BEYOND THE PHOTOGRAPHS: NEW PERSPECTIVES ON TRAVEL
Cambodia is the land of Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site more widely known than the country itself. “City of the Gods” and “Kingdom of Wonder;” these are some of the ways in which the temple complex has been described. I remember first seeing pictures of it at a young, impressionable age, in a book on world travel my grandfather had ordered from Reader’s Digest. He had worked on a steamship carrier in the early years of his career before he anchored in a profession that allowed him to be closer to his family. He enjoyed the sailing stint nevertheless, and it was this experience that led him to order the book. It was a beautiful hard-bound copy with cloth binding and plastic-coated thick pages, making it a perfect coffee-table read and a joy to have in your personal collection. Each of the sections focused on exclusive destinations, their information accompanied by attractive and colorful pictures. Of course, it took me half a lifetime to truly understand and appreciate the value of both the book and the concept of travel.
As I write this piece today, it has been exactly two years since wanderlust took me on a three-month-long backpacking trip to Southeast Asia with my partner. He was between jobs and I had my summer break from graduate school. We gave up our New York City apartment, put all of our stuff in storage, packed our bags, and prepared for an adventure of our own. My anticipation heightened as I thought of the Cambodia from my grandfather’s book. After so long, I would be seeing a place I had only known through photographs.
When I finally stood in front of Angkor Wat, I was utterly spellbound. It was one thing to see pictures in a book, and another to actually see this monument in person.
Our sole purpose of visiting Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat. The site was reason enough, for it expressed why visitors like me take an interest in the country. We were no different from the thousands of tourists who travel every year to see the temple bathed in gorgeous shades of the rising and setting sun. From the day we arrived in Siem Reap, the tiny town that is home to Angkor Wat, we spent practically every morning and evening visiting the temple ruins. The hotel staff had very thoughtfully arranged for transport and an extremely efficient guide who showed us around and provided us with information in meticulous detail on the scriptures and the murals on the temple walls, the history of its construction, its rather mysterious abandonment by those who ruled it, and its ultimate discovery by a French naturalist. When I finally stood in front of Angkor Wat, I was utterly spellbound. It was one thing to see pictures in a book, and another to actually see this monument in person.
Cambodia has plenty to offer besides Angkor Wat and the numerous other temples in the area. In Siem Reap, fishermen take you out on a fishing boat in the middle of the Tonle Sap lake, which is the size of a sea. The Pub street area is full of bars and restaurants, giving the town a trendy vibe. The capital city of Phnom Penh is bigger and busier, brimming with cultural events and tourist attractions. A one-night stay in Kampot, a town about three hours from Phnom Penh, transfers you to a setting that mixes traditional Cambodian culture with Western trends. Famous for its fresh Kampot pepper, it is mostly inhabited by expats from all over the world who have made it their home, lending it a bohemian feel. On the way to Kampot, a brief stop at the Popokvil waterfalls provides an opportunity to connect with nature. The laid-back beach town of Kep – once a favorite haunt of the French elite – serves as an ideal transit point to stop and sample the famous Kep crab while sitting in a shack overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The distinct taste of the crab, smothered in Kampot pepper, is hard to forget.
Travel slowly ceased to be about spectacle and sightseeing and more about understanding, change, and growth.
While we dedicated most of our visit to top attractions, I also took the time to learn about Cambodia’s grim past. The Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Center, located in Siem Reap, is a reminder of the Cambodian people’s pain and suffering at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – the communist party formed by Polpot, Cambodia’s very own Hitler – which ravaged the country for almost 35 years. The man behind the landlime museum, Aki Ra, was forcefully taken away from his family by the Khmer Rouge at the age of five. When he was old enough to fight, his main job involved planting landmines. After the Khmer Rouge was finally dismantled, Ra joined forces with the UN to clear landmines around Angkor Wat. He later returned to his native village to de-mine entire fields. Ra made it his mission to share his story with the world by co-founding the landmine museum as well as undertaking welfare projects for landmine victims, especially children. In Phnom Penh, the genocide museum (once a school, later turned into a Khmer Rouge detention center) is no less shocking than its Siem Reap counterpart. The museum shows photographs of thousands of people – many of whom were doctors, lawyers, and engineers – taken as prisoners, tortured, and slaughtered, their bodies thrown away in pits. The images were haunting, a brutal reminder of the suffering of innocent civilians.
My conversations with our guide and some of the other locals slowly revealed their day-to-day struggles and the complexities of their lives in a world that they hoped to change and expand. Despite the hardships, the people were full of life and undeterred optimism, which was deeply moving and equally humbling. The numerous other backpackers we met on our travels shared similar stories of how the collective experience of both the people and the place had left an everlasting impression on them. This introspection made me realize that happiness was a state of mind that could be found if sought. Travel slowly ceased to be about spectacle and sightseeing and more about understanding, change, and growth.
In the backdrop of Pol Pot’s fallen regime, Angkor Wat still stands tall and mighty, thirty years since I first saw it in that world travel book, hundreds since it was built.
Shweta Deshpande is a Ph.D. student in French studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She holds a Master’s degree in Translation Studies and worked as translator for several years. Her research interests include Francophonie, Diaspora, and Migration. Beyond academia, she likes to dabble in creative non-fiction.