We didn't realize just how quick time would fly by on Morotai and just about as soon as we arrived, we needed to start making plans to leave Indonesia so we could apply for new ones that would allow us to stay until the end of the program. We had no idea where to go... we needed to find a country close, where we could stay with a friend, and that's exchange rate wouldn't leave us completely broke. Emi had always wanted to go to Cambodia and had heard it was relatively budget-able for us. Nico realized he had a good friend who just moved to Cambodia from Thailand. We didn't have to much time to hesitate so we made our travel arrangements within a couple hours and come December... we found ourselves headed to Phnom Pehn, Cambodia's capital.
In Cambodia, we met up with our friend, Jeff, an environmental journalist who has been living and working in Southeast Asia for over 25 years! He’s recently relocated to Phnom Penh from Thailand. Traveling with Jeff, we felt like we were taking a university field course on Southeast Asian culture and environmental activism... what a incredible privilege it has been to learn from such a humble soul.
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. It flows through six countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. No other river is home to so many species of very large fish... it even has freshwater stingray with a wingspan of 4.3 meters!! The Mekong basin is the second most diverse area on earth, after the Amazon... the Mekong flows through Phnom Penh like some mystical water snake unwilling to share its secrets but friendly enough to let you take a ride on its back.
In Cambodia, 95% of people are Buddhists... its basically been that way since the 13th century (except during the Khmer Rouge - they were anything but Buddhists). Cambodia’s Theravada Buddhism is an extraordinary mix of indigenous animalism with Hindu mysticism and teaching of the Buddha... It is incredible... lately, I’ve been inquiring with the heads of one local temple.
In 1975, this high school (formally known as Tuol Svay Prey) was taken over by Brother Number One, Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and turned into one of the largest detention and torture centers in the country. Over 17,000 people (including two New Zealanders) entered these gates and only 23 survived. The prison now is open to the public as a reminder of something that should never be repeated. It was a profoundly depressing experience to wander the halls and step foot in the rooms where people we mercilessly tormented and murdered. But as one Cambodian puts it, “The bones cannot find peace until the truth they hold in themselves has been revealed.” I cannot comprehend the horror of the Cambodian Genocide but we try at least to not look away and honor the innocent lives lost by inconceivable violence.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world dating back to the first half of the 12th century. It is an absolute dreamscape. Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor is so old that jungle trees consume its walls... it was home to over 12,500 people (including 18 high priests and 615 dancers). We could have stayed here forever.
Afterwards, we explored the countryside... and saw Phnom Sampeou, home to a series of caves and a Buddhist monastery. At dusk, millions of wiggled-lipped bats burst into the countryside from inside the caves, returning at dawn after feasting on insects. It was a spectacular site. Emi also received a crash course in rice.
For New Years, we took the slow boat traveling the 8 hours between Siem Reap and Battambang by river... you perhaps awkwardly get a glimpse into the life of the floating villages genuinely engineered by the ethnic Vietnamese who live here as nomads. The way they have adapted to a floating lifestyle is incredible... from the way they fish to their methods of harvesting crops, it’s true a world world.
We never expected to go to Cambodia this year but it was truly an absolute honor to learn from the Khmer people and spend time with our dear friend, Jeff.