10 minute read
We travel for many reasons.
We want to escape our daily routine. We want to see the world and how others live. Some of us go for an extended holiday while others wish to challenge themselves by living on a frugally and taking the road less traveled.
On a recent trip to Cambodia, I desired to do all of the above. I left with lighter pockets but spiritually richer. Here are ten things that Cambodia taught me in the school of life.
1. BE YOUR OWN GUIDE – Do a little planning – or don’t. You’ll meet plenty of people along the way to help guide your decisions, and the best ones usually come from gut instinct. Too many of us are rushing about from A to B without stopping to smell the lotus flowers. Slow down. Loosen your schedule. Play by your rules and don’t do what you think your supposed to be doing, go with what feels right.
Too many of us are programmed by society to organize every last detail, making sure everything is perfect. Well, travel, much like life, is never smooth sailing. Things will go wrong so learn from your mistakes or misfortunes -they will make you stronger and wiser.
2. SHARE YOUR PASSION – At a guesthouse I met a young man named Jacob. Instead of the typical “What do you do?” he asked me “What’s your passion?”. We shared with each other one of our interests, mine photography, his drawing and painting. When the guesthouse owners knew what we did, Jacob was commissioned to design his first mural for them, and I was tasked to document the process.
Over the course of five weeks, I saw an incredible amount of creative talent emerge from people both individually and collaboratively. Showing your talent not only displays it to the world, but the sharing of it encourages you to up your game.
The merging of different crafts as people create together creates new forms of expression, and can create a ripple effect, inspiring others and even forming communities. Otres Beach on the south coast of Cambodia one such community of artistically minded foreigners forging an alternative society for themselves outside of their previous ones made for them.
3. GIVE BACK – Too many human interactions are fleeting and momentary. Whether it’s life or travel, we should always consider whether we are taking more than we’re giving. Much more than a common courtesy – benefits everyone.
My prime reason for going to Cambodia was to hand deliver a magazine to a girl I had photographed two years prior. Her image featured in a travel article I wrote about her area of Kampot. Although I’d returned the same photograph as a print the first time around, she wasn’t that impressed, but when I returned with the magazine, her jaw almost hit the floor. Her friends and family were very excited, but person with the biggest smile on their face was me. I received a feeling of completion from a photograph and a subject I had grown to be very fond of. Perhaps there’s an element of selfishness in it, but I fed off everyone else’s joy and new bonds were created.
Of course, in Cambodia there’s many ways you can give back – help build a school, teach, volunteer for various projects. Returning a print is just the tip of the iceberg.
4. JUDGE NOT – Many of you have seen the photographs of monks subverting the stereotype of the solitary ‘thinker’ at Angkor Wat. Whether it’s smoking or playing on their phones, some tourists are surprised to see behaviour that taints their idealized image of monkhood, while others flat out say it’s morally wrong.
Donning an orange robe doesn’t take away what’s underneath. Many of the young monks talk about girls, listen to rap music, play fight and generally act their age. Boys will be boys, and the more you get to know them on an individual level, the less idealized your vision becomes. Some people are kinder than others, some more innocent, others more corrupt. As with monks, so with everyone else – no matter how we present ourselves in public or on our social media profiles. We all have our vices, so never be quick to judge someone else’s character without first being honest about your own.
5. FLOW – Achieving a state of flow means clearing your mind of thoughts of past or future and focusing on the here and now. The gentle nature of Cambodians, the staggered beauty of their mismanaged but recovering tropical landscape and the slow pace of society compared it’s more aggressively modernizing neighbour Thailand means that crossing the border into Cambodia is like entering a new realm of existence.
When you can feel a culture like you do in Cambodia, when your everyday conveniences are stripped back and you aren’t so comfortable, it wakes up your senses and makes you more alert. The developed world has us wrapped up in cotton wool – life is too easy, even if we complain about all the constant payments we have to make on the things we’ve bought that we don’t need.
As Tyler Durden says in the film Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”. You won’t realize how much this is true until you take leave of all the things you thought you needed back home and see how the majority of another culture lives. The disregard of so many material possessions we thought we needed to define our existence allows us to relax, be happier and embrace a more present state of mind.
6. MAKE CONNECTIONS – If you’ve traveled to uncover more about a culture than you previously knew about, the best way to satisfy your curiosity is to directly approach people. If there’s something you want to do, give it a shot. If there’s someone you want to talk to – make contact. Don’t be shy.
In Cambodia I’ve seen countless tourists walking sheepishly round temples, Lonely Planet in hand, gawking at but too shy to talk to monks. Yet when I ask the monks about tourists, they too are shy because of their own relative social isolation and, more often than not, unnecessarily worried about the quality of their English. Cambodian Monks tend to study foreign languages so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to strike up a conversation. One temple I visited even taught Korean.
We are each other’s curiosity and once you approach someone and start asking questions, you will find they may also ask you about your life and culture.
7. IMMERSE YOURSELF – One of the ways to immerse yourself in the culture of the country is to learn about some of it’s history and find out how things came to be. In a place like Cambodia, this is pretty much essential considering the genocide in the late seventies by the Khmer Rouge.
The main targets were the intelligentsia, thus when the Khmer Rouge was removed from power, Cambodia was not only financially but intellectually poor, a burden the country is still suffering heavily from to this day. With this type of historical knowledge, the context of your surroundings are dramatically different to that of the visitor who flies in and out to see Angkor Wat or just hit up the islands for a week’s sunbathing.
A new perspective can allow you re-assess your own priorities and emotional attachments. Likewise, returning to a familiar place can give us ‘reverse culture shock’, a feeling that once familiar surroundings can no longer be seen in the same light as before. Prior concrete realities are suddenly relative to other aspects of life you’ve witnessed, and paradigms of awareness can shift dramatically.
8. EMBRACE CHANGE – The place you once visited will not be the same place you return to. Everything changes. Nothing in the physical world ever stays the same.
Five years ago at Otres Beach on Cambodia’s south coast, there was almost no development. Now it is a large community with long term foreign residents and short term backpackers. It’s still retains a secluded charm, yet the inevitability of dystopia means that the population and prices in Otres will keep rising and the quaint little foreign enclave will transformed to something more soulless. But that’s ok – because there’s always a new version of ‘The Beach’ when the old one gets overrun.
Yet it’s not just the tourist enclaves – change is most visibly apparent in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penn, where the sizeable ship of capitalism has dropped it’s heavy anchor. The city center’s shanty neighbourhoods have mostly been cleared for development deluxe malls, hotels and a new two million dollar mosque. Phnom Penh provides a fascinating contrast of human life.
Instead of bemoaning and fighting the inevitable, we must accept that we have to make the most of what is in front of us in the present, because it might not be around in the future. Know that as long as change is a concept, we can make changes in ourselves and the world as surely as you witness others doing so.
9. RETURN TO NATURE – Nothing will bring you more to peace than natural healing. Walk barefoot among the trees, listen to the music of the ocean. Observe a slow sunset and escape from the grey matrix we’ve constructed for ourselves and step into a more organic realm. This is where we belong. Relax, detach and still your restless mind.
I took daily two hour sunset walks along Cambodia’s coastline at Otres. As well as feeling physically healthier, I felt much of the stress from my former city dwelling lifestyle dissipate over time as I attuned to nature’s natural rhythms. Don’t just take my word for it, Attention Restoration Theory is backed up by psychological research.
10. UNDERSTAND LIFE IS DEFINED BY OPPOSITES – To visit Cambodia, or any other developing culture, is to witness stark contradictions. The sense of freedom you feel in a less authoritarian society can also be the reason for it’s dangers. Foreign communities and tourist areas are appealing as alternative societies but contrasted with the surrounding local culture they can take on a neo-colonialist aspects. You can see this emerging on the beaches of the south coast, but in Siem Reap, where the tourist dollar is king, the amount of foreigners have turned the place into Disneyland.
There’s a lack of decent infrastructure, yet the relatively simple lifestyle Cambodians live and, by proxy, travellers outside of their modern lives, is one of less worry and anxiety than the hyperactive status-driven countries of the West. People always comment how poor people are happier. It’s not the poverty, it’s the lack of burdensome possessions that make them more satisfied. Similarly, rapper The Notorious B.I.G once said “The more money you make the more problems you get”. American psychologist Barry Schwartz coined this theory the ‘Paradox of Choice‘, and Biggie talked about the accumulation of wealth breeding “Jealousy, envy and negative energy”. Philosopher Alain De Botton calls this Status Anxiety.
Those are just ten lessons but there are many more. Visiting a different country is about so much more enjoying a distant place – travel will change your experience of the place and person you left behind.
Written and photographed by Simon Slater