend it enough.

Back in Siem Reap-visiting the floating village

I don’t usually opt to visit people’s homes through an organized tour. I see some ethical problems with that kind of activity. That being said, my partner was curious and I was in-shut-your-moral-compass-enjoy-your-vacation mode. I don’t necessarily want to encourage people to visit floating villages as a rule, but I did enjoy seeing the structures built-up on stilts higher then the average tree and wondering how a house can balance and endure atop such a seemingly precarious base. We also paddled through an endless mangrove made all the more eerie and beautiful by the early rain season’s high waters. I offer no pictures here for obvious ethical reasons.

Our days on this trip were filled but we also kept our schedule very flexible. I am learning that while some travellers like to pack it all in, I am more selective. I enjoy sight seeing, but I don’t want to spend a whole trip doing this. Instead, I prefer to balance tourist sites with walking around in the city, stopping for a beverage or food and letting chance encounters work their magic. I like discovering a city or town through talking to the people I meet randomly. On this trip our flexibility meant some evenings we stayed in, discussing our experiences so far, or skipping a planned activity to do whatever it is that we were feeling more up to on that given day. I am learning to indulge in my laziness sometimes, and listen with loving compassion to the inch of wisdom wedged into the programmed impression that it is shameful to stay in when you have a single opportunity to discover a new place. Like all things in life, I guess I’m discovering my travels are most fruitful when I’ve packed away some moderation into my luggage.

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