Cambodia sits in between Thailand to the west, Laos to the north , and Vietnam to the east in Southeast Asia. Its history is both beautiful and horribly sad. large stone temples from Angkor still sit in jungles from over a thousand years ago now the memories of a brutal genocide that overwhelmed the country from 1975-1979 sit in the minds of some of the youth. Both beautiful and horrid,Cambodia was to become one of my favorite places a place that I still love deeply. This is the is the story of my experience, the pity that soon overwhelmed me, and the imagery that soon joined me in my sleep. 

As we approached Phnom Penh I began chatting with the two strangers I befriended at the border only a couple hours previous. One was a man from Sweden, Sven. Sven was a weird itchy young man who came on this trip alone to help him with his confidence issues. He was not a people person. He wore a press hat, hawaiian t-shirt, long khaki shorts, white athletic socks pulled up to his knees, and worn out converse shoes. His eyes twitched and shuffled from side to side as he nervously smiled with large horse teeth.”What do you do for a living Sven?” I asked. “Umm, well, I live at home with my mother and bag groceries at the local food market”. At first I had thought he was on drugs-some hallucinogen or something. I pictured him in his apron getting disheveled and stressed over whether to use one or two bags, plastic or paper.

Susan on the other hand seemed like she had her head on straight even though she suffered from a broken heart. She was an Australian women in her mid forties with beautiful curly golden hair that came down to her shoulders that were covered in freckles. Susan had been traveling by herself for the past six months and somehow ended up in Cambodia. She had no desire for coming but ended up on that bus in Saigon after the love of her life had left her. The same way Susan wore her white tank top and light blue sarong she wore her sadness-her heart on her sleeve. She smiled a lot and seemed quite friendly but she needed some company so the three of us talked about our plans and we decided that the three of us would travel together for the next week.

As our bus pulled up to our stop in the capitol the three of us grabbed our bags and got off the bus. My legs were moving quicker than my upper half. I hadn’t had a memory ever of being that excited. We were approached by a tuk-tuk driver and bargained with him to bring us to the hotel where I had reserved a room. Our driver had a lazy eye and large moles on his face where long hairs grew from. He smiled a lot but we didn’t know who he was speaking to or smiling at. Within a short time it had become quite humorous. We sped along through the streets of Phnom Penh as I hung out the side of the Tuk-Tuk snapping pictures with large gonzo eyes of amazement. I was finally in the wild west that is Cambodia.

The streets were incredible. Men on motorbikes sped past with live roosters dangling upside down from a stick attached to the back of the bike. Women in large droopy hats slowly peddled bicycles through the busy streets with large fresh baguettes protruding from bags in their baskets. Buses carrying numerous passengers on their roofs as they cruised slowly down large boulevards sidelined with exquisite french architecture from the colonization before the Vietnam war. As we drove down the street towards southern Phnom Penh all that passed gave smiles and waved. It reminded me of childhood. Not a care in the world, everyone seemed nice, polite, and generous. There was no evil in Cambodia, it was the land of smiles. But most children are ignorant and ignorance is bliss. Cambodia, the land of smiles had a lot of horror in its past and a lot horror in its present. The human animal can really destroy something so beautiful.

And it was then our tuk-tuk pulled up to the hotel. I paid the driver and checked in, took a shower, and then joined my new friends in the garden for some beer.

Across the street from the hotel was a building surrounded by tall walls and barbwire. On the front door it said Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I didn’t realize that the hotel I had booked was literally five feet from the most notorious torture prisons during the short reign of the Khmer Rouge during 1975 to 1979.