The Secret Map

10 Life Lessons Learned from Traveling Cambodia


Why do we travel?

Is it to escape our daily routine? Perhaps it’s to see the world and how others live. Some of us travel for an extended holiday while others wish to challenge themselves by living economically along the road less traveled.

On a recent trip to Cambodia, I desired to do all of the above. I left with lighter pockets but felt richer in spirit.

Here are ten things I learned in the Cambodian school of life.

1. BE YOUR OWN GUIDE 

However much pre-trip planning you’ve done, you’ll meet plenty of people along the way to help guide you. The best outcomes are usually the result of gut instinct.

Too many of travelers rush from A to B without stopping to smell the lotus flowers. Loosen your schedule and slow down. Things may not go to plan so learn from your mistakes or misfortunes – they will make you stronger and wiser.

In Battambang, my friend Chris and I were going to visit a killing field area when teh steep ticket price, coupled with amount of tourists heading there made us do a 180 degree turn and we found ourselves a few minutes later in a monk’s garden who had a playful pet monkey. No ticket required.

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Don’t let a rainstorm get you down – savour it.
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Don’t forget to appreciate the now…or it’ll pass you by.
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Tourists gone one way? Go the other! The road less traveled always offers more interesting sights.

2. SHARE YOUR PASSION – At a guesthouse I met a young man named Jacob. Instead of the typical “What do you do?”, he asked “What’s your passion?”. I told him photography, he was into drawing and painting. When the guesthouse owners discovered our passions, Jacob was commissioned to design his first mural for them, while I was tasked to document the process.

Over the course of five weeks, I saw an incredible amount of creative talent emerge from people both individually and collaboratively. Showing your talent not only displays it to the world, but the sharing of it openly encourages you to up your game.

The merging of different crafts as people create together breeds new forms of expression This can create a ripple effect, inspiring others and even forming communities. Otres Beach on the south coast of Cambodia was one such community of artistically minded foreigners forging an alternative society for themselves outside of the ones made for them by society. “It’s like ‘The Beach’, said an Otres veteran, referring to Alex Garland’s novel.

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Jacob drawing the blueprint for what would be his first mural.
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He reproduced his vision with startling accuracy.
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Because Jacob had contributed his time and talents he was given ‘artist in residence’ status and was fed and housed in return for his work.

3. GIVE BACK 

Too many human interactions are fleeting and momentary. Whether it’s life or travel, we should always consider whether we are taking more than we’re giving.

My prime reason for going to Cambodia this time was to deliver a magazine to a girl I’d photographed two years prior. Her image featured in a travel article I wrote about Kampot.

Although I’d returned the same photograph as a print the first time around, she wasn’t that impressed (it was the colour isolation, I know it!), but when I returned with the magazine, her jaw hit the floor. Her friends and family were also excited but I think I may have been the happiest because of the sense of completion it gave me and how positive the reaction was. It also provided a portal into a community I wouldn’t have a reason to visit otherwise.

Of course, in Cambodia there many ways you can give your time, such as help to build a school, teach, volunteer for various cleanup projects, the list is endless. Returning a printed photograph is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Doray, the girl from the photograph, became the village celebrity for the day
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It was as much of a pleasure to give this photo to Mai, an elder in Doray’s village, as it seemed to have received it. We didn’t need to speak each other’s language to create this momentary bond.
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The lifestyle of a monk is relatively simple, and it’s a very simple gesture to bring back a printed photograph.

4. JUDGE NOT 

Some of you may have seen monks subverting the stereotype of purity and innocence in South East Asia. Whether it’s smoking or playing rap music from smartphones, some tourists are surprised to see behaviour that taints their idealized image of monkhood, while others decry it morally wrong.

Donning an orange robe doesn’t take away what’s underneath. Many of the young monks talk about girls, listen to rap, play fight and generally act their age. Boys will be boys, and the more you get to know them on an individual level, the less idealized your vision becomes.

Some people are kinder than others, some more innocent, others more corrupt. This applies whether you have an orange robe or a suit and tie, no matter how we present ourselves in public or on our social media profiles. We all have vices, so never be quick to judge someone else’s character without first being honest about your own.

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FLOW 

Achieving a state of flow means clearing your mind of thoughts of past or future and focusing on the here and now. The gentle nature of Cambodians, the staggered beauty of their ravaged tropical landscape and the slower pace of life compared it’s more aggressively modernizing neighbour, Thailand, means that crossing into Cambodia is like entering a new realm of existence.

Spending time in Cambodia, where your everyday conveniences are stripped back and you aren’t so comfortable, shakes up your senses and makes you more alert. The developed world has people wrapped up in emotional cotton wool – we’ve become victims of comfort.

As Brad Pitt’s character Tyler Durden says in the film Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”. You won’t realize the truth of this statement until you relinquish, however briefly, the myriad of material accumulations you surrounded yourself with back home. The disregard of so many material possessions allows us to relax, be happier and embrace a more present state of mind. If there are still things that you miss after time away from them, you will value them even more in their absence.

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6. MAKE CONNECTIONS

If you’ve traveled to uncover more about a culture, a great way to satiate your curiosity is to directly approach people.

In Cambodia, I’ve seen countless tourists walking sheepishly around temples, Lonely Planet in hand, curiously staring at monks but often too shy to talk to them. The monks I’ve told about this have revealed that they too are shy because of their own relative social isolation, and more often than not, they’re unnecessarily worried about their English ability. Cambodian Monks tend to study foreign languages so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to strike up a conversation. In one temple I visited they even studied Korean.

We are each other’s curiosity, and once you approach someone and start asking questions, you will find they may be equally curious about your own life and culture.

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Curious cats on the streets of Phnom Penh.
At a temple in Kampong Cham, I was observing a monk in his room only to find out he was gathering some drink offerings to give to my friends and I.
At a temple in Kampong Cham, I was observing a monk in his room only to discover he was looking for some drinks to give to my friends and I.
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We conversed a little and later became friends of Facebook – most monks these days have a Facebook profile.

7. IMMERSE YOURSELF  

One way to immerse yourself in the culture of a country is to learn about some of it’s history. In a place Cambodia, I would consider it essential, considering how impactful the Khmer Rouge-led genocide was.

The main victimsof the killing were the intelligentsia, thus when the Khmer Rouge was removed from power, Cambodia was not only financially poor, but intellectually – a burden the country is still suffering heavily from to this day. Contextual knowledge of your surroundings will allow yourself to see things with more understanding.

Gaining a new perspective from afar can allow you re-assess your own priorities and emotional attachments. Likewise, returning to a familiar place can give us ‘reverse culture shock’, a feeling that once-familiar surroundings can no longer be seen in the same light as before. Previous paradigms of reality can shift dramatically when relative to aspects of life you’ve witnessed in different cultures.

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A visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh forms an understanding of how things came to be.
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‘The Killing Fields’ were the terms for many sites around the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, where over a million people were taken and killed in a manner rarely subjected to animals.
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Learning about symbolic meanings behind images seen in Angkorian temples brings a new experience to the viewing of architecture. The character above is known as a ‘Devata’, a seductive female deity stemming from the Hindu religion. This sensual historical awareness can breathe new life into dusty temples.

8. EMBRACE CHANGE 

The place you once visited will not be the same place you return to. Everything changes. Nothing in the material world ever stays the same. To quote Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club character again: “Nothing is static. Everything is evolving. Everything is falling apart.”

Five years ago at Otres Beach, on Cambodia’s south coast, there was almost no development. Now it is a large community with long-term foreign residents mixed with short-term backpackers and flashpackers. It’s still retains a secluded charm, yet utopia’s inevitability of dystopia means that the population and prices in Otres will keep rising and the quaint little foreign enclave will transformed to something more soulless. But that’s OK – because there’s always a new version of ‘The Beach’ when the old one gets overrun. (2020 edit: dystopia is now in full effect)

Yet it’s not just the tourist enclaves, change is dramatically evident in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penn, where the sizable ship of capitalism has dropped it’s heavy anchor. The city center’s shanty neighbourhoods have mostly been cleared for the development luxury malls, hotels and a new two million dollar mosque. Phnom Penh provides a fascinating contrast of this divide between rich and poor.

Instead of bemoaning and fighting the inevitable, we must accept that we have to make the most of what is in front of us in the present, because it might not be around in the future.

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A view from $2,000,000 mosque in the city center. One shanty dwelling remains from a vast area cleared by forced evictions.
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Cyclo drivers are a remnant of the old way of life in Phnom Penh, and are among the city’s poorest residents, often seen sleeping in their modes of transport.
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There is a world of distance between the modern and tradition lifestyles in Phnom Penh.

9. RETURN TO NATURE 

Walk barefoot in sand and listen to the music of the ocean. Explore forests. Soak in sunlight and observe a slow sunset, escaping the grey urban matrix we’ve constructed for ourselves.

After taking daily two hour walks along the beach in Otres, I was physically healthier and felt much of the stress formed from my previous city-dwelling lifestyle dissipate over time as I attuned to nature’s natural rhythms. Don’t just take my word for it, this observation is backed up by psychological research.

Spend time in more organic realms, this is where we belong. Relax, detach and still your restless mind. It will do you a world of good.

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On my travels, I was asked to take shots for a few yogi’s portfolios. Yoga itself is a spiritually cleansing pursuit, but performed to the sound of gentle waves crashing, engulfed in the warm evening heat, and with feet rooted in a natural yoga mat of sand, can enhance the experience immensely.
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There are numerous benefits to walking barefoot including improved balance and posture, increased energy, better blood circulation to name but a few.
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The glorious sunsets of Cambodia aren’t just a pretty picture. Taking the time to appreciate nature’s greatest of spectacles attunes us to the present moment and away from thoughts of past and future. This freeing of stress and anxiety clears your mind for inspiration and relaxed introspection.

10.  UNDERSTAND LIFE IS DEFINED BY OPPOSITES  

In developing nations such as Cambodia you are witness to stark contradictions. The sense of freedom you feel in a country with loose laws can also be the reason for it’s dangers. Foreign communities are appealing alternative societies, but in contrast to the surrounding local culture, they can can be seen as neo-colonialism. You can see this emerging on the beaches of the south coast (2020 update: especially now), but in Siem Reap, where the tourist dollar is king, the amount of foreigners have turned the place into Disneyland.

Despite a lack of decent infrastructure, the relatively simple lifestyle Cambodians have lived by is one of less worry and anxiety than the hyperactive status-driven countries of the West. People always comment how people in developing nations seem happier, despite having ;ess material wealth. The late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. talked about the accumulation of wealth breeding “Jealousy, envy and negative energy”. Philosopher Alain De Botton calls this Status Anxiety.

Traveling and living with less creature comforts for a while can put things in perspective about what are the true things in life that create joy. Negatively comparing yourself to your neighbour or your friends’ highlighted and carefully-presented social media lives will merely lead to feelings of inadequacy. Go hang out in the Cambodian countryside for a while instead.

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The weight from the past is heavy, but with the right spirit, the young population can it pull over their shoulders and march forward.
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Education maybe lacking at the moment, but young Cambodians are well trained in the school of life.
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The future can be bright in Cambodia, but there’s a long road ahead. These photographs were taken not far from Otres on Cambodia’s south coast.

Of course, there are many more lessons to learn. Visiting a country can provide much more than embracing an unfamiliar culture and environment – it may give you refreshed perspectives about the places and people back home, too.


Written and photographed by Simon Slater


For more Secret Map posts on Cambodia, there are Where the Buffalo Roam, Return to the Land of the Buffalo, and Journey of Life: A Cambodian Odyssey

16 replies to “10 Life Lessons Learned from Traveling Cambodia

  1. For me too, the earth slightly moved on its axis when I started exploring Cambodia for hard family reasons and it was the start of an intoxication with Asia … various trips to different Asian countries later and before a 4th stay in Cambodia, I come across your fine post and sensitive photos … thank you for your look on the inhabitants’ reality

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    1. I bet you didn’t intend to stay two months initially either! That place really sucks you in and holds a tight grip. Did you meet Mom? I was going to include a photo of her but then decided to limit myself to a certain amount of images for the sake of flow. Those sunsets hey?

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  2. Simon,

    I really like your writing – especially your views toward life. Thank you for sharing the article. I was a Cambodian child who lived through the Killing Field – managed to escape to the US 34 years ago. I began writing a story about my shattering past during the Killing Field era, but I have not had the opportunity to finish it. I was wondering if you are interested in helping me to finish the story. I live and work in Wash DC.

    Please let me know when you get a chance.

    Regards,
    Dara

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  3. Simon, thank you for taking the time to visit my country. I know there are a lot of places to visit so I always appreciate the tourist who take the time, money and effort to visit Cambodia. I really enjoyed reading your post and seeing your perspective. I wish you can achieve whatever you desire in your life.

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    1. Veerak I love visiting your country, it was my 4th time there. Thank you also for taking the time to read the post and i’m really happy that you enjoyed it, especially because you are Cambodian. I also wish you the best and I think that you can accomplish the things you want in life if you work hard and have determination – good luck to you 🙂

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  4. I just got back from three-months in Cambodia, two of which were spent on a solo motorbike journey exploring every province and just about every town in the country. All I can say is that you don’t have a clue what Cambodia is about if you stick to the siem reap, phnom Penh, sihanoukville tourist routes. GET OFF THE TRACK AND EXPERIENCE THE REAL CAMBODIA BEFORE THE WESTERNERS ROOK OVER!

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  5. Lovely site and words…! I’ve just got back from my first visit to Cambodia having travelled a lot to other SE Asian countries this really captures the spirit of what it’s like to scratch the surface of such a wonderful special place, what it’s like to confront life through an alternate lens, and to just be in awe of it all.

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  6. Not sure, I got there at the right time for me! The contrast which you describe so well here is still being processed, alongside the photos. Someone here said to me surprised ‘Why Cambodia?’ and Cambodians may well ask that same question but from a very different perspective. Interesting. Its unique imprint and people have certainly been made and would love to see more of the place.

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