For five years, until mid-2018 I either travelled or lived in Asia. With an exception of a nine-month startup experiment in San Francisco, I’ve spent all of that time with my girlfriend (now, wife) Betty.
After selling and tossing five cubic feet of things we didn’t really need from our former Toronto apartment, Betty and I moved to China. She flew there first, I met her three months later. Dalian was our home base, from which we travelled via bus, boat, train, and plane across the country and into Japan and Korea. Followed by a few weeks of travel heading south along China’s eastern provinces, through Vietnam, towards Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Backpacking, stretching the dollar. For some, it’s a way to meet and understand diverse cultures and their peoples. Others like the consistent flow of novel sights, smells, and sounds. Of course, there are also opportunities to think freely, do no paid work, or just have fun. Naturally, this warrants stepping out of comfort zone, not just financially, but also when thinking of personal safety. Those fears are rarely warranted although certain facts, such as road safety, military, police, and criminal activities are good things to consider.
And so, nine months after leaving Toronto, we are on a bus coming to a stop at a border crossing.
We walk into a small building located in a field of grass and dry, red mud. A few questions later we walk out on the other side with a pair of handsome Cambodian visa stickers.
At the hostel, we unpack and take off to study the city.
Its streets are wide and empty. The yellow and red brick is oozing with heatwaves. The shadows are sparse. It feels as if we are in a ghost town, surrounded by well cared for Buddhist temples and government buildings.
Whenever there are people along the way, their gaze follows our steps. And if they happen to be a tuk-tuk driver, they walk along, looking to sell a fare. Annoyed by their dull relentlessness, having to decline a ride every odd minute, we escape to the side streets.
A small shop, selling pizza and milkshakes offer us refreshments laced with marijuana. Why not. We drink our potions and buy a big handful of weed for ten US dollars.
The heat starts to swallow me whole, sense of direction gone, and short-term memory is as brittle as a thin sheet of ice. By the time we made it back to our bunk beds, I am tripping balls.
The killing fields.
✪ Warning: graphic descriptions of violence follow.
We ride our rental scooter through downtown past the school kids on expensive Ducati motorcycles. Then on dirt roads and potholes, up until a dusty parking lot.
At the fields, we’re given audio guides and asked to walk a shaded path along the manicured grass dunes.
The voice in the headphones introduces himself as a man who fled Cambodia as a child during the 1980s. His story began with someone getting publicly murdered with a kitchen knife. That murder, among millions more, was the result of a terror that had poisoned the blood of every man, woman, and child during the Khmer Rouge genocide. A quarter of the entire country’s population was lost.
The voice continues, revealing the dunes as mass graves, where thousands of bloodied human bodies piled, while propaganda blasted out of the speakers above. The executors used crude farming instruments and spike-edged plants that they ripped the throats of their victims apart with. The voice invited me to walk over to the bush and touch one of the leaves. It felt like an edge of aloe vera, sharp with thorns.
Before walking into the former makeshift prison for the remainder of the tour, a thick tree with light-coloured bark sprawled above the grass. That tree, the voice said, was what they used to smash babies’ skulls against.
The prison is a set of empty rooms, some with the remaining beds, shackles, and makeshift barriers along with photographs of the prisoners. A few foreigners are amongst them, supposed spies and war photographers.
The final exhibit is a ten-metre-tall outdoor cabinet, with a few smaller ones around, filled with human skulls and bones.
Christmas in Sihanoukville.
With all of that terrifying knowledge and a new understanding of Cambodian history, our trip continued towards the southernmost beach town.
There, we let our toes sink into the fine white sand and be washed with the emerald-coloured sea waves no more than five inches high. Our lunch is squid, the softest I’ve ever had. I’m used to the weed, no longer tripping balls. We smoke, talk, and think a lot. Paranoid, I glance at the t-shirt and shoes left on the sand as I dive into the shallow waters to look at tiny fish swarming near the shores as the light sparkles at the very tips of the emerald waves.
In the evening, before we decide to splurge for a nice six-dollar dinner by the beach, our glance catches the rows of older fat white men, orange with unhealthy amounts of tan and shiny with lotion. They were getting massages from Cambodian women. The sun fades; a queue of elderly, disabled locals form an orderly line, combing through the beach. They are followed by the children who’d come over on their behalf, begging for change. Once gone, the dinner is served like clockwork, by a boy who also offers every single table a hand-rolled joint for a dollar.
We eat and watch our first sky lantern float quietly into the black of night.
Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.
After a few days of melancholy mixed with bliss in Sihanoukville, we arrive via nightly bus in Siem Reap, a small town bordering the UNESCO World Heritage site. Somehow during the ride one of the passengers got her purse stolen. Betty clinched hers hard through the dark, keeping it safe.
Our motive is Angkor Archaeological Park, which is a city of temple ruins, similar to Bagan in Myanmar.
Through the heat, on our rented old Japanese bicycles, we pedal and explore. Some temples, like Angkor Wat, are jam-packed with chattering tourists. Others, empty, intimate and surreal.
Aside from the old ruins, heat, and trees, there are people living off the land; we get to meet their kids.
Back in Phnom Penh, we bought a bag of candy for the children playing in the dirt, adorable and hungry. Some of it made it with us to Angkor, where Betty offered it to a kid standing in an empty grass field. Moments later, a small crowd engulfed her until she ran out of treats and another foreigner stopped, peaking the sneaky little scavengers’ interest again.
Eventually, our three-day passes to the park run out, concluding the sweaty exploratory adventures of the jungle, its ancient ruins, and the people within. We settle at a small hotel with smelly sewers and a well-spoken owner, across from a local college. There are open sewers on both sides of the road of red sand and gravel; a guy with no shirt is barbecuing meat in a restaurant nearby.
The new year’s eve rolls in and we hit the streets of Siem Reap to see what’s what.
Along the main avenue, small groups of people with a variety of disabilities conjugate to form musical trios and quartets. The shops open their doors wide, the town market bustles with tourists and the fireworks begin to crackle. Within an hour the block transforms into a roaring party, evenly saturated with foreigners and the locals, both ecstatic to welcome the year 2014.
The last few days.
Amongst our travels along Cambodian roads, we visit Battambang, a small town described on a few travel blogs as “charming.”
There we felt claustrophobic, sick from spoiled food and melancholic from the sight of toddlers sifting through town trash. From then on, the word charming has become something of an inside joke.
Undoubtedly, Cambodia made a lasting impression. Home to many sorrows and joys, beautiful, poor, and surreal.