Processing Cambodia

January 8, 2013
Current Location: Sea-Tac Airport, USA

As I mentioned before, Cambodia is a kingdom of extremes. My experiences varied so much from the first day to the last, that I almost wish that I hadn’t posted a thing about it until I could process it as a whole.

My first full day in Cambodia was spectacular. It began with one of the most striking things I’ll probably ever see in my life, sunrise at Angkor Wat. Totally worth getting up at 4am for!


That day, we also saw several of the most photogenic and unique temples of the whole trip, including the Bayon, with its hundreds of gigantic, peaceful Buddha faces.


And “The Tomb Raider” jungle temple:


That evening, my new roommate and I struck out on a quad-riding adventure through the picturesque farmland around Siem Reap. Riding alongside the farmers walking their cattle home at sunset was beautiful, peaceful, soul-quieting. It was a perfect day.


At that point, I thought that’s what all of Cambodia would be like. After spending the next four days in Cambodia, though, I felt naive about the way I’d seen and written about Cambodia in a vacation-y way.

The day after visiting Angkor Wat, we toured one of the secret Khmer Rouge prisons and the Killing Fields, where 3 million Cambodians were tortured and killed in the 1970s. Our tour guide shared the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in vivid detail, along with his personal pain. He only shared his own stories within the safety of our tour bus, so I will respect his privacy and fears by not writing about them here.

Prison Cells
Khmer Rouge Child Soldiers

After spending the day with our guide, I saw Cambodia completely differently. I looked around me and saw what he pointed out — there are virtually no old people, because they were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. I saw a population that is very obviously depressed and suffering from generationally passed down PTSD, even the children who didn’t experience it first-hand. People are full of barely-suppressed rage — they literally want to kill the former Khmer Rouge soldiers living in their neighborhoods. Except that if they were caught and went to prison for the murder, it would mean that the 10 people dependent on them for food & survival would starve. It’s not forgiveness, it’s pure practicality. And those free schools are not actually free — something like 1/2 the country’s kids can’t afford to go to school, once it comes to book costs and other fees.

It’s obviously a horrible, self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, depression, and destruction. After hearing all this, I couldn’t bring myself to haggle over anything in Cambodia or Laos. A dollar means very little to me, when compared to what it means to a person feeding their family of 10.

I also, honestly, no longer felt safe in Cambodia. I saw what was done to foreigners who were caught by surprise by the Khmer Rouge, and it was easy to imagine it happening out of the blue again. I saw how certain stories could not be shared safely in public to this day. Sometimes I feel numb when seeing these things in person, in the moment. But with our tour guide barely covering his personal pain in these places, I felt anxiety, real and present danger, and I cried very unexpectedly when he showed us the children’s tree at the Killing Fields.

Our guide explained to us that the survivors we met selling their stories smiled at us only because: if they didn’t smile, they would cry. I noticed the same thing about our guide — after each of the horrible things he told us, he smiled for a second or two, at no one in particular. I don’t think for a second that he took a perverse joy in these things. He was just surviving his very present and current pain. I saw those same smiles masking festering pain everywhere I went in Cambodia after that. No one was happy. No one I saw was just poor — they were poor and traumatized.


We later visited Laos, a poor country with plenty of its own serious regional and political issues, but without the same obvious pain and depression bubbling under the surface. Our tour guide put it very bluntly — the difference between Cambodia and Laos is simply that Laos didn’t have the Khmer Rouge. Laos has plenty of challenges to overcome, like the massive number of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) littering the countryside, crippling families and preventing development of infrastructure. But it seems to have a better chance for real progress within the next generation or two than Cambodia does. If the UXOs can be cleaned up and infrastructure built (no simple task), they are on their way to building something that lasts. It’s hard to see anything more than propping up a shattered population in Cambodia for at least the next generation. But that’s better than nothing.

After my last post about Cambodia and wishing I had a way to send my son’s things over, my mom let me know about a friend who started an orphanage in Cambodia and can take children’s clothing with her when she goes. I’ll be gathering up my son’s clothes and toys. If you want to do the same, let me know, and we’ll make sure they get there.

On Traveling Solo

January 6, 2012
Current Location: Beach Chair, Bo Phut Beach, Koh Samui, Thailand


Two days ago, I met another girl traveling solo through SE Asia. We were seated together for lunch on our snorkeling daytrip because we were two oddities — the only two people traveling alone. She’s the only other solo traveler (female or otherwise) that I’ve met outside of the tour group in this entire month, which has been a bit surprising to me. And women traveling alone are apparently surprising to everyone else here, too. They can’t seem to wrap their heads around it, local or foreigner. I thought that with the strong backpacker culture here, women traveling alone wouldn’t be so rare, but I was wrong. (Also, I’ve only met ONE other American. Travelers here are mostly Australian, European, and Asian.)

The details of her trip were slightly different than mine, but her reasons for going, and her feelings about traveling alone, were eerily similar.

Like me, she planned the trip with less than a week’s notice to fill some unexpected time off.

Like me, she hears from friends all the time that what she is doing is brave, courageous, and that they wish they could do the same thing. Like me, she can’t understand why people say this. Logistically and financially, not everyone can just disappear to the other side of the world, and that’s definitely a reality. But if those limitations can be worked out, then it doesn’t feel like it takes much courage to do this. I’m not minimizing what it takes — the courage aspect just doesn’t click for me (or for her) and I think I’ll have to think about that some more. I don’t think this means that I’m fearless — I have plenty of fears, and feel them intensely when I take a risk too far outside my comfort zone. I do think it takes some imagination, an ability to think of something different to do than what’s right in front of you, and a preparedness to flex with imperfect situations. But, I promise, anyone could do it. If you feel it and you want it, and you have an ounce of patience and adaptability, do it. You will be fine. If you can’t take off for a month, go somewhere for a weekend. Anything, outside your routine and for yourself. And if you want someone to go with you, let me know!

But is it safe to travel alone? As a grandfatherly South African pointed out to me over a Singha the other day, any city in the whole world is dangerous if you go to the wrong neighborhood, or take unnecessary risks. Here, you learn to hold your purse in front of you to avoid pickpockets, but I’ve never felt there was a risk of assault in any public area, at any time of day. But I certainly explore more when I have friends around, and stick a little closer to home when I’m alone. I am pretty proud of myself for going to the (family friendly!) ladyboy show here on Koh Samui by myself, though!

Like me, she spent two weeks with a group, and the rest of the time alone. Unlike me, she spent those two weeks building a school in Cambodia. I wish I’d had the clarity of thought at the time to plan something like that. If I had another month or six to wander, that’s what I’d do — something to work on with a group that actually does the world some good during my wanderings.

Like me, she’s finding that traveling alone is freeing, but the memories and sightseeing feel kind of hollow without someone to share it with. I don’t mean necessarily a romantic partner — I just mean someone (non-irritating) who experiences it with you, talks it over with you at the time, and afterward. The shared conversation helps lock the memory in, I think.

This started me thinking about how most of my best memories from this trip are from the two weeks I spent with the tour group, which was only half of my total trip. (Top memories will be a separate topical post!) Although we were all strangers to each other when we began, we became close — a little, eccentric wandering tribe from all over the world, that took care of each other. Wherever we came from, we shared some of the most amazing sights on Earth, and dealt with some of the most unpleasant conditions of our lives, and that bonded us and deepened those experiences. Like family, I came to love them for the quirks that may have annoyed me if they weren’t “my” people. Even after the tour ended, the group didn’t let go. We were so used to functioning as a group, we continued to coordinate ourselves for group meals and sightseeing, even after we were officially disbanded. We spent as much time together in Bangkok as possible, until one by one over the next few days, each person peeled off back to their own lives or their next destination. When one of them posts new photos from the trip to facebook, I laugh at how we all have exactly the same “wow moment” photos, and then get to relive the moment again.

As for the things I did alone, I would describe them as nothing more than “sightseeing.” I have some great photos, but that’s it. I barely remember those things, actually.

So, I have learned that striking out on your own, doing the unexpected, going where the wind and your whims takes you, and making new friends, is really empowering and clarifying. I have (and already had) the confidence that I can go anywhere on my own, and be fine. I can take care of myself, handle pretty much anything (not perfectly, but that’s okay), and figure it out along the way. I can be flexible and deal with discomfort, uncertainty, and appreciate unexpected joyful moments. I think that going it alone every once in a while (maybe once a decade?) is a good way to reconnect with my authentic self. But I will make sure to build a shared group experience into any solo trip I plan in the future. Building a school in a remote village with a group of people I don’t know sounds great for my 2022 Shelb-venture! I don’t ever need to spend 5 days on the beach by myself again. Luxury and relaxation is nice, but I’d rather be back in the hot, Malaria-ful jungle with my tour buddies! At least I have a world full of people to visit now. Australia/Sweden/NYC 2013, I think!