Cambodia: Kingdom of Wonder

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while, I know. I have some excuses for my absence, although not very good, but here they are anyway:

Shortly after settling into our new home in Kuala Lumpur, I was off and away for a lovely little vacation in beautiful Paris, and then onwards to Toronto for some much needed family time. I had every intention to keep this blog up once I returned to Malaysia but I clearly failed miserably. It’s not that I didn’t have much to share, I simply let it fall to side as I busied myself in making new connections, taking pottery classes, and getting back into a regular yoga practice.. and perhaps the biggest factor of all: we’re having a baby! Having said that, my plans to work as an Art Therapist in KL naturally fell through, and instead, I was armed with a strange, new list of things to do, buy, and think about to prepare for this exciting new adventure. Also, “baby brain” is a real thing, folks, and it prevented me from successfully completing many a cerebral task. In fact, I’m struggling to make these sentences sound semi-coherent here so just bear with me.

So, before the all-consuming role of “parents” seized us in all its sleepless glory, we decided to cross a couple of travel destinations off our list while we still had the chance to do so as a relaxed, self-absorbed twosome. Cambodia, which crept up my Asian destinations list over the past year took the winning spot, making it the highlight of September 2014. We followed this adventurous trip up with something far more laid-back by hitting up the nearby Pangkor Laut Island on the West Coast of Malaysia in December 2014. A total splurge, we stayed in a luxurious overwater bungalow on an uninhabited little island where we basked in the sun and sea for about a week. It was only the best tropical resort vacation EVER. Period. I guess they call this sort of thing a “babymoon” nowadays; a re-do of the honeymoon only instead of celebrating the start of wedded bliss, you’re basically bidding it farewell. Just kidding! (I hope). Anyway, here’s a memory:
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Cambodia, which is what I want to focus on here, should be on every traveller’s must visit destination in Southeast Asia. More specifically, the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat just outside the city of Siem Reap makes it on many travellers’ bucket lists, and has come to be known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First a Hindu, and later a Buddhist temple complex, Angkor Wat is impressively the largest religious monument in the world. Built by a Khmer King in the early 12th century in what was the capital of the Khmer Empire at the time, Angkor Wat has come to represent classical Khmer architecture and has become a symbol of pride for the entire country, even taking centre spot on the national flag.

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Like your average tourist, I quickly looked up Cambodia’s must-see lists and of course, Angkor Wat was number one every single time. Not only that, it seemed imperative that I be witness to its grandeur for the first time at the break of dawn to capture the temple in all its ethereal, shimmering early-morning glory. Every day at dusk, bleary-eyed tourists in Siem Reap fill up rickety tuk-tuks and taxis to head to the complex in order to catch what travel books promise to be a vision so magical, it might be worth your left kidney. Well, I was sold, and so we made our way through a dark, mosquito-infested complex with just flashlights to await the wonders of the morning sun. And so we waited with a sea of similar zombie-like tourists, staring together in the same direction.

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And.. overcast. The sun came up but only as it remained tucked behind clouds and so we felt sorely cheated out of the full “Angkor Wat at sunrise” experience. Nevertheless, we were impressed enough as it was, fatigue and hunger aside, and embarked on two full days of exploring the rest of  the many temples in the complex, some that I personally found even more beautiful than the iconic Angkor Wat itself. To be honest, I cannot remember many of the temple names or historical facts surrounding them at this point so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Breathtaking is just one word that comes to mind when I remember the experience and sadly, the pictures just don’t do it enough justice.

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I do remember, however, that the temple shown below is called Ta Prohm and was the filming location of Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie, for all you movie buffs.

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I fell in love with the overgrown trees and vines surrounding this temple. So magical and otherworldly.

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A passing tuk-tuk (rickshaw) scene of a young boy working a rice paddy field. Perfect timing.

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The nearby city of Siem Reap, always brimming with tourists who mainly pass through for Angkor Wat, has vibrant night markets, food and culture worth exploring all for itself. A popular Cambodian souvenir is a hand-loomed “krama”, which is a checkered scarf made from light, breathable cotton. These scarves were traditionally worn by field and rice paddy workers to protect their necks from the heat of the sun but now seem to be more of a popular local clothing item, often pushed on tourists to purchase, and so I wilfully succumbed.

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A quick note about the food, which I find to be among the most exciting aspects about any new place: Cambodian (Khmer) cuisine can be best described as a milder, understated version of the spicier Thai cuisine, while also absorbing culinary influences from neighboring Vietnam. Subtle yet delicious.

After becoming completely “temple’d out”, we flew to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, which exudes a totally different vibe from quieter Siem Reap.

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The riverwalk area in Phnom Penh shown above is a lively local hub for locals and tourists alike, bustling with people young and old taking leisurely strolls, exercising, and just gazing out into the Mekong River, which is usually trafficked by sunset cruises starting in the evening hour. On the other side of the riverwalk lies the Royal Palace, which serves as the royal residence of the King of Cambodia.

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Tourists in Phnom Penh are often encouraged to visit two of the country’s most historically significant sites: the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) shown above, and the Choeung Eak Killing Fields. Both serve as testament to the country’s horrifying past under the dictatorship of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge Regime that spanned the years of 1975-1979, resulting in the loss of nearly 2 million Cambodian lives, all in the name of achieving a Communist agrarian ideal. Starting off with just a basic working knowledge about Cambodia’s bloody past, I can only describe all that was learned here as deeply chilling and powerfully humbling. Being physically present in S21, where thousands upon thousands were held prisoner and tortured, followed by visiting the Killing Fields where scores of helpless, innocent Cambodians were taken to be killed and buried, was an experience that left the heaviest of impressions on our hearts and brought with it a new appreciation for the country. I understood then and there why Cambodia is the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, as it basically was forced to economically reset itself since only the 1980’s, which is not a long time to heal the kind of psychological scarring such a mass systemic genocide can leave on a nation.

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In need of balancing out such a heavy day, we headed over to the famous Russian Market, which touts itself as the largest in the country and one of the largest markets in the Southeast Asian region. Named after the large number of Russian expats that lived in Phnom Penh in the 1980s, the market was known to stock many of Moscow’s Cold War goods, which obviously isn’t the case anymore. Today, the market boasts the largest selection of Cambodian goods, clothing, housewares, handicrafts, souvenirs, and the list goes on. After spending so much time in Asian markets in general, we weren’t as interested in the market itself as we were in a certain famous iced coffee stall it houses, which I happened to read about on board Air Asia’s flight magazine.

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After some time wandering in circles, we found exactly what the magazine and TripAdvisor told me to be on the lookout for: a sign that says “Best Iced Coffee in Phnom Penh” and an elderly man with a sweet smile, who happens to be the owner, affectionately referred to as Mr. B. I’m not sure what Mr. B does differently with his iced coffees but we both agreed that it was the best we had ever had, and may I just add that he was just as warm as he was described to be. He explained to us how his father was sadly killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and to support his mother and siblings, he started this business where he continues to clock in so many hours just to make a living, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. If anyone deserves a nice fat tip, it’s this guy.

And so, Cambodia proved to live up to everything it promised to offer; a rich history, a fascinating culture, and spectacular sights. Fast forward to the present and I find myself drawing parallels between what it’s like to explore new lands and cultures to what navigating parenthood for the first time must feel like. I guess we’ll find out like, any day now (insert a million emotions). As I’m busy trying to figure out this strange, new territory and my role in it, this blog will have to be put to rest for the time being. I guess that’s not much different than how I’ve treated it lately anyhow, but I do want to say that it’s been such a wonderful playground for me to process and share my experiences of adapting to Malaysia, and my journey towards finding myself feeling whole and present again. We look forward to continuing to travel, only now with the addition of a special little person who isn’t even born yet but already has her first trip planned for Bali this Spring!

I imagine she will only make life all the sweeter to explore.

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