Down From the Mountains: A Holiday in Cambodia

“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories”Ray Bradbury

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        The bags were packed, the hiking boots ditched and the remnants of my Nepali money depleted slowly down to a few mere scraps – capable nothing more than purchasing some last snacks and the meagre taxi fare to the capital’s airport. The horizon lingered once again. Following seven weeks of travelling in Nepal it was time to hit the road to the East; this meant a one-way ticket to the heat of Bangkok and a goodbye to my recent comrade of adventure-travel Bryan. Me and the flying Dutchman from Rotterdam had now spent almost two months together in close companionship as we trudged up 5000m hiking trails and collectively threw our insides up into smelly toilets. The struggles had been real – the kinship of two like-minded dreamers bonded in a chaotic mix of mighty mountains, smelly socks, draining bus rides, humorous insights and cultural exploring. I often imagined myself to always travel as a solo wanderer under the romantic pretense of being some lone wolf or extradited renegade; but having spent some time travelling together with another fellow wanderer, I could feel the strange sensation in my stomach as we parted ways. It had been nice to share the experience for once with someone so similar in mindset, humour and style. Sure, there are negotiations and democratic decisions to be made during this kind of travel that may feel limiting in freedom to the solo traveller, but conversely there are plenty of experience-enhancing positives too – especially when sharing the journey with a person on the same frequency as you. “Happiness is only real when shared – not a phrase I’ve always agreed with, but definitely something that I thought of when standing under the immense enormity of Mount Everest with my travelling companion – both in awe of the world-class views and perfect silence we were gifted with following our two week pilgrimage through the mountains. However, despite such sentiment, the road is long and both of us still are fiercely independent at our cores – and no doubt we were both ready to head out alone into the wilderness of solo travel once more. Hunt the horizon; kick the tarmac. Safe travels brother.

Tomb Raiding

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exploring the temple

          Despite my scheduled flight to Thailand via Delhi, my destination was in actual fact Cambodia – it just so happened that is was considerably cheaper to fly to Bangkok and take an eight hour bus across the border to Siem Reap: a Cambodian top destination due to the proximity of the mysterious, ancient and beautiful Angkor Wat temple. It was the sort of place you imagined from an Indiana Jones movie, or more aptly Tomb Raider with the first movie actually having been filmed there. You know the sort of thing – old, weathered ancient ruins with tree roots snaking through them; lizards scuttering around into cracks and holes; a general feeling of being attacked by some ancient, tribal guy with a spear. I had wanted to visit for a few years so as I headed off at 4.30am in the dark on a bicycle with three guys I had just met, I could feel the rush of blood in my veins. Perhaps this was due to excitement, or the four Pro-Plus caffeine tablets I had just taken to combat the lack of sleep from the first few nights; either way, I was ready for a day of adventure.

        The reason we were heading off so early was to get to the main temple Angkor
Wat for the sunrise so we could watch the sun come up over the temple whilst reflecting symmetrically upon the water. It would make a good view and introduction to the temple ruins, and of course provide us with a perfect opportunity for the superficial photos taken probably a million times already.

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Unfortunately – after battling through puddles and darkness while taking a 4km detour to get the $37 day ticket – we arrived just after the sunrise; something that didn’t matter too much anyway due to the overcast weather. Still, we now had all day to explore the myriad temples of this fascinating and mysterious place. We crossed the moat of water to the main temple and began to explore. It was instantly easy to see why this place had the reputation of ‘king of all temples’ or religious sites; the architecture, design and general atmosphere of the atavistic buildings danced and dazzled with style. Monolithic towers and spear-like pillars rose high from the centre as they lay surrounded with a labyrinth and maze of columns, rooms, squares and hidden areas that you could spend hours exploring. The temple itself was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Angkor, the capital of the ancient Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to the Hindi god Vishnu. And at almost one thousand years old, you really felt transported back to another era of human civilisation while exploring the temple ruins.

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After a couple of hours and some breakfast beside the temple, the four of us jumped on the bicycles again and headed off further into the lush jungle area that housed the various temples and ruins of the Khmer Empire. People had told me how vast the complex of temples was, and it’s fair to say my expectations were met as we spent long amounts of time and sweat peddling from one site to another. Each location revealed more and more captivating ruins and beautiful, ancient architecture. From big, individual temples to small, separate ruins scattered sporadically in the jungle – there was plenty to see and get lost in. All were unique and interesting in their own way and style, but the highlight for me had to be the Ta Prohm temple that lay deep in the jungle amid the clutches of nature. The old, weathered temple lay hidden among the trees whereby the large, snake-like roots of the jungle had wriggled and wrapped around the tattered ruins which consequently showcased a truly awe-inspiring spectacle of nature taking back and consuming man-made construction. It was beautiful, evocative and fascinating to observe and explore such a mix of ancient cultural human structures amid wild nature – a true coming together of two worlds. Although I was recommended to stay a few days, I felt that one long and sweaty day of exploring the temples was sufficient and was ready to move on to the next destination.

The Horrors of Genocide

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      Following the temple exploration and a couple nights of partying in Siem Reap, I left my new friends and headed solo again to the capital of Phonm Penh – a pleasant but rather bland place as far as Asian cosmopolitan cities go. The primary reason backpackers frequented the capital however was to learn more about the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s while visiting the notorious ‘Killing Fields’ and ‘S21 Prison’ – two places of sobering sadness that showcased the true depraved depths humans can sink to on the pursuit of political or dogmatic ideology. Having visited slave castles in Ghana and Auschwitz in Poland before, I knew the gravity of going to places of systematic murder and unspeakable cruelties; it was never a normal visit, and parts of it almost feel wrong to go and glare around as a privileged tourist, but ultimately it’s profoundly necessary as a human-being to learn more about history and the atrocities committed by regimes so that you yourself can recognise the story of a country while educating yourself against the tyranny of certain ideologies and fascist movements in the hope such acts can never be repeated.

           We arrived first at the killing fields just outside of the city to take the audio tour around the seemingly peaceful grounds. Entering the gates the first sight that awaits you is of a path of lined trees, a distant white stupor and the peaceful sound of birds tweeting amongst the trees waving gently amongst the breezing wind. Such a bucolic sight only hides the traumatic history of the fields that were one of many used by Pol Pot’s fascist communist regime the Khmer Rouge to brutally murder their fellow citizens in whatever way possible. After spreading and taking control of the country in in 1975, the guerilla party would continually use places like this to ‘cleanse’ the population of intellectuals, city dwellers, capitalists, ‘traitors’ and anybody who didn’t fit into the agrarian ideal of Pol Pot’s new society. Those who didn’t die of disease and malnutrition after being exiled from the cities, would be taken to places like the killing fields to be hacked, stabbed and beaten to death with blunt instruments and even pieces of tree bark – the party displaying their sickening nonchalance in the systematic killing of their own people and species. Mass graves were sporadically located around the fields where bodies would be thrown into pits after being killed, or sometimes buried alive. Rather disturbingly, one tree adorned a sign saying ‘the killing tree’ – informing visitors that it was used to beat and kill small children against. Even the stupor stood tall showcasing the countless bones and skulls of victims.

 

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         A walk around the place as well as the equally sickening S21 Prison is truly shocking and leaves one in disbelief about how other human beings could be so blind, brainwashed and hateful to commit such heinous crimes against humanity. For a long time I have had my own indifference with ideology and ‘belief’, and have been trying to figure out my own rules of thinking to keep me free of repressive and immoral dogma. For me the visit helped me realise I can’t transfer any serious loyalty to any static belief of any kind; in the words of one of my favourite philosophers Terence Mckenna: My technique is don’t believe anything. If you believe in something, you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite”. Apply logic and a constant state of questioning/reasoning through pure, personal direct experience and then maybe we could move beyond such immaturity and evil and not leave our minds open to being brainwashed against universal right and wrong by an external power. But then again, all is takes is a small few to manipulate a vulnerable few through ideology, lies, exploitation of ego, lack of education and then (no matter how educated you are) you are being herded like a sheep to the slaughter – exactly what the Khmer Rouge did as their young, naive soldiers were recruited, used and exploited by an older, scheming individual who told them their existence was of greater value than somebody else. The classic ego deception. Will our species ever have peace? Or are we forever doomed by ego, belief and desire? I guess there is no easy answer, although I had to appreciate the era of peacetime in the western world I had grew up in. Technology and the internet certainly gives people the opportunity to become more informed and less vulnerable to ideology and propaganda in these instances, although the advancement of these things also herald new threats and issues. As always, there are no easy answers to the insanity of humanity.

Setting Sun

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        Following the visit to Phnom Penh, I was due to head south to the coast of Cambodia to enjoy some ‘holiday time’ – you know the sort of thing: beach, sun, beers and being lazy. It had been over one year since I had been to the coast and was looking forward to spending some days by the beach. I took a bus to Sihanoukville and then a ferry to the island of Koh Rong Samleon which was supposed to be a beautiful, tropical island that was not too crowded or busy. Arriving onto shore I have to say it looked exactly that; the island centre adorned a wealth of greenery enlightened by the Asian sun as the pure white beaches serenaded the coastline. The water itself had the classic, crystal clarity of South-East Asia; it was even nice to see that the island itself, unlike many in SEA, had little infrastructure and development upon it – even no internet at the hostel I was staying at (meaning backpackers had to actually interact and socialise a bit more than usual). The place I was staying at was a party hostel and it immediately lived up to its rep with an arrival area where there were around one hundred travellers partying every day. The days were spent lounging around either by the beach, on the hammock, at the bar or playing volleyball before a big party every evening that always led back down to the beach after midnight to chill out and observe the luminous plankton that shone in neon blue underneath the water when disturbed. I was having fun of course, but ultimately I felt a thought that I had gradually began to feel as I made from transition of travelling in Nepal to Cambodia. I had begun to felt a bit unfilled and that ‘something was missing’.

         Now I don’t ever want to be one of these pretentious backpackers who denounces the consumerist culture of collecting ‘things’ but then entertains the same philosophy by bragging about how well-travelled they are – these people are plentiful on the backpacker trail and are a constant bore. Travelling in South-East Asia can be amazing; it is a beautiful, eclectic place rich of culture, history and fun things to see and do. It is a great place to travel – especially with the strong infrastructure and cheap costs which makes a first trip abroad an ideal place. However, after getting sucked immediately back into the culture of constant partying, often empty conversations (the generic shallow ‘what’s your name – where you from’), relentless harassment of people who see you as a walking $ sign and samey itineraries, I felt like I would much rather be doing something else in the realm of adventure travel. It is very much a personal thing but after experiencing travel in a few different places, I began to feel a bit disenfranchised with the backpacker culture here. As I walked alone down the shore of the island on my second day on the island, I was certain something just wasn’t right and that this trip alone in Cambodia would be enough for now. I wanted something more than just general lounging around and drifting for humid months on end – something that the trekking in Nepal had fulfilled. My thoughts swam back to touring on a bicycle – something I have daydreamed about for a long time since my last trip a few years ago. So although this place is a great place to travel and I respect everyone who comes and experiences a South-East Asia trip, for me my eyes linger to the horizon once again. The sun sets and I finish another couple of days of partying and relaxing on this beautiful tropical island. I met many great people here, experienced an immensely friendly and happy people (especially considering the recent history of the country) and had fun times –  but for me it was time to finish the drinks, dry off the sand and take a boat and bus back to mainland and the capital. Thanks Cambodia, but this holiday is over for now. Onto the next adventure.

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