Overcome By Cambodia

Some views and images are too big for words or pictures. Some histories and truths are too hard to comprehend and find a way to express or let settle within you. Some places are too complex to convey in simple comparisons or small descriptions. I am left wordless by Cambodia. Cambodia is so much more than I expected or was prepared for – so much harder, so much more beautiful, filled with so much more life.

We visited Angkor Wat and I found in the ancient stone, the intricate carvings of the massive temple, and the even larger archeological site a world that surpassed my dreams for a place I have wanted to visit for so long. The day was hot, as all days have been in this hot country. I felt myself weather and melt in the intense sun but felt the pulse and breath of life push me on.

I fell immediately in love with the city of Siem Reap which felt like my every idea of an end of the line city, far away but pulsing with activity. I explored the Night Market with its stands of local crafts and affordable goods; I went to the Morning Market with the locals gathering their daily provisions. As I roamed the morning market with the fruit and vegetable stands of countless colors – orange, green, yellow, and vivid pink; I passed the meat laid out with cleavers for cutting entire animals, with live eel swimming in buckets of water, and with crabs that jumped from their basket to the floor to scurry away, I was not as I ever thought I would be. Before this morning I expected I would be how I am at home: squeamish and uncomfortable. But here in these surroundings where I have discovered life at its most basic and immediate, I found I was enthralled and saw that away from the packaging and lights of a modern supermarket what was happening felt so much more natural and real.

Phnom Penh was for me the opposite to the way I felt in Siem Reap; it was crowded with people and motos and tuk tuks, it felt gray and oppressive in its poverty splashed with opulence and obvious wealth. We took a tour of the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda; we experienced the overwhelming Russian Market filled with knock off goods, crafts, food, and auto parts, so alive with every walk and function of life from the city around it. In the afternoon I decided to face the truth I had been intellectually aware of but so frightened to see in person, the history of the Khmer Rouge. I have seen a concentration camp and thought somehow if I could handle that as a Jew I could handle anything, but I was more wrong than I could ever think. Tuol Sleng Museum once a high school and then converted into a prison in 1975 where countless thousands and millions were tortured before being killed amongst a staggering genocide at Choeung Ek. Where in Germany the concentration camp experience was sanitized and made into a moment in history to remember and reflect, S21 felt as if it was still a living ghost of what happened. I walked into the first room and in a hope to avert my eyes from a graphic photo, I looked up only to see the dried blood stains of one of the countless victims that has never been cleaned. I felt myself lose my every breath and have the life knocked out of me. Where the concentration camp felt distant from another generation and cleaned up to a comfortable European sensibility, S21 and Choeung Ek were not. The genocide and subsequent civil war of this country were squarely in my lifetime (even if it was the start of my life). These places haven’t been altered or made easy to experience; we stepped on bones and teeth and saw towers of skeletons as memorials. We walked out and men who had lost limbs and eyes from land mines beg for money, I am destroyed, I am more than sorrowful, and I am hopelessly affected.

And yet with all of this I feel like I have been tethered to this place with a thousand strings of silk. I want to come back as hard as it is here and I want to do and see more. I want to try to understand that which seems so beyond comprehension. Perhaps it is the people hard but open and so honest. Perhaps it is that after a day in which I felt such grief and guilt I went out to a beer garden and under Orion’s Belt and the rest of the constellations as my light, I learned to open and eat cockles’ from their shells – sweet with the sea and flavored with chilies and lemon grass. I drank beer after beer to quench my thirst from the heat of the day and the heat of the chilies and then to quench my aching body that felt it had been drop kicked into reality. With a woman from Whales and our guide, a Cambodian man of 30, we ate together and laughed, I saw that life while difficult is carrying on in its every way. And perhaps it was the wind and life being knocked out of me that afternoon that allowed me to see the life come back into me that night.

I am mesmerized, I have been opened, I have been broken and rebuilt and broken again by this place. But Cambodia is a place to be experienced, it is a place to be seen and felt for the life it has lived and the one it continues to contain. Last night in the blanket of a dark night I splashed my legs in the ocean and the salty water stung my calves as just another reminder of how alive I am. Like the salty tears I choke back, the lapping waves show me how life continues on and will always continue on. To say I have been changed by Cambodia is an understatement. I have been opened up by Cambodia. I have been confounded by Cambodia, and I have seen in Cambodia how life can be so much more than something that can be put into a few lines or in a photograph.

Endlessly altered and so very humbled,


Sihanoukville, Cambodia

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03 2011

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