Let me start by saying this. There is so much beauty, and so much friendliness and warmth, in Cambodia.
There are the world’s most magnificent temples, some gorgeous beaches, and the stunning tranquility of places like the Areng Valley and Kampot riverfront, where it’s easy to pass several days–or a lifetime.
There is a vibrancy and richness: in street food, clothing, dance, literature, and, especially, in music, of both the traditional and contemporary (and streetside karaoke) variety. (For a look at this, we recommend the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten).
(And, in the cities, there are enough nightlife, luxury lodging, and restaurant options to make any Westerner feel at home.)
But in Cambodia, there is also a horrific legacy and present-day plunder that no façade—Westernized or otherwise—can hide.
Alongside rising prosperity, there is significant poverty; alongside modernization, there is environmental devastation, threatening communities and wildlife country-wide.
And alongside collective healing from genocide—one that claimed the lives of one fourth of the population—there is struggle to preserve precious land and resources, which the autocratic government is selling out to the highest bidder. (Mainly China).
To visit Cambodia was challenging, and often uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. But it also reminded me why we travel. We do it to better understand our world and its history, and the many forces (including American-perpetuated atrocities) that have shaped it.
We do it to see wonders that we only once knew through books and media—and to discover new ones. We travel to push our own limits and open ourselves up to transformation. To learn.
And to share what we’ve learned with others, so that maybe, in some small way, we can give back to the places and people who’ve shaped us on our journey.
Buckle up, y’all, for a ride through Cambodia. It’s wild.
We’ll start in Siem Reap.
This once-sleepy town is now the bustling resort hub for visits to Angkor Wat.
No doubt you’ve heard of it? It is the most famous temple complex of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor, which was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. Lasting from the 8th until the 15th century, this empire, along with making extensive territorial gains throughout Southeast Asia, also made huge advancements in irrigation and architecture.
Angkor itself was the largest pre-industrialized city in the world. Built in the 12th century, the complex itself became the city’s centerpiece, and today graces the Cambodian flag (along with the selfies of 99 percent of tourists who visit the country).
And for good reason. The complex, with its bas-reliefs and stone work, is stunning—and all the more impressive when you realize it was done entirely by hand.
By 300,000 pairs of hands, in fact. Workers spent over three decades building the sandstone complex, which was meant to resemble Mount Meru, the mythical home of Hindu gods. Inside the temple you’ll also find Hindu elements, including 1,200 meters of carved bas reliefs, illustrating religious tales like “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.”
Built in the 12th century under Khmer king Suryavarman II as his state temple and eventual resting place, Angkor Wat’s origins are indeed Hindu. Yet—like other temples in the Angkor complex—it was converted (peacefully) to a Buddhist place of worship sometime around the mid 13th century. You can see this conversion as you hop from temple to temple, comparing the representation of deities in the bas relief and statue work as you go. Buddhist iconography tends toward the rounder, fuller statues and faces—indeed, some temples show evidence of where such changes were made as religious shifts occurred.
It’s not just the intricate stonework at Angkor that stuns you. It’s also the scale. At its peak, the city sprawled up to 400 square miles. Visiting the more popular temples can take days, due in no small part to the distance between them.
To see the whole complex—including Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm of Tomb Raider fame—would take weeks.
Our temple appetite, however, only went so far (as did our tolerance for battling dozens of other tourists for photo spots in the 90+ degree heat). Fortunately, our tuk-tuk driver and guide, Sokha, designed a two-day sightseeing route with enough variety and rest stops to keep us going.
Our favorite stop was Banteay Srei. Made of red sandstone, it’s a Hindu temple built for the god Shiva.
Its carvings were some of the most elaborate we’d seen so far. Getting there also involved an hour-long tuk-tuk ride, allowing us to see more of the rural countryside (at least when we weren’t clutching our things for fear they’d fall overboard. The ride was real bumpy).
Following Banteay Srai, we checked out a few more temples, and then ended our tour. After two full days of temple-seeing, we had little energy to do much else than lay poolside the next day.
We did come out at night, though, to get a gander at Pub Street.
Depending on your perspective, Pub Street is either playground or spectacle. Pulsating techno and strobe lights emanate from its dozens of clubs and bars, from which smiling hostesses emerge to thrust “free drink” coupons into your hand as you pass.
Fellow Westerners stumbled drunkenly beside us as we meandered down the street, before we finally broke off into a small lane full of mobile bars.
A siren song came from one of them–at least, a siren song compared to the auditory assault we’d just experienced one lane over.
Turns out a Frenchman with good taste had taken over DJ duty at this car bar, and was using its laptop to YouTube some beats.
It also turns out his name was Greg, and that he and his girlfriend Cecile were traveling via motorbike across Vietnam, China, Thailand and Laos, after having taken the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia.
Since he spoke about five words of English, we gleaned most of this from Cecile, as we all downed $2 mojitos and tequila sunrises for the next hour and a half. During that time, Pub Street and its environs got even more lively—and illicit. Several women in tight dresses and impossibly high heels sauntered by us, accompanied by Western men at least twice their age.
(Indeed, thousands of tourists from Europe, North America and Australia visit Cambodia annually for reasons that have nothing to do with ancient temples. Despite being illegal here, prostitution is prevalent in Cambodia.)
Child poverty is also heartbreakingly widespread. And though authorities discourage begging, it occurs, as it did to us that same evening when a couple of boys ran over to our bar car. No more than five or six years old, they cupped their hands together and shook them at us, frowning deeply when we gently shook our heads no.
Sensing our shared shame, Cecile instead coaxed them into dancing with her, and they spun in circles, laughing, until another boy caught their attention down the street. They ran after him, shouting, leaving us to wonder where they might be the rest of the night, and after that, and where their parents were. If they even had anyone to watch out for them, in a city teeming with foreign dollars–and all the harm those can bring.
Soon after that, we all decided to call it a night, as our bar car packed up to drive to more populous quarters (down the street). We said our farewells and Greg and I headed back to our hotel, wondering what to expect when we left Siem Reap.
The next day, we flew nearly 500 miles south to Sihanoukville. (Which we’ll return to later).
After some serious haggling with several “taxi mafia” members at the Sihouknaville Airport, we found a driver willing to shlep us to our next stop, Kampot, for $50. (American dollars are the currency of choice in Cambodia, though all small change is usually made in Cambodian riels. Coins in either currency are nonexistent.).
Turns out the haggling–for a small fortune by Cambodian standards–wasn’t unwarranted. The sixty mile ride took two hours and nearly made a religious woman out of me, seeing how often I prayed we wouldn’t die en route. Asteroid-sized craters pocked the road, and our driver swerved to avoid them with the same finesse as a ten year old playing Mario Kart, throwing us into the way of oncoming semi trucks more than once. My only hope for survival was the driver’s wife, who, from the front seat, scolded him every time he made a risky maneuver.
A former administrative center under the French, who ruled Cambodia during the 19th century, Kampot has a relaxed, colonial vibe.
Much of which has to do with its old shophouse architecture and the Kompong Bay River. The latter winds through town, inviting kayaking, swimming and daily sunset-watching with a drink in hand. We adopted this as a regular practice thanks to Samon’s generous happy hour specials.
Many of Kampot’s 50,000 residents contribute to this colonial, chill vibe as well. The city is an expat haven for Europeans (particularly the French), who have built pizza joints, high end restaurants, and even a world-famous pepper plantation in the area.
We visited La Plantation our second day in town. Borrowing a bike from Samon, we set out mid-morning, the sun already in full force. This time, by daylight, we could finally see the state of Cambodia’s roads, half of which its government classifies as being of “poor” or “bad” quality.
Massive potholes and numerous sections of gravel make journeys tough, especially for motorbikers, who face temporary blindness from all the dust kicked up by passing cars.
Greg and I were coated in dirt by the time we reached the plantation’s drive. We washed ourselves off in the bathrooms and rested on the huge deck until our free tour started.
Led by one of the plantation’s many staff, our group of ten made our way around a property that resembled a Napa vineyard. Carefully monitored, vinelike pepper crops stand sentry-like in rows–a far cry from the “wild growing pepper vines” discovered in tropical climates years ago.
Like grapevines, pepper vines are planted in sections by varietal. These include the red, black, and “long” pepper, which looks like a chili.
The pepper harvest happens mostly between February and May; as with wine grapes, however, the times and processes differ depending on pepper type. Black pepper starts its life as green, but boiling makes it sanitary (and gives it its characteristic color.) And soaking red pepper? Turns it white, and gives it a powerful, pungent bouquet. Which we soon experienced ourselves at the end-of-tour pepper tasting.
I wasn’t super excited about it at first. In the U.S., pepper is like the spice version of Billy Corgan—important to the collective, but a disaster on its own.
Kampot pepper, though? Is more like Beyonce. It’s spicy and intense and rich all at once, and shines alone. Try a taste and you’ll understand how it can transform a dish–or even serve as a “pick me up.” (Indeed, our guide told us that some Kampot locals “eat pepper in the afternoon to help us wake up. It’s better than coffee!”)
After buying a few satchels, we boarded our bike and prepared to trek back to Samon.
Much smoother was the next day’s ride up to Bokor Hill Station in the nearby Damrei Mountains. The trudge used to take ninety minutes on a dirt road, but now takes half the time thanks to 20 miles of smooth, paved racetrack-esque curves laid in 2011.
The temperature dropped as we zoomed up the forested path, which led us by a giant Lady Buddha before plateauing at the station grounds. Built by French settlers as an escape from the heat, the grounds feature a hotel, Catholic church and colonial villas. All still stand in their weathered glory. And offer photo opps aplenty for visitors.
Abandoned in the 1940s but reclaimed again in 1962, the station’s “retreat” status ended for good in 1972. That’s when the Khmer Rouge took over the area–and where, in 1979, they entrenched themselves for the next dozen years against the Vietnamese.
Once symbolizing luxury, the crumbling station now stands like a testament to its tragic past. One in which hundreds of indentured Cambodian workers died building it at the demands of the French, who subjugated the country’s population for nearly ninety years under colonial and “protectorate” rule.
Bokor Hill’s final fall in ’72, though, meant something even worse: the entrenchment of a homegrown regime hell-bent on destroying anything–and anyone–perceived as a threat.
A regime that, in the 1970s, killed two million of its own people. And impacted the country–and every living Cambodian–beyond comprehension, for generations to come.
How did it happen?
How did Cambodia lose a fourth of its population–just two decades after shaking free off France? What brought about its revolutionary fervor–and, in turn, horrific loss?
Cambodia’s genocide is a complex story. But some parts are tragically clear.
Including how the Khmer Rouge used hate to spur their movement. A lot of it directed toward the United States.
And much of it understandable. Our Air Force dropped bombs in Cambodia starting in 1963, but escalated immensely under Nixon’s Operation Freedom Deal, which lasted from May 1970 to August 1973. Initially meant to target border havens for North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong, the bombings later targeted Cambodian communists fighting Prime Minister Lon Nol’s U.S. backed regime. Targeting the entire eastern half of the country, the bombings resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
The bombings also roused anger among rural Cambodians who lost land and loved ones. The Khmer Rouge (officially the Communist Party of Kampuchea) recruited troops from these populations, eventually growing powerful enough to overthrow Lon Nol and end the Cambodian Civil War.
Victory meant that the Khmer Rouge now had free reign to implement their vision: one of a nation free of foreign “invaders,” built on agricultural self-sufficiency.
This vision trumped all. And required elimination of anyone who threatened it.
To the paranoid Khmer Rouge regime (known as “Angkar”), threats came in many forms, including urban and educated Cambodians. (Even Cambodians wearing glasses were suspect because they looked smart).
Angkar forced these suspicious “new people” and their families out of cities and into villages, where they were forced to labor on farms. Children were often moved to separate camps and trained as infantry, while family they left behind were treated like second-class citizens by the village’s “old people” (i.e. members of the rural and impoverished classes that the regime saw as exemplary citizens).
In these villages, you were expected to dedicate your existence to producing for Angkar and greater Kampuchea. Any resistance or slip-up, or the mere perception of one, landed you at places like S-21.
We visited Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, as S-21 Prison is now known, on a balmy afternoon in Phnom Penh. With five multi-story buildings surrounding a large courtyard, the prison has an uncanny familiarity. Come to find out it was once a high school, until the Khmer Rouge converted it into a torture center for over 20,000 prisoners.
The regime even used gym class equipment in torture sessions, which also included waterboarding, electric shocks and suffocation. Absent these abuses, the horrendous conditions left prisoners hungry, diseased and hopeless. Prisoners who included people from every segment of urban Cambodian society, including young children.
Walking through the crude brick cells and seeing photos of the men, women and children once imprisoned within them, you get a sliver of the genocide’s horrors.
Which didn’t end at S-21, nor at the 150 other prisons used by the Khmer Rouge.
They ended at the killing fields.
Here is where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered its prisoners, leaving their bodies piled atop one another in mass graves.
The largest of these fields, Choeung Ek, sits 17 miles outside of Phnom Penh. A massive memorial stupa is at its center, filled with the skulls and bones of some of the 9,000 people exhumed from the nearby grounds in 1980. This number, according to experts, represents only half the people believed to have been killed here.
Touring Choeung Ek means retracing the final steps of these thousands of Cambodians. It means standing where the Khmer Rouge forced them off of vans, which carted them blindfolded from S-21. It means walking over the places they were told to kneel, before being killed with crude, blunt weapons (so as to “save Angkar’s precious bullets”).
Most devastatingly, it means viewing the “killing tree,” where Khmer Rouge soldiers slaughtered thousands of children, their bones still scattered beneath its limbs.
Choeung Ek can make you question whatever faith you have in humanity. And also help you understand how devastating, and enormous, the loss of life was in this country.
The ripple effects of which are incalculable, and touch every Cambodian alive today.
Cambodia hasn’t forgotten her past. Yet she’s very much focused on the future.
Whether that future is radiant, though, depends on who’s looking at it.
From a global economic perspective, things look great. From 1995 to 2017, Cambodia had the sixth fastest growing economy in the world, its 7.7% growth rate owing in large part to tourism and construction. By 2009, the national poverty rate was more than halved.
And while it has boosted the economy, construction has a dark side here too.
It has changed once-sleepy towns like Sihanoukville and Otres into noisy, bustling hubs full of hotels and casinos (where Cambodians are, ironically enough, prohibited from gambling). Resulting traffic and trash has angered locals, many of whom are fighting to keep their businesses alive in the face of rapid Chinese investment (and resulting rises in the cost of living).
Yet the biggest threat from foreign investment is the environmental one. Such as that now faced in the Areng Valley, where we spent four days hiking, camping, kayaking, and enjoying lushly forested tranquility.We found so much beauty here. And learned much from the people protecting it, most of whom are local Chong villagers. Like our guide, Somnang.Somnang is an activist who fought the planned building of a hydroelectric dam in the area. Contracted by Cambodia’s government to Sinohydro Resources, a Chinese company, the finished dam would have flooded 40 square miles and displaced 1,500 villagers.
Instead, Sinohydro cancelled the project. While this was cause for celebration, threats to the region’s people, and its endangered birds, plants and Siamese crocodiles, still remain.
Our first night of the trip, at our lakeside campground, Somnang tells us how he and three other villagers were arrested for protesting the dam. He spent the next 10 months in prison and then another few months abroad lying low. Energetic and upbeat, he slips into a more deliberate tone while telling his story, which takes the better part of an hour.
We do our best to be attentive despite the campers behind him, who are, it seems, preparing to slaughter a live chicken for dinner. (They later introduce themselves as college students from Phnom Penh. Most of them are studying IT, and Greg acquires celebrity status among them when they discover he worked in tech near Silicon Valley.)
Along with Somnang and the college guys, we’re joined by Dennis and Iben, who are respectively around 45 and 55 years old. A couple from Denmark, they had gotten off at the same bus stop as us earlier that day. Which was basically a snack stand on a red dirt road, miles from anything Google Mappable.
When we’d asked about their plans, they’d told us they didn’t have any, which led to our invitation to join our four day adventure. We’d booked it weeks ago when I stumbled onto the website for Wild KK Project while looking for less-touristy Cambodian itineraries. Founded in 2013, the organization is a social justice enterprise fighting to preserve the Areng Valley and nearby Koh Kong. Their modus operandi is ecotourism. This does double duty of supporting local economies and funding the group’s environmental activism, which is led by locals like Somnang.
I told Dennis and Iben as much as I could remember about the itinerary while we waited for Somnang to arrive. When he did, he quickly agreed to add them to our group. We crammed into a minivan and, with that, our adventure began.
Things got off to a rather inauspicious start. And by “inauspicious,” I mean I thought I was going to die. Not while trekking, kayaking, or motorbiking, mind you, which would’ve at least been an adventurous way to go. But no.
Rather, I thought I was asphyxiating. Due to an allergic reaction to a homemade soy drink that Somnang gave us on our way to camp.
The cold, creamy soy goodness went down easy, but minutes later, my throat began to tighten. “I don’t feel good,” I muttered to Greg, which soon became a frantic insistence that he tell the driver to stop. The driver, who spoke little English, apparently thought I was carsick. Unperturbed, he proffered a plastic bag in my direction with one hand, and continued to steer with the other.
When he finally stopped the van, I dove out into the fresh air. Greg reminded me not to panic while Somnang offered relief in the form of his own menthol inhaler. I stuck it under my nose and sat down, sucking up as much air as I could as the group gathered around. “Just breathe slowly,” Greg reminded me, as he tried to follow his own advice.
I did as told. And eventually, it worked, my breathing returning to normal. But the minutes in between had been terrifying. Later, I realized I’d spent them in a panic attack, brought on by the knowledge of just how limited medical intervention would be in the event I was really dying. There were no EpiPens here, let alone hospitals. Realizing this left me grateful and ashamed: knowing I take a certain standard of healthcare for granted, and knowing that I scared several people (my husband included) half to death, was an emotional start to the trip I definitely hadn’t anticipated.
On the plus side, being grateful to be alive gives you a sunny outlook. This proved helpful over the next three days as we camped, ate, and did everything else outdoors in 90+ degree weather, sans electricity, running water, and any other modern conveniences.
As a couple who enjoys car camping maybe twice a year, we definitely stretched our limits on this adventure. (Including when, on day 3, we took our only bath of the trip in a near-stagnant stream).
But many moments were incredible. Seeing the sunset from the ridge we camped on the second night was one of those. Glimpsing a quartet of Great Hornbills the next morning was another. We heard these stunning, strange birds before we saw them: their massive wings beat so heavily that they sound like a 747 taking flight.
Kayaking and trekking with Somnang, who stopped occasionally to tell us about a tree or bird we’d came across, was also a great part of the trip. And a reminder of how important the ecosystem is, to him and so many others we’d met along the way: the local women who’d prepared our breakfasts, the monk we’d met at the village temple, and the twenty or so children we’d passed on our hike, who smiled at us from the doorway of their single-room schoolhouse.
Despite the challenges of the trip, we were glad to have supported Wild KK’s work, and to have experienced the Areng Valley. It was a beautiful breathe of fresh air, absent the construction (and tourist hordes) that can otherwise sully a trip to Cambodia.
Visiting the valley also taught us much about the present day in this country. While Cambodia has come far since the Khmer Rouge fell, many threats remain: not only the environment, but to the wellbeing and freedom of its people. (Chief among these obstacles is political oppression. Billing itself as a liberal, multiparty democracy, the country’s ruling party has exercised all kinds of devious tactics, including arresting the head of the opposition party, to keep itself in power).
We left Cambodia grateful, yet worried about the years that lie ahead.
What will those years bring for people like Somnang, who care enough about the land to put their lives on the line? What will they bring for locals fighting rabid construction that threatens their communities and livelihoods?
What will they bring for a nation recovering from unimaginable trauma–one inflicted by power-hungry leaders?
We are hopeful that those years will bring what Cambodians want from them. For themselves, their communities, and their children. And their beautiful, wild land.
Thank you to Somnang, Iben, Dennis and Amanda and Steve for making our trip to Cambodia so wild and memorable.
Recommended Reading & Watching
- First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Luong Un (You can also watch the feature film based on the book, which Angelina Jolie directed)
- Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll– a film by John Pirozzi
Visit Wild KK Project to learn more about the organizations’ efforts.