Despite having siphoned some gasoline into his bike’s tank before leaving the airport, our driver’s engine sputters and dies on our way to the hotel. We roll into a gas station on fumes, but soon we’re on our way.
We are zig-zagging through traffic, into traffic, over traffic, in the two-wheeled decorative cart known as a tuk-tuk, attached to the back of his bike, holding onto our luggage between our knees because “sometimes they grab your bags,” holding on for dear life in these lanes without laws, letting go of all prior notions of what we might expect here. It feels like a frontier, with all the freedom and danger that comes along with it.
Though our ride is a midnight one, Phnom Penh is awake. My nostrils are assaulted, pummeled, punished, tickled, rewarded as the hot wind pushes my hair back, pushes smell after smell into my face: trash, charcoal, roasting nuts, sewage, coffee, grilled meat, and so much fish, in so many stages of freshness.
There are no sidewalks. The buildings — if that’s what we shall call them, these concrete, dirt floor, sheet metal structures that are full to capacity with stuff — they spill their guts into the street. There is no differentiation between garbage and wares for sale, one piled beside the next, all the way to the road, paraded with equal prominence.
We arrive at the hotel and they’ve lost our reservation, but noting our exhaustion from our twenty-plus hour journey, the girl at the counter brings us to a room so we can settle everything in the morning.
Welcome to Cambodia.
Despite arriving as the southwest monsoon is settling over South-East Asia, bringing with it dousing rains and the favorable rice conditions so necessary to the people here, we are blessed with beautiful weather for days on end. If it rains, it’s only briefly, and just serves to cool down the tropical heat and to wash away the city for a brief while. Between the storms, we are hot. Cloud-speckled, electric blue skies cap a humidity that makes the breathing air viscous.
This place is manic. Pedestrians must navigate the narrow margin between the shops and the street piles and the whizzing bikes. The movement on the roads cannot be anticipated, and we marginal hikers put our lives at risk to cross the wide intersections. We see an old woman and a small child make a break for it, and we run alongside them, hoping the bikes and cars manage to swerve around our unlikely gaggle. When we all safely arrive on the other side, I erupt into spontaneous applause, and the woman bows, smiles, waves good bye and takes the child’s hand.
The food here is new and strange, but the types of meals fall into distinct categories: soup; stir fry; and amok, a coconut milk and curry dish most often served in banana leaves or a coconut shell. These meals can be made in many varieties, with pork, beef, or chicken, fish or vegetables. There are other foods, too. Spring rolls. Grilled meats. Even tarantulas at one specialty restaurant. Everything is served with jasmine rice. Some dishes are made hot and spicy with chili peppers, but more often the seasoning is subtle, a distinct Khmer flavor that permeates many meals.
We visit tourist attractions. We admire the Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace’s silver pagoda where Sarah’s modesty is imposed by way of a compulsory souvenir t-shirt, relax in the garden of the National Museum. We meander along Sisowath Quay and marvel at the assortment of anything and everything edible in the night markets, from chicken heads to stinky durian melons. We take a sunset cruise along the Tonle Sap, but learn the hard way that the sunsets are unremarkable during the rainy season. Asapara dancers liven up the museum at night through traditional dance, gleaned from the walls and whispers of ancient temples after the art form was nearly lost in the civil war a generation ago…
Though this is vacation, we cannot have come this far without paying due respect to the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the revolutionary insurgency led by Pol Pot in the 1970’s whose scheme was to revert urban society to a national-scale, forced-labor agrarian commune. The Khmer Rouge was responsible for the brutal massacres of political enemies and the so-called intellectual class in Cambodia: teachers, doctors, writers, along with their families. We do not go to the killing fields; we cannot bring ourselves to see them. But we do visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum — the high school turned torture prison, the last stop for thousands of members of Pol Pot’s own movement, and their families; purged from the party, arrested, confined, tortured and ultimately murdered on suspicion of counter-revolutionary activities.
Photos are not allowed in the museum, but, as Sarah says to me, museum is not the right word for this place. It is a preserved prison, whose goal is to return the corridors and abandoned classrooms back into educational spaces, memorializing the dead through thousands of haunting photos and collections of skulls, reminding the living of the squalid conditions in the cells by opening them to the public for inspection. The evidence is clear, in your face, and stark: the world turned a blind eye to an abomination. The museum plainly asks, dares its audience to question, what happened to the promise of ‘never again’ in Cambodia?
Siem Reap itself is a small city, more tourist oriented than Phnom Penh, but it still retains the urban Cambodian character we’ve become familiar with. Everybody selling something is aggressively selling it: constantly refusing their wares is overwhelming and exhausting. Every minute, literally, someone is trying to sell to us.
The country roads crossing Cambodia are lush and vibrantly green. The flooded rice fields are tended by men and women pushing thrashing machines, or else guiding water buffalo that drag heavy yokes through the paddies. Shops and restaurants periodically dot the highway until we cross a village, where once again the fervor of city life boils to the surface. The bus barely pauses for the changes in scenery, though we do stop twice on the six hour jaunt: once to use the bathrooms in a gift shop, and again for a longer rest at a roadside eatery called Banyan Tree. Despite being the only place for miles around, it is crowded and busy in the open outdoor seating area. The food is carefully prepared and presented with flair, served as it becomes ready.
“Hello? Sir, lady? Tuk-tuk?”
“Hello? Sir, lady? T-shirt?”
“Hello? Sir, lady? Fish massage?”
We end up buying our souvenirs in a shop where the owner simply lets us browse without following us around, or asking if we’d like to buy every item that we pause to glance at. I let her know that the reason we shopped in her store is because she’s the only business owner who has let us think about what we’d actually like to buy, instead of forcing us to refuse everything. She smiles and thanks me, but Sarah says she didn’t understand me.
The town’s liveliest hub is Pub Street, a strip of constantly glowing happy hour dive bars and tourist-trap restaurants. I drink cheap draft beer and get the shits, ending the night early. The area seems like a great place to get drunk and find trouble, but such debauchery isn’t on our agenda. We find solitude and peace at our villa on the outskirts of the city, and prepare for the ancient temples at Angkor the next day.
I do not believe I can add much to what has already been said about the ancient temples of Cambodia besides my own impressions. Lighting incense at the feet of a Buddha statue, ‘for luck’ says the temple guard as she hands me the punks. Scanning the top of the surrounding jungles from a mountain temple, beside my wife, with no one else there but us. Pounding my chest in the echo chamber of Angkor Wat and wishing that this trip will never end.
The familiar senses of wonder and awe that I experience whenever I follow the footsteps of the ancients into the cities of antiquity accompany me to Angkor Wat. Twisting through carved temple passages, stepping over the spilling roots of ancient Banyan trees, and scrambling up the towering facades of these monuments to the gods, we are traveling amidst a swath of sacred temples and majestic structures that for hundreds of years were swallowed by the ever encroaching jungles, barely known and equally maintained by a handful of devout Buddhists whose uninterrupted worship at these Wats makes them among the oldest surviving continuously used religious sites.
Every temple in the complex is deceptively far from the others; it is unlikely any visitor could enjoy the sites without a dedicated remork (tuk-tuk) driver to cart him between the temples. Ours is courteous and knowledgeable; his prices, set by the hotel, are reasonable. In addition, he provides us with water and cool towels when we return to his vehicle glistening with sweat.
From the sprawling remains of the jungle-eaten Ta Prohm, to the towering countenances of Bayon, to the majestic temple mountains of Angkor Wat, the temples evoke a sense of humble impermanence. Despite these towers having lasted through centuries of ruin and use, visitors today are here for an instant, and these vast monuments, too, are but fleeting odes to human ingenuity and honor to the gods. In their magnificence, they are a reminder that no matter what we may accomplish, time conquers all.
The value of the experience appreciates with some knowledge of the context and history of these places. I can recommend the following. The Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook provides excellent overviews. Michael Freeman’s Ancient Angkor gives in-depth accounts of the architectural significance of each temple (though, perhaps too in-depth). In his novel Temple of a Thousand Faces, John Shors’ fictionalized historical account of the war between the Chams, who occupied Angkor in the 12th century, and the victorious Khmers, led by the great King Jayavaraman VII, tells a story based in truth that provides human connections to tangible locations in the park, and brings the actual history of the place to life.
Song Saa Private Island
This is my new world: tropical skies; poolside; Kindle; cabana; lazy bed; a strawberry banana daiquiri. Sarah swims to the ledge to say hi and beams a smile before slipping back under the water. We are alone, despite using the infinity pool by the island restaurant instead of the private one attached to our bedroom. We thought it might be nice to mingle a little, but really, we can’t complain about having a tropical island to ourselves. The waiter brings me another drink when he notices mine is almost empty. Life on Song Saa is good.
I have never stayed in a true luxury resort. Our honeymoon was in a beautiful all-inclusive, and I thought that was as good as it gets, but apparently, it continues to get better. Of course, luxury like this comes at a steep price. Even during the rainy season, with a buy-one-night-get-one-night promotion, the cost of Song Saa Private Island is prohibitive. We find ourselves here anyway.
Indeed, it is tourist money like ours that’s helped to build this paradise in an otherwise rough-edged part of the world. A lot is invested locally — the virgin tropical forest preservation, the enforced coral reef sanctuary, the development of the nearby fishing village, and routine educational workshops for children. That’s not to mention jobs: most of the employees at Song Saa are local. I am uncomfortable at first with the disparity between my experiences here and what I’ve seen elsewhere in Cambodia, but the resort works hard to assuage that guilt: first by showcasing these environmentally-sustainable and culturally-responsible business practices, and then by treating guests to a perfectly crafted retreat from the rest of the world, if only for a few days.
Song Saa translates to “the sweethearts,” a reference to the pair of tiny islands that encompass the resort. The ‘boy’ island, Koh Bong, is untouched except for the footpaths that cut through the forest and lead to an outcrop of rocks that smash against the sea. The female island, Koh Ouen, is developed — jungle, ocean view, and over-water villas; an over-water restaurant; cocktail bar; a modest gym; pool; and activity huts from the bulk of the buildings. However, it is the service that makes the luxury experience unforgettable.
Every detail is perfectly curated, every fleeting whim treated with the utmost consideration. We can do anything we want, or nothing at all. All of our days and nights seem to blend together. Much of our time is spent in the villa. Before we arrive, we think, ‘who would come here just to stay inside the whole time?’ But now, we laugh, the question becomes ‘who would ever want to leave the room?’
We live in Villa 18. The poster bed is giant and comfortable, and encourages lingering under the sheets every morning to watch the fishing boats passing by our giant window overlooking the water. It doesn’t help that we have breakfast and coffee ordered to the room each day. After a swim in the private pool on the deck outside, or a dip in the ocean (the ladder from the deck plunges directly into the Gulf of Thailand), we get around to putting on some clothes and walking around the island.
One day we snorkel in the lapping tropical waters. Colorful fish dart by in rainbow schools and menacing sea urchins threaten to poke our bellies from below. Another day, we take a small boat to the fishing village and tour the cleanup and educational efforts the resort finances. One night, we opt to have a screen and projector brought to the room, along with popcorn and chocolates, for a private movie night screening of Tomb Raider, filmed at Ta Prohm, the temple we explored just a few days before. We take advantage of our complementary fifteen minute foot massage before hanging out at the pool, and that evening enjoy a romantic, candlelit tub. We enjoy gourmet meals each night in a different spot on the island, and they even make special effort to recognize Sarah’s birthday by baking her a personal cake according to her tastes (chocolate and coconut). Every moment here is worthwhile.
Sadly, as always, the experience has to end. As we climb into a fancy boat on our last morning, our hosts stand on the pier, waving to us as we sped away, and continue to wave until we round the tip of Koh Ouen and we can not see them anymore.
In the End
Sarah and I try our best to explore the world and experience different cultures, new ideas, unique cuisine, and interesting people. We knew that visiting Cambodia would push our comfort levels to new frontiers, and it did; but we never expected to have as lovely a time as we had while we were there. If this place is not already on your bucket list, dear reader, perhaps you might reconsider. As always, I encourage anyone who has a seed of an idea about a place they’d like to visit to plant and nurture that small desire. No one regrets a well planned vacation. The world is out there: go see it!