Although this story is about Cambodia, it really starts in Iceland. Allow me to explain.
It was October of 2021, and I had just booked a last-minute trip to the land of fire and ice. It had been one of the most difficult years of my life, and I was in serious need of some TLC in the form of breathtaking nature, a novel culture to immerse myself in, and - I hoped - some new like-minded, adventurous friends to explore the country with.
Thankfully, my trip delivered just the remedy I had been seeking, including two new fast friends from mainland Europe. Serendipitously, the three of us women in our 30’s had all traveled to Iceland alone, each in an attempt to find respite after a tumultuous and heartbreak-laden year.
We bonded quickly over our strikingly similar stories as well as a shared love of the many aspects of travel, but our friendship was really cemented through our shared sense of humor. Despite the challenges that inevitably surface during international travel, the three of us consistently transformed would-be frustrations into comical moments, doubling over in laughter every hour at the absurdity of travel snafus.
As anyone who’s ever traveled with, well, anyone else knows, it’s not easy to find companions who share a similar travel philosophy. Recognizing this mutual approach to travel in one another, the three of us agreed that despite living in three different countries - the US, Switzerland, and Sweden - we simply had to find a way to reunite somewhere in the world at some point and capitalize on our newfound, perfectly in-sync traveling trio.
Fast forward thirteen months later to November of 2022, and I watched in fascination out the airplane window as I was about to touch down on the other side of the world in South East Asia. As it turned out, for as silly as the three of us were together, we took our commitment to traveling together again quite seriously, and we had managed to coordinate a reunion on an entirely different continent.
After countless Zoom calls together over the past year, we had come to the conclusion that the country in which we would reconvene needed to meet three requirements: it had to be a country none of us had ever been to before; it had to be hot (in contrast to our very chilly Iceland trip, of course); and it had to have a balance of history, good food, and adventurous activities. The winner of our venn diagram of qualifiers? You guessed it: Cambodia.
Now, when most people hear ‘Cambodia,’ their response tends to either be something in reference to Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temple and largest religious monument in the world located in the northwest part of the country, or their response is, “Wait, where? Did you say Colombia? Or was it Costa Rica? Or maybe Canada?”
To be fair, our initial conversations around Cambodia weren’t much more enlightened, but upon arrival it quickly became clear that there is a lot to learn about this country sandwiched in between Thailand and Vietnam.
Our adventure began in Phnom Penh, the country’s bustling capital city. Prior to arriving, we had envisioned something a bit more quaint and peaceful for Cambodia’s capital; instead, the city shocked our senses awake with its over two million inhabitants zooming around on tuk tuks (two wheeled carriages pulled behind a motorbike), honking the horns of their mopeds (often transporting families of three, four, or even five, all balanced precariously on the bike), vending fragrant and curious foods from roadside booths, and broadcasting the sale of goods on street corners.
Once we had adjusted to the fast-paced reality of the city, what really stood out to us was the juxtaposition of modern and historic everywhere we looked: sterile, towering skyscrapers were located right next to beautiful, intricately detailed temples, monuments, and pagodas. In real time, we witnessed construction take place on high-rise buildings right next to sacred temples that were constructed over 700 years ago.
The ornate detail that was present in these older structures was representative of a defining aspect of Cambodian culture. As we would come to learn, even amongst the contemporary, “could-be-anywhere-in-the-world” structures and practices that had been integrated into the country, the element of intention was present in every action and interaction that took place.
Walk into any shop, restaurant, hotel, or similar public space, and your presence will be acknowledged and honored by the staff as they place their hands together in prayer position and bow to you; in return, you recognize them with the same prayer hands and bow. All told, the acknowledgement takes mere seconds, but it sets the tone for a more empathetic and present interaction.
The same level of intention is brought to meals, where the presentation of the food is just as important as the quality and preparation of the food. No matter how simple the meal, snack, or dessert, you can trust that it will be just as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly.
It was clear that the Cambodian people deeply appreciated beauty for the sake of beauty, and wove a sense of mindfulness and presence into everything they did. From this alone, it could be easy to assume that they had a breezy, whimsical past; the fact that this could not be any further from the truth made the intention of their lifestyle that much more powerful.
While the “must dos” in many capital cities around the world might include perusing notable art museums, attending a sporting event, or strolling through a botanical garden, the essential activities in Phnom Penh are much heavier emotionally and necessitate some introspective contemplation after the fact.
We partook in a guided tour of the genocide museum, and later visited what are referred to as the “killing fields,” learning about the senseless deaths of nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population by its very own people. During our visit of these sites, we spoke with a Cambodian man in his 80’s who was a survivor of the very genocide we learned about, which took place not even twenty years before the three of us had been born.
Considering the recency of these unimaginably horrific acts, to the degree that many older Cambodians personally survived and remember these times, it would be easy to think that many of the country’s people would be closed-off, skeptical, or emotionally cold; however, this couldn’t be further from reality. Despite having every reason to be anything but joyful, in our experience the Cambodian people were amongst the kindest, warmest, most grateful people we had ever met.
It almost seemed that through facing some of the cruelest acts known to mankind, they had directly experienced and grasped the fragility of human life, and were therefore inclined to live life and love others much more profoundly than someone for whom life seemed guaranteed. By knowing that everything could be - and nearly was - taken away in an instant, the Cambodians we encountered lived in such a manner that the present moment was truly treated as a gift, and each interaction felt like an expression of gratitude.
Though our first few days in Cambodia were so full and fascinating it felt like we had been there for months, we still had many places yet to see. We continued our journey onward to the other side of the country, where we explored the city of Battambang. The first thing we noticed about this region was that some of its residents were not like the others; many people wore simple orange robes instead of regular street clothes, and had a shaved head rather than a hairdo: these particular people were monks.
As Cambodia is mainly a Buddhist country with an influence of Hinduism, there are many monasteries and wats located throughout the country where the monks live and spend much of their time studying, praying, or engaging in religious practices. The monastery buildings themselves were stunningly beautiful, with just as much intricate and intentional detail as we we had come to expect and appreciate of Cambodian structures.
Our time in Battambang was primarily spent visiting local producers in the countryside, understanding the amount of work that goes into the production of handcrafted food and beverage items such as sundried plantains, rice wraps for fresh vegetable rolls, and even snake-infused liquor. We were inspired by the dedication of each family-run business to their craft, and were equally delighted by the many delicious samples we got to enjoy in the learning process.
As our remaining days in Cambodia became numbered, we made our way to our final destination: Siem Reap, home to the renowned religious monument of Angkor Wat. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was later transformed into a Buddhist temple, and holds the claim as the largest religious structure in the world. And, believe me, after we spent three full days visiting different areas of the monument and still didn’t see everything…it truly does live up to its claim to fame.
Our exploration of the structure began at the main complex, which, to shed perspective on the grandeur of it, is surrounded by a moat that must be crossed by a drawbridge. We were fortunate enough to be able to experience the jaw-dropping view of this complex during the most spectacular time of day: sunrise. When we arrived at dawn, the area had a deep stillness to it that was punctuated only by the occasional sound of frogs in the water or fellow early risers. As the sky transitioned from an inky black, to a deep navy, and finally to a soft violet dotted with wisps of sherbet pink and orange, the monument shifted from an ominous silhouette to a magnificent, palace-like presence.
The outside of the complex is designed - like many structures in the country - with mind-boggling detail, but it’s truly the inside of it that leaves you speechless. Within the walls of the monument, there are countless rooms and passageways, the walls of which are all inscripted with highly detailed drawings that tell stories and lined with ornate sculptures of notable entities. The energy of the place itself feels highly charged, as if it’s buzzing with the tales of the many people who have ventured into it over the past 800 or so years.
Although most of our time was spent at the main complex simply due to the sheer size of it, we ventured on to explore several other sites that were smaller but just as spectacular in their own unique way. One of these sites included Ta Prohm Temple, better known as the set of the movie Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. This particular temple would ultimately be my personal favorite, as it combined stunning architecture with sky-high trees that gave the entire temple a very jungle-like feeling. Over hundreds of years, the trees slowly but surely took over several parts of the temple, planting their massive roots down over doorways and swallowing up entire sides of structures. The thick layers of green moss over the rock also gave the feeling that when you were at this temple, you were hundreds of miles deep in the jungle rather than just a short drive from the city center of Siem Reap.
I could share countless more details of the many other unbelievable temples we visited, but in reality, nothing quite takes the place of actually standing in the presence of these incredible structures. Regardless of personal religious beliefs or affiliation, the temples themselves are unquestionably worth the visit, if only to take in the otherworldly grandeur and unmatched level of intricate detail.
Of course, many people do make the long journey to visit Angkor Wat before continuing on to other “destination locations” in South East Asia, but after our week in Cambodia, I can easily say that it’s well worth it to prioritize additional time exploring the rest of this country.
From the stunningly beautiful architecture, to the kind and hospitable people, to the mouth-watering food, to the profound history, Cambodia is a place that stays on your mind long after you’ve left. It’s not for the faint of heart, for sure - the history itself is a heavy one to digest - but if anything, spending time here makes your heart grow even bigger once you experience the way its people live life deeply and fully despite - or perhaps because of - the recent events that took place within its borders.
And as for the three of us women who chose this country to reunite in? Suffice it to say that our time together was just as important as our learnings and exploration of this new-to-us country. The minute that the three of us reunited, it felt as though not a minute had passed in the thirteen months we had been apart, and not a single day (or should I say, hour) of the trip went by without the three of us bursting into fits of laughter together, immersed in deeply meaningful conversation, and feeling profoundly grateful that we had managed to find such a perfect traveling trio.
In fact, I write this after having just gotten off a Zoom call with the two women located in time zones eight hours ahead of me, during which we caught up about our lives and discussed plans for our next international adventure. While we still aren’t quite sure just exactly when and where that will be, what we do clearly know is that international travel doesn’t just lead to new landscapes and cultures; sometimes, even during the lowest and most unassuming times in life, it can lead to the most incredible connections that span continents and have the power to alter your future travel plans in the best way possible. The trips themselves were well worth the investment, but the friendships that we’ve forged through them? Those are priceless.
Sherpani Guest Author
The above post is part of an ongoing segment of the Sherpani Travel Blog. We want to highlight personal travel stories from the women in our community. Would you like to share your travel story with Sherpani? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. We can’t wait to read about your adventure!