The moment I had the idea to travel to Cambodia, I knew it would someday be a reality. That was a couple of years ago and I knew I wasn’t yet ready for the adventure. Sometime last year, I felt like the time was right. I started researching plane tickets and put the word out there to my friends that I would be going, and anyone could join me. I did more research about where to go, what to do, and how to make it my perfect trip. A friend of mine told me that I don’t know how to vacation, so we started calling my trips ‘explorations’ instead, and I like that much better. I don’t get a lot of joy out of relaxing and taking it slow. I like to do and see as much as possible, to feel every bit of the soul of a place, and that is exactly what we did.
The first four days of my trip were just that…a trip. I flew with my friend Amy Parrish from NYC to India, which took about two days in airplanes and on layovers. When we got to India we stayed only for the day, taking a quick nap and dropping our bags off before rushing around and getting on a plane at midnight that night. We flew for yet another night, laying over in Bangkok at 4am and getting into Cambodia that morning. Thirty minutes later my dearest Lindsay Adler arrived, and the three of us explored Phnom Penh. None of us had slept much the past three nights, but we were so happy to be together and explore the city. We went through a huge market and I got to try exotic fruits from many different vendors.
We spent much of our day at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S21. Never have I felt so many emotions, many conflicting. To be in a place that contributed to the death of 3 million people can break you. To see, in such graphic and unadulterated detail, the goings-on of that place; it was truly moving and exhausting, all at once. Each room, preserved from when that high school was used as a torture facility, felt like a prison for souls. I stood outside each door, battling dueling emotions: one that I should not enter such a place, and the other saying that I must, to honor the people who died there. I went inside every room, and we cried silently.
That night we rode in tuk tuks around the city, unsure of where to go before our bus out that night. We were deliriously tired from our travels already, but weren’t leaving the city until 11:30pm, so we found ourselves outside a palace, settling into the grass while we wondered if it would be safe to sleep right then and there. Instead we found our way to a coffee shop where we made up dances and giggled and cleaned ourselves in the bathroom. All we had were our backpacks and we were grateful to be traveling so light.
Finally the night seemed to end, as we made our way to the bus station. We ate dinner at a lovely place next door and boarded our night bus to Siem Reap. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I had wanted to take a night bus for a long time, despite everyone warning me against how awful it would be. I can safely report that they were dead wrong. It was amazing. It might have been how tired I was, but the whole thing felt surreal and magical. We climbed into our top bunks on the bus, secured our belongings, and took pictures excitedly as the bus took off from the station. Soon enough everyone was laying flat and sleeping. I sat awake for a while, watching out the window as lights flashed and eventually faded from my view. We had hit the countryside, and I was rocked to sleep by the swaying of the bus.
5:30am came quickly but that little bit of sleep was all we needed to feel replenished. We arrived in Siem Reap at dawn, and as we loaded into our tiny tuk tuk the sun rose over the city. We went to a lovely cafe and had breakfast, all manner of tropical fruits covered in coconut sorbet, and I felt so lucky to be there. The house we were staying in was gorgeous, and it was there that we waited for the fourth member of our crew, Laura, to arrive. Amy napped while Lindsay and I walked and walked around our neighborhood, talking excitedly about all the time in between our last visit. When we were all together we visited the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. It was even more spectacular than I imagined it would be. The detail was vibrant. Every engraving and crack spoke poetry. That place sang to me.
The next morning we woke up for the sunrise. I’ll never forget walking into the temple complex, unsure of where to set up to take some pictures, our confusion ending the moment we saw hundreds of people gathered around a small pool of water, waiting to get the perfect reflective shot of the temples. Lindsay, Amy and Laura were off with a mission, but I stayed behind. I wasn’t very interested in getting my own version of that picture I’d seen so many times, so instead I put my camera away and I took that time for myself. I went into a smaller building in front of the temple, so old and abandoned and accessible. I was the only person in there. The only person in that whole temple, while at least a thousand people gathered just a couple hundred feet away. I centered myself on the floor, directly in between four doorways. I closed my eyes and felt a daydream ripple through my imagination. I let myself feel it. I dreamed that I was a tree, roots sprouting from every limb, cracking through the temple and letting it rest on my branches, making it lift off the ground and grow higher until we were a temple in the clouds.
When I finished my daydream the sun was rising, so I perched in a window and watched. Lindsay found me and we held hands, taking in the sight we had come so far to see.
We took off on bikes that day, and I made everyone ride through the forest, monkeys swinging above us, as we went hopping from temple to temple. We saw many things that day, and even got a blessing of good luck from a local woman after climbing the tallest temple. The next morning was another for adventuring, so we ended up at my favorite of the temples where I could do a quick photo shoot. I ran from tree to tree to pose with the roots, true to my daydream in the temple the day before. I felt so at peace, truly like I was one with the nature that surrounded that amazing place. I don’t believe I have ever felt such a connection to something I was photographing, and that was the most amazing part of the journey for me. I had always felt connected to Cambodia, but in those moments, that connection felt real and tangible.
Later that day we booked a microlight flight. As evening came, we went to the countryside and took turns, one by one, riding over the rice paddies and temples in a tiny airplane/hang-glider combination. I was the last one to go up, and I got to see one of the most amazing sights: The sun was setting in a magnificent display of color. It was flaming red and bigger than I have ever seen, and just as we turned west the sun was dipping over the misty blue horizon. The pilot was talking to me but I hardly heard what he said. I looked on at the setting sun, wanting to immortalize that moment forever. The red sun. The blue horizon. The foggy land. It was like a painting, though so fleeting. And after the sun dipped below the horizon, and after the temple below us faded into the distance, I let myself breathe again.
Before we left Cambodia we went on one last adventure the next morning. Our tuk tuk driver suggested we see a floating village about an hour outside of Siem Reap, so we went. He showed us his house on the way where his mother lives, and when we arrived we loaded into our own private little boat and floated past the locals. We stopped at a temple there and were greeted by some local monks. They asked us for medicine and we helped where we could. We bought school supplies for the children and got to see a little bit of what life is like there. Incredible it is, to witness a way of life so different from what we are used to. I’ll never forget the lure of my heart to that simple, yet incredibly complicated life.
When we left the village we took a ride on the lake nearby. I yelled at everyone over the motor of the boat that we should jump in. Laura was already thinking the same thing. So, in our clothes, and with a flight to catch just a few hours later, the four of us gathered on the front of our boat, held hands, and jumped in. The water was gloriously warm, and we floated there, taking in the bright sun and the blue sky, before we had to head back to civilization.
Part 2 (Thailand) and Part 3 (India) coming soon!
Where do you feel most connected?
What art have you created that you feel most connected to?
All images below taken by Lindsay Adler (or Amy Parrish, with Lindsay’s camera!).