Cambodia is wholly unlike anyplace I have ever been before. If Singapore is an easy transition to Asia, Thailand a bit farther beyond that, and Malaysia further still, then Cambodia is a hazy figment of my imagination on the distant horizon. As our plane was landing and the details of the ground became recognizable, I knew it was going to be different than the other countries we had visited. The land was flat, but there were dirt roads neatly contoured by palm trees that cut paths like veins through the greenest fields I have ever seen. Barely recognizable people and water buffalos moved so lackadaisically they appeared to be still.
As we were walking around the capitol Phnom Penh, which actually has paved roads, we spotted some monkeys darting in and out of windows on the third story of the buildings that lined the street. At first we saw just a few, then a few more. Then twenty to twenty-five monkeys of all ages were almost impossibly travelling above and around us. Where they all lived I cannot say. They would use the power lines like highways to traverse the city and avert any contact with humans. Little ones clinging to their mothers as they dangled forty feet in the air over our heads. The older ones calmly sat on the transistors watching traffic go by like old men on a porch. I even saw two on the same wire coming towards each other. Expecting a confrontation, I almost didn't believe what I saw when they met in the center. One of them flipped upside-down and went hand over hand to allow the mother and clinging child to pass. It seems appropriate to remark that I think even monkeys can be kinder than we are, but no sooner than I saw that, a scuffle broke out among some others over something that had most likely been pilfered from one of the homes they had just raided.
The temples we explored around Siem Reap were a most impressive sight, even despite all the other tourist hoards and locals trying to convince you they had something you wanted at each stop. They were built a thousand years ago by monks to protect those who dwelled inside them. There was such a contrast between the present day people and the latter day structures that I constantly found myself (quite successfully) imagining the people I saw around me how it may have been in the past. It was like The Shining where Jack Nicholson is essentially seeing all the ghosts living how they used to live in the house. Regardless of all the imagining, I was still surprised by the seemingly random occurrence of a real Buddhist monk crossing my path occasionally. No matter how many times nor who it was, every time I came across a monk they always had the warmest gestures and humble things to say. Of all the primary ideologies, they come the closest to for me being practicable. I have met few monks who do not practice what they preach.
And for all the locals that begged for you to open your wallet, I did come across some who seemed to genuinely be involved in what people might have actually been doing at this same place but a thousand years prior. There was a man harvesting, by hand, lemongrass in big bushels the sizes of barrels. He had a spectacular tattoo on his chest of the local temple, Angkor Wat, and I can only imagine based on those few defining things I knew about him, in those moments that he genuinely loved where he lived and being a Cambodian. Being an American with a limited distant history (but with pride for our modern day achievements of flight, space exploration, technology, etc) I've always envied people who have a history that goes back far enough to where it becomes urecognizable. It's a mental stabilizer of sorts for something to look back on and point to, a foundation/sense of continuity. And the farther back it goes, I think, the more confident the individual can choose to be.
The killing fields in Phnom Penh were nothing short of tragic. I don't have many words to describe how it feels to walk around and look at the mass graves they've preserved and laid out for you. Walking around the area you would see clothing, revealed by natural erosion, from the people who died there. I took some pictures of the clothes and other artifacts people found and placed along the path. Death and destruction of the human body and spirit. I don't know if it's technically irony, but on the way back from seeing the killing fields, our tuk-tuk driver was trying to communicate to ask if we wanted to make a stop on the way back. As with overcoming all language barriers (which vary in height), after seeing him panto-mime pulling a pin out of a grenade with his teeth, lobbing it and making an explosion noise, we slowly realized he was asking if we wanted to go throw old military grenades and rocket launchers. We smiled, politely declined and assumed he was kidding until we saw a sign for it off the dirt road a few miles ahead with two AK-47's like parentheses around the Cambodian writing.
Adjacent to our hotel in Siem Reap was a broken down old house punctuated with various holes and cracks where some locals lived. As I watched them fetch water from a well, hang up laundry and move in and out of the structure from the 3rd story balcony of our hotel, a girl who looked to be laying in a bed leaned her head out of a square hole to smoke a cigarette. I could hear a baby crying softly, but I'm not sure if it came from that room.
We went to an outdoor monastery/temple in Phnom Penh that was brimming with hundreds of children. Some were playing on the grounds of the temple, sliding down and climbing up stairs. Others were inside with monks, who were feeding and caring for the children. As I walked around snapping some photos, one of which has turned out to be one of my favorite photos from the trip, I couldn't bring myself to take photos of all the children in the eating area. As beautiful as it was to see the head monk wrangle all these happy, skinny kids and swat at their wrists when they didn't share (making them all erupt with laughter for being caught) it is one of the only moments I've felt wasn't right to capture. I felt privileged enough to be allowed to passively observe them.
I feel grateful to have seen Cambodia. I do not know when I will "go all the way" and be done with all this earthly business, but I do know as time moves forward there will be fewer and fewer places like Cambodia. They will most likely be swallowed up by "progress" and change, slowly morphing into a similar rendition of western civilization, modeled after our own likeness. Or it may not. It may retain a unique and special place in the world.