Cruising Through History in Cambodia

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After some of the best days in Laos, we flew from Vientiane to  Phnom Penh, Cambodia where we immediately visited the Aspara Arts Association  for a traditional dance performance before going to our hotel for the evening. The next morning we were privileged to have Bou Meng, only one of two living survivors from the prison SJ31 where tens of thousands of people were tortured before being set to the killing fields. It was an honor to hear his story and candid remarks about his experience and how he moved on from it is educating the next generations. This man is my forever hero for overcoming the absolute worst of humanity and coming through to the other side of joy and compassion. I also purchased a few of his books for friends to read as his story completely moved me and shook me to my core. Humanity can be so cruel to each other. Bou Meng is also an artist, and this talent helped him survive in the prison until it was shut down, as he was commissioned to make paintings of the leaders.

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After our heavy morning, we headed out to visit the Killing Fields which was one of the most profound experiences I have had. It is humbling and horrifying to stand on the same ground where so many innocent people lost their lives for reasons that have no logic. It was powerful and a feeling that I will never forget.

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During the Khmer Rouge, over a million people were slaughtered here with over 20,000 mass graves. It was a humbling morning and something that everyone who visits Cambodia needs to learn about and visit. Our in country guide gave us a great tour and shared his perspective on the new generation of Cambodians and how the events of Khmer Rouge are effecting their human experience growing up.

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We then went to the prison, where Bou Meng among thousands of others were tortured.  We couldn’t take any photos inside of the facilities, but got the opportunity to walk through the very rooms where so much cruelty happened. Inside there are some brutal photos that depict the true horror of the prison with photos of many of the prisoners at different phases of their time there.

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After an emotionally rough morning, we had lunch and headed out to visit the Royal Grand Palace of Cambodia which is a tourist hotspot but a beautiful place to visit.

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This is one of my favorite photos from the trip as it pretty much sums up everything…air conditioning and fans are everything! Everyone was gathered around the this one, small fan to receive any relief from the heat of the day.

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 This is one of my all time favorite photos from the trip as well and was taken at the Grand Palace. This is my friend and fellow traveler, Glenn who tried to steal this sign from a bathroom in Thailand, but then was caught and bribed the bathroom attendant with $10 USD. Why he did this, I have no clue. But that sums up Glenn! Eventually I will publish an essay about him as he is a fascinating person and I interviewed him on a plane ride. He wore this sign all day under his shirt and decided that this moment was the right time to open his shirt and release it to the world!

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The next morning we drove outside of Phnom Penh and took a traditional buffalo cart ride adjacent to the rice fields. This adorable girl was on my cart with me and had her hands in the traditional lotus position as she rode next to me.

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After the cart ride, we hoped onto a boat and took a ride to the floating village and school. The photo on the left is of the floating school that is funded by an organization; it is incredible the possibilities that education has at every corner of the earth. That night we went out by tuk tuk with a few other of our group travelers and went to the nearby island for dinner at an american restaurant. Listen, I love asian food dearly, but sometimes you just need a great big greek salad!

The next day we took a short flight to Siem Reap and settled into our hotel which was right in town and only a short 20 minute ride away from Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is a town built for tourists to visit Angkor Wat with millions of people coming every year to visit this incredible,  religious temple. It is absolute madness how much development, particularly in hotels that is happening in this town. That afternoon on our way to visit Bantay Srei, we stopped at a families house that our guide knew to see the process of making traditional rice noodles. One of the four daughters of the family showed us how they make the rice noodles that they sell at their small restaurant on the side of the road. This small business has allowed them to send their kids to school and build a new house. It is crazy to me how much work goes into the process for such little net profit; I think that Americans have a lot to learn about work ethic.

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Rolling out the dough after pressing the rice in a machine to make the flour and mixing it with water.
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Putting the dough into a vessel that will press it over a fire.

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The dough becoming noodles.

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Rinsing the noodles after a quick boil and then clumping them together for an almost finished product!

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After making a quick broth of ginger and some other spices, adding the noodles and there you have it; the best noodles I have ever had. Processed food…never again.

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The outside of Bantay Srei, the temple dedicated to the female form and feminine values. It was great to go at sunset before it closed as there were virtually no other people there to visit the site besides our group. At the site there were “officers” to watch the site and make sure no goes within the roped off areas. However, an officer told me that if I gave him money he would let me go in and take a photo. I politely declined.

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On our way back to our hotel we stopped to taste some of the palm sugar that was being cooked on the side of the road and visit the house of a woman who makes baskets. It’s crazy to me how this much work goes into this handmade basket, for it to only be sold for $6 USD and a very small profit. If you went to any store in the US, this basket would be easily sold for $40.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to visit the gem of Cambodia, Angkor Wat, the worlds largest religious site. We were there during off season and it was packed, so I can’t imagine what it’s like during the heat of the tourist season. We did enter through the back where no one else was which made for a great way to first experience such an amazing place. You could spend hours here wandering around if it wasn’t for the intense heat! It must have been 100 degrees that day.

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Noticing the small, intricate carvings everywhere that make up this massive site.

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With my mom standing on the ledge of the back entrance. This was for sure a bucket list for my mom and something I feel very fortunate to have visited at “such a young age.”

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My all time favorite photo. Call me National Geographic!

It’s not everyday that you get to see an elephant on the side of the road. Elephants are regarded in the most high manner in Cambodia, but there is a lot of controversy surrounding the treatment of the animals that I won’t get into now. But I marveled at the opportunity to see them everywhere, truly majestic animals.

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The incredible carvings of the famous face at Angkor Tom.

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After our morning of walking and learning, we split up and drove into a nearby village for a meal with a local host family that our tour had set up. We had a great time chatting with a young boy, his mother and aunt while making some sugar cake desserts that we boiled in water and served with fresh coconut. One thing that impressed me the most about Cambodia was the rising generation of youth; they are so smart, talented, aware and driven.

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We then visited the tomb raider site, made famous by Angelina Jolie. You can even have a drink in town at bar that she was said to have frequented during filming. The one thing that drove me absolutely crazy was when we were walking in the site and listening to our guide tell us about the history, when another group of tourists pushed their way through and caused a massive disruption. They didn’t care about learning the history, being respectful to other travels or where they were; all they wanted was their selfie and to leave. It was so bad that I confronted them and their guide. I have never experienced that level of people being so inconsiderate while traveling and I lost it for a second.

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We then returned back to Angkor Wat for a farewell toast with some very strong liquor, but the  best of memories and times!

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Cheers to you Cambodia! May you future be even brighter and full of promise and fulfillment. I can’t wait to return one day, perhaps to teach.

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