Traveling isn’t always about going somewhere you haven’t been before. As rewarding as discovering new places can be, revisiting a city or country after time has passed often sheds a new light on it, revealing novel aspects, changing impressions and rekindling memories. I find that the longer ago the initial journey occurred, the more prominent those feelings become. For me, returning to Cambodia after ten long years felt quite special indeed.
Maria and I didn’t stay long in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it goes by these days). As the busiest and largest city in Vietnam, the former capital struck me as a chaotic vortex of noisy traffic and saturating lights, teeming with people from all walks of life. It’s definitely the most liberal and hedonistic place in the country, with rooftop bars and western-style night clubs dotting the center and its skyline. But in my memory of Vietnam, HCMC will not stand out.
So on to Cambodia and some days of relaxing island life. Contrary to the rest of the Kohs in the Gulf of Thailand, the Khmer islands have not yet been exhaustively commercially exploited (although that will definitely happen within the next decade). Pristine, white-sand beaches outlined by palm trees against a jungle backdrop with tropical temperatures all around. No WiFi, no ATMs, no TV. A perfect place to disconnect from the rest of the world. So that’s exactly what we did, together with a bunch of other privileged Western backpackers at a wonderful (albeit overpriced) hostel resort. Days spent reading, swimming, playing frisbee and beach volleyball. Nights spent eating, drinking, playing Jungle Speed and skinny dipping. We could easily have stayed here a week, but limited time and funds dictated otherwise.
Our short stopover in Phnom Penh was spent mostly visiting memorial sites of what can be described as one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Perpetrated just forty years ago by Pol Pot and his Red Khmer movement, the killing of nearly three million Cambodians by their fellow countrymen remains a dark stain on the rich and long history of the country. As awful as all of these mass murders are, they make you realize that people, no matter where and when can always be conditioned or coerced into committing these heinous acts. Be it in colonial America, 1940’s Europe or present-day Syria, and that hatred in the face of a common enemy is one of the scariest bonding forces. Visiting places like these and getting informed about some of the most horrible parts of history I feel is incredibly important and humbling, and once again makes you realize how lucky we actually are to be living in a part of the world that is entirely peaceful (the much exaggerated terror threat notwithstanding).
And then there is Angkor. A place of magnificent ancient ruins and wonders, and one which has special significance for me. In my teen ages I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in an international symphony orchestra for several concert tours in Europe and Asia. It was an unbelievably epic time, during which we performed at the World Exhibition in Japan, the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, and perhaps the most unique of all, played a New Year’s Eve concert in front of the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia. Seventeen at the time, I was obviously a rather different person than I am today, yet that journey and the experience of playing in such a unique setting has stuck with me in a profound sense. It was the first classical concert ever to take place there, and one of the first symphony orchestra concerts in Cambodia. We played on a stage surrounded by jungle with the temple in the background. The spots illuminating the stage attracted such high volumes of bugs the organizers decided to spray industrial mosquito repellant everywhere, and still enormous grasshoppers were landing on our instruments throughout the concert. That’s how 2007 started and I can honestly say that that is the most unique New Year’s Eve I will ever be likely to have. Now, ten years on I can hardly believe it’s been that long, and being back here seeing the same temples and places again has been slightly surreal. Much has changed, back in the day you were basically allowed to climb onto and into everything (at your own peril) whereas today because of the much higher visitor numbers, routes are clearly marked and far less is accessible. Just a much has remained the same, the grim smiles on the faces in the ruins of Bayon, the ancient trees growing on top of the walls at Ta Phrom, the imposing and massive central towers of Angkor Wat. For these temples that have stood for a thousand years, a decade is just the blink of an eye. A couple of blinks for an entire human lifetime, that really puts things in perspective.
Life on the road continues to have its moments of crazy and strange. Battling flying cockroaches in the jungle dorm at Koh Rong Samloem, losing our hostel key in the pool five minutes after check-in in Siem Reap, getting super intense but highly therapeutic massages by blind people,... All the while the temperature never dropping below 20C and humidity below what seems like 99.9%.
And then before you know it you’ve been traveling for nearly four months and Christmas is officially there, only it totally doesn’t feel that way. The cozy cold and snowy winter (or rainy in case of Belgium) is nowhere to be found, and as much as I am grateful for this year of eternal summer, the absence of changing seasons does make this holiday harder to accept. We celebrated Christmas in the laid-back town of Battambang (I don’t know who came up with that name but they deserve a comedy award). An eight-hour boat right in the blistering sun, through mangrove-covered rivers and past floating fishing villages brought us there from Siem Reap. It was a sober but genuinely good night, sitting in the evening simmer having a cold beer, a group of expats singing Christmas carols, watching a bit of Netflix and enjoying our good fortune.
And just like that, 2016 is drawing to a close. As this will be my last story of the year, I want to extend to all of you my warmest wishes for a peaceful holiday season, and a glorious transition into a new year full of opportunities and joy. I will continue my life on the road for the foreseeable future, and if my journey so far is any indication there are some interesting stories yet to be told.
I look forward to sharing them with you in 2017.
December 26th, 2016