Suffering and Pampering in Cambodia

After India, my travels took on a very different flavor.  Not only was I heading to Southeast Asia (Cambodia and Thailand) where I would be able to enjoy a very different culture, cuisine and climate, but I was heading out on my own. While there was something very scary about traveling alone, I was also excited. The idea of “backpacking alone in Asia” was appealing because it sounded like something I wanted to have done. I didn’t consider much beyond that; I vaguely thought about how nice it would be to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Cambodia was my time for myself. I wanted to see the temples of Angkor, and pretty much didn’t care about anything else.

From the moment I stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh after a red-eye from Mumbai, I was in love with Cambodia. Everyone smiled at me, the airport was nearly empty and there was lots of open space. I got my visa and bags in about 3 minutes flat, and headed out to find a tuk-tuk to get to my friend’s apartment, where I would be crashing for two nights. Grinning like a fool and feeling like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders by leaving India, I laughed as my tuk-tuk driver introduced himself as “Mr. Superman” and shook my hand repeatedly. Good start. Mr. Superman pulled out of the airport parking lot and immediately pulled over at a drink stand.

“Me drink too much beer last night, big big hangover. Need drink”, Mr. Superman informed me. Ummm… ok. Thanks for the reality check, Mr. Superman.

After chugged a Red Bull, Mr. Superman slowly guided his tuk-tuk over roads full of spine-jarring potholes, bringing me fond memories of driving in Kathmandu. Back to loving this place.

Phnom Penh totally won me over, because it had the same taste as Kathmandu but felt about a decade further “forward”. There wasn’t the frenetic energy and skyscrapers that I associate with big cities in the “developed” world, but Phnom Penh had much more developed infrastructure and comforts than Kathmandu, with a combination of beautiful cafes and restaurants, nicely paved roads, potable and running water and friendly people. It is a city that is comfortable and easy to be in that hasn’t lost its local feeling.

On my only full day in the city, I had planned to head to the Cheoung Ek killing fields a short ride outside the city and then to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum so that I could learn a little bit about the Khmer Rouge era. I knew that Cambodia had suffered through a brutal dictatorship and genocide at the hands of Pol Pet and the Khmer Rouge, but I didn’t know why or exactly what happened. I found a tuk-tuk to take me to the killing fields, where an estimated 20,000 Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge over a four year period. While there were some buildings and shacks in the Khmer Rouge time, today, the site is mostly empty fields with placards describing what happened in the different areas. It is a testament to the merciless killing machine that was the Khmer Rouge regime that there was so little there—people arrived and were almost immediately taken to be killed. Mostly, there are just pits that served as mass graves Today there is also a memorial stupa with close to 8000 skulls showing different markings from how people were killed.

Though my friend had told me I should expect to spend about an hour in the killing fields, I ended up spending nearly three in the site. For nearly the first half of my time there, I had to fight the urge to vomit as I passed bits of bone sticking out of the ground and heard the stories and explanations on the (fabulous) audio tour. Eventually, I finished the audio tour and spent a while just wandering between pits and sitting in the shade, thinking.

By the time I left, I was too emotionally drained to go to Tuol Sleng, which had been a prison and torture camp where people were held before they were brought to Cheoung Ek. I read and had heard that the exhibitions at Tuol Sleng are much more graphic than at Cheong Ek, and I didn’t trust my stomach to hold its contents, despite not having eaten. I was having flashbacks to my fairly traumatic experiences at the concentration camps in Poland, and decided to give myself permission to skip Tuol Sleng.

This was an uncharacteristic decision for me, and marked the beginning of my attitude shift for Cambodia. Especially in Cambodia, which I had read about and knew is “one of the poorest countries on Earth”, I felt like I was supposed to find the “real” Cambodia and see the poverty and the suffering and the history. Learning about these types of things is very interesting to me, and usually very meaningful.

Instead, I spent the rest of my day eating cupcakes and drinking coffee, getting a pedicure and wandering through shops. I initially felt incredibly guilty about this decision; how could I decide to get a pedicure instead of going to the Genocide Museum? But as I continued to Siem Reap and spent nearly a week alone in the city, I decided that for the rest of my trip, I was only going to do what felt right at that very moment.

I stopped setting an alarm, ate whatever I wanted to whenever I wanted to, and spent hours getting massages and manicures and other spa treatments. I spent a total of maybe seven hours exploring the temple complex, because I found it boring to tour alone. There was no one to take a picture of or have take my picture, no one to talk to about what I was seeing or just laugh and talk to. Sometimes, I was really lonely.

But sometimes, I was really proud of myself. As I walked out of Angkor Wat after walking around during sunset, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and started cracking up. As I stood there laughing and watching the last remnants of the sun reflect in the moat around the temple, I just kept thinking, “I am actually doing this!” Giving myself permission to spend the money, walk away from everyone and everything and do something that was 100% for me went so away from my instincts, and I was so proud that I did it. Someday I will go back to Cambodia. I’m sure of it. And then I will get the three-day Angkor pass and I will hire a guide and see all the temples, and I will do it with someone I love. And when I do it, I will remember that I went there alone when I was 24, and I will feel awesome.

That feeling, the smile that comes from feeling awesome, is what I’m taking home from this trip. Wherever I go, whatever I do, whomever I meet, I will always know that I did this for myself now.

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