Cambodia was powerful. We arrived at the hottest, driest time of the year, just before the monsoon season, and everything glowed red: the sun, the sky, the roads, the dust, the light. Our group disembarked from the plane and began a long walk along the tarmac to the terminal. You can’t really prepare yourself for heat like this except by being in it. You guzzle drink after cold drink, futilely wave a fan in front of your face, and just submit to it. It forces a person to slow down.
(I’m beginning this story in the middle. Our trip started in Vietnam, and then we traveled through Cambodia, and returned to Vietnam. I wanted each country to have its own narrative.)
Our first day we explored the famed temples of Angkor Wat. It was crowded, and in the heat I didn’t always have the patience for that. I love to be quiet at a temple or a church. Once it’s relegated to tourism, it seems that respect is lost in translation. But some of the less popular temples, like those above, were fascinating to explore. I loved learning about their iteration of Buddhism, heavily influenced by Hinduism and a native animism, on display in the many bas relief carvings adorning the walls of the temple. It’s like mythology and visual history written into the rock.
And there were little pockets of quiet to be found, like those above.
Angkor Wat means City of Temples, and it still functions as a place where people live and work. I loved that.
Gorgeous work folding unopened lotus buds into geometric flowers.
In the evenings we retreated to the lush green of our magnificent hotel. The contrast between Cambodia’s struggle and our manicured oasis was striking. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it; it was all the more appreciated.
And in the mornings, delightful breakfasts like these in the relative cool of 85 degrees. I loved making my own bowl of muesli and loading it up with so many amazing tropical fruits.
Our first night on the boat. Half of the trip was by land and air, and half the trip was by boat along the wide, magnificent Mekong River, which snakes through six countries in Asia, beginning in China and ending in Vietnam.
We visited an orphanage. The kids first sang for us, awkwardly and hilariously, looking tougher than their ages and a little disaffected. Perhaps they were tired of putting on a show for the tourists. Then, one by one they partnered with us, and let their guards down a little. The boy above on the left grabbed my hand and marched me forward with purpose across a courtyard. He wanted to show me some art that he had made. Little ink drawings of pastoral scenes, knotted macrame bracelets.
This was one of my favorite days. We visited a school and then toured the small village behind the school where the kids lived. The kids had questions prepared for us, written on paper, to practice their English. I told the girl who asked me what my favorite food was that I love vegetables. When I asked her what her favorite food was, she said rabbits and cats.
One of the most special moments for me was when we were welcomed into a home in the village. It was an amazing experience. Nothing is as refreshing or rich as the honor of being invited into the private domestic space of a family who lives so differently from me. It was so intimate, and they seemed so honored. It was especially fascinating and humbling to peruse their kitchen, a series of pots, tubs, and dishes in a covered outdoor space at the rear of the home.
Life along the Mekong.
Many of the houses in the countryside are built on stilts to accommodate the annual monsoon flooding. In the hot, dry season, families spend their daytime hours in the slightly cooler space beneath the home.
Outside a temple. Our wonderful local guide Sim told us that something like 60% of the population over 40 in Cambodia suffer from PTSD from the horrors of Pol Pot. It has put my good fortune in sharp relief.
I wasn’t really prepared for Cambodia. For its poverty, for its struggle to regain a sense of sure-footedness after the terrors of Pol Pot and his regime, for the heat, for the grace and humility of so many of the people that I met. It is hard, from afar, to convey the sense of a place whose struggle is still so naked and evident. And I think this is where travel is powerful in a way that media can’t be. It was a great lesson in humility and resilience.
Stay tuned for Part Two: Vietnam!
A huge thank you to Viking River Cruises, who graciously sent my father and I on this amazing journey. This is a personal narrative, and the opinions, writing, and photography are entirely my own.