I like to think of travel as an opportunity to learn and to grow as a person. To me, traveling the world should be enlightening, educational and thought-provoking. A way of reminding oneself of the diversity of the world and perhaps reminding ourselves to appreciate our place in it. If you tend to agree with this, then traveling to Cambodia is a great option for you.
I was extremely fortunate to be part of a work team that went to Cambodia to inspect hotels, meet ground operators and generally experience the country as our clients would. I knew, having been to neighbouring Vietnam, that Cambodia would be a crazy, eclectic assault on the senses. But what I perhaps didn’t anticipate was how traveling to Cambodia would change my perspective on life. Here’s how.
Humanity can be dark, but also incredible
I can’t write a post about traveling to Cambodia without reflecting on its recent history. I sort of wish I could, because as a nation so much more should come to mind than violence. But, it has also completely altered the course of history and the lives of its people so it must be acknowledged.
If anything from history is going to make you want to be physically ill, it’s hearing about the terror of the Khmer Rouge regime. And sure, you might think I say that figuratively… but I don’t. Experiencing the Genocide Museum, and hearing our guide’s accompanying tales (those of him and his own family), actually made me sick. I won’t go into much detail here other than to say if you don’t know much about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities experienced by the Cambodian people, look it up (or click here). But be warned before you do – it was completely horrific.
It’s utterly mind-boggling that these kinds of things are even possible in a society… and I think what got me the most was our guide telling us his own personal experience going through it. He was born the same year as my mum, so we’re talking about things that happened more recently than a lot of us (myself included) realise.
However, what really got to me, what absolutely touched my soul, was the strength and resilience of everyone we encountered. Guides, drivers, hotel managers, office workers, everyone we met seemed to have a smile ready for us. One of our guides told us that, because all education had been banned, it was only in the last ten or so years that he’d even started to receive an education. But he, now in his 50s, persisted with it because he wanted to make life better for his family. Consider it – children are born learners, wired to learn from birth. But that disappears as we get older and becomes a skill we need to practice. Imagine being 50 and never having had any education, and having to teach yourself how to learn again before you could actually learn.
And then imagine, as a society, there were no institutions. No hospitals, no schools or universities, as they’d all been wiped out, and you had to work together to build all that from the ground up. What has been achieved in just a few decades is really amazing. Which leads me to…
Appreciate your history
Acknowledging what has happened in the past leads to growth. Sure, we can pretend something bad didn’t happen, and try to forget about it, dooming ourselves to repeat the same mistakes learn to be victims. Or, we can acknowledge it, understand its place in the journey we’re on, and move forward with our lives.
Cambodian people, in my experience anyway, do the latter. They have little choice but to confront their recent history head-on. But they are also proud of their more ancient history, and heed the lessons of their Angkor ancestors.
Throughout my time in Cambodia, there always seemed to be this attitude that life goes on, and all you can do is live it. In fact, you could say…
It is what it is
Taking a boat ride around Tonle Sap was a lovely experience.
We climbed out of our boat and straight into a little wooden house floating on the lake. On one side, it had an area for breeding crocodiles. To say this was disconcerting would be glib – as we walked around the edge, we looked down at these huge crocodiles right underneath us. All that was separating us from the crocs was a few planks of wood and some wire. Of course, the nature lover in me was saddened knowing these fascinating creatures didn’t have much room and would, sooner or later, become handbags. But it’s not for me to judge how someone makes a living in a situation I couldn’t begin to understand. So let’s just say the crocs were there, and I had a quick look before moving on.
But then I spotted some kids. These two little boys would have been maybe the same age as my boys now (about three, and eighteen months). So, babies. And the bigger one had a lighter, he knew how to use it, and I’m not sure what he was doing but it looked like he was trying to set the porch alight! There he was, on the deck of a house in the middle of a lake, playing with fire.
Now, I can already feel a bunch of white women clutching their pearls here. And yes, I get it. Would my kid be allowed to play with a lighter? NO! Would he be allowed on the deck of a house on the water unsupervised? NO! But not only did he seem very aware of his surroundings, he was in his own way looking after his brother too.
What I learned in this situation was that when you live in a floating house in the middle of a lake and you have two kids and a shop and a crocodile farm to run, you’re not going to have your eyes on your kids every second of the day. That’s life.
In general, this little image taught me that you can only do what you can do, and no more. Reflecting on this as a parent who also studies full time, runs a blog she’s turning into a business and attempts to manage a household, I take this to heart. I can only do what I can do. And sometimes my kids are going to do dumb stuff. They will learn from it, and so will I.
Check your privilege
I know, frequent readers of this blog probably roll their eyes every time I say this now. It’s my catch cry. But here, just as anywhere else, it’s true. In fact, traveling to Cambodia was the experience that really taught me this concept. There’s no point bringing along your white-saviour-complex and visiting orphanages (ugh) and coming home talking about how lucky they are that you brought your dollars to their country (though this can be a good thing – read: Help! Should I Boycott Burma?).
Traveling to Cambodia will be confronting. There’s just no way around it. From their history to the living standards of some people, to the food or the infrastructure. I can absolutely guarantee some culture shock. Some things will invoke sadness, some will give rise to a jaw-dropping awe. But it’s important to remember where we come from and just how good we have it. And to approach the experience of traveling to Cambodia as one where we can learn and grow and build understanding from this incredible country and its people.
For me personally, these simple life lessons have completely changed how I approach life. When I say traveling to Cambodia changed my life, I mean it.
Do you have a story to share about traveling to Cambodia? Let me know in the comments below!
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