hird world, genocide, and ancient temples. For some people, a place like that doesn’t seem like an ideal vacation. But for me and my two Chinese friends, Queenie and Ring, it was perfect – an affordable, tropical paradise. During our stay in Cambodia, we planned to visit Phnom Penh, the capital, then travel to Sihanoukville, a beach town, and end at Siem Reap, home to the ancient temple Angkor Wat. Phnom Penh was busy, but not like China. There are many more tuk-tuks and motorcycles than cars or buses, with little public transportation and hardly any high-rise buildings until we entered the downtown area. China was clearly investing. Most construction projects were Chinesefinanced, and there were Chinese restaurants and businesses scattered throughout the city. But we were here to experience Cambodia, so we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Royal Palace, a complex similar to the Forbidden City where the Cambodian royalty lived. Many buildings seemed to me like Buddhist versions of European cathedrals, with rooves covered in delicate carvings of 7-headed snakes, dragons, and Buddhist gods. Most had a central spire that towered over the building. Buddhism is ubiquitous, and there was certain reverence I hadn’t expected. When we entered a temple, we had to remove our shoes and step over the wooden entrance to walk on the carpeted floor. Many people offered incense or money to the Buddhist gods inside.
The next day we visited some missionaries at Bloom, who ran a bakery and training centre that employed girls rescued from sex trafficking. Their cakes were delicious; they proudly told us that they had baked cakes for Cambodia’s royalty before. After sampling some delicious cupcakes, we headed to the considerably less sweet Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school used as a gruesome prison for opposers of the Khmer Rouge regime. The atrocities it committed left deep scars on the nation, as well as economic and social ruin. Prisoners here were chained to a metal bar and slept on metal beds. Their toilet was an empty munitions box. The cruelty of the guards was inhuman. Some dunked prisoners’ heads in excrement if they fell unconscious during a beating; others would whip, drown, or electrocute their victims. Any who survived torture were sent to the “Killing Fields” to be executed en masse. Thousands upon thousands of nameless bodies lie there in graves today. Phnom Penh had been sobering, and we were ready to relax our bodies and minds at Sihanoukville. Our tuk-tuk driver took us to Otres Beach, a long strip of sand that curled around the coast, with oceanfront properties a few feet from the waves, where we stayed to watched the spreading redorange sunset, and snorkelled the next day. I was amazed by the alien world thriving underwater. There were dozens of striped fish swimming around spongy rocks, tubular plants, and spiky sea urchins. The water wasn’t transparent, but it was close enough. The fish seemed unperturbed by our presence unless I tried touching them. Perhaps they’re used to dozens of snorkelers invading their reef each week. I would have snorkelled for hours but my lungs were too weak, and I was terrified I’d accidentally pierce my foot on a sea urchin. So after an hour, we climbed back into the boat and headed back to the coast. I may not have seen a shark or octopus, but the underwater world had been mesmerising. The next day we traveled to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex built over 1,000 years ago by the Khmer Empire. It was worth the $40 entrance fee. The paved stone entrance walkway took us across a moat that surrounded the whole temple. Then we entered a massive stone gate that was a prelude to the main attraction. We saw five spires rising up from the temple courtyard, and once inside, we found Buddhist gods carved into pillars, walls, and ceilings. The monsoon rains had left their mark on them, but many were still intact. Not all the temples were as well-preserved, with the unstoppable hand of time clearly visible in many. Another one we visited had been gouged and scarred by trees, whose roots had toppled walls, crushed roofs, and destroyed whole sections of the temple. Man had built a work of art, but it seemed clear that nature and time would always prevail. Over the next two days, we saw more temples than I had seen for years. One I remember well had 4-faced Buddha heads on each tower. I couldn’t tell if they were different or not, but they did seem to smile beatifically at me. Another was a miniaturised Hindu temple built with red sandstone, that had intricate carvings of various Hindu gods, most of whom I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Angkor Wat made Cambodia great, and the Khmer Rouge nearly destroyed it. But now it is on the rebound. With time, I hope it fully heals from its wounds.