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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.

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Don’t fret over a rainstorm – enjoy it.

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Don’t forget to take in life or you’ll pass it by.

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Tourists gone one way? Go the other – the road less traveled always offers more.


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.

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Jacob drawing the blueprint for what would be his first mural.

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He reproduced his vision with startling accuracy.

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Because Jacob had contributed his time and talents he was given ‘artist in residence’ status and was fed and housed in return for his work. Artists don’t starve if they make art people want.


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.

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Doray, the girl from the photograph, became the village celebrity for the day

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It was as much of a pleasure to give this photo to Mai, an elder in Doray’s village, as it seemed to have received it. We didn’t need to speak each other’s language to understand each other with this action.

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The lifestyle of a monk is relatively simple, and it’s a simple and effortless thing to gesture to bring back a printed photograph.


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.

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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.

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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.

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Curious cats on the streets of Phnom Penh.

At a temple in Kampong Cham, I was observing a monk in his room only to find out he was gathering some drink offerings to give to my friends and I.

At a temple in Kampong Cham, I was observing a monk in his room only to find out he was gathering some drink offerings to give to my friends and I.

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We conversed a little and later became friends of Facebook – most monks these days have a Facebook profile.


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.

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A history lesson from visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh breeds an understanding of how things came to be.

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‘The Killing Fields’ were the terms for many sites around the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge where over a million people were taken and their life ended in a manner that we don’t even subject to other animals. The inhumanity humans inflicted on each other is frightening.

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Learning about the symbolic meanings behind images seen in Angkorian temples brings a new experience to the viewing of architecture. The character above is known as a ‘Devata’, a seductive female deity stemming from the Hindu religion. This sensual historical awareness can breathe new life into dusty temples.


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.

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This is view from one side of the new two million dollar mosque in the city center. One shanty dwelling remains from a vast area cleared by forced evictions.

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Cyclo drivers are a remnant of the old way of life in Phnom Penh, and are among the city’s poorest residents, often seen sleeping in their modes of transport.

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The disparity between the old and new in the city is indeed a world of difference.


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.

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On my travels, I was asked to take shots for a few yogi’s portfolios. Yoga itself is a spiritually cleansing pursuit, but  performed to the sound of gentle waves crashing in the warm evening heat and on sand – nature’s own yoga mat – can enhance the experience no end.

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There are numerous benefits to walking with barefoot including better balance, increased energy, better posture and better blood circulation to name but a few.

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The glorious sunsets of Cambodia aren’t just a pretty picture. Taking the time to appreciate nature’s greatest of spectacles attunes us to the present moment and away from thoughts of past and future. This freeing of stress and anxiety clears your mind for inspiration and relaxed introspection.


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.

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The weight from the past is heavy, but with the right spirit, the young population can it pull over their shoulders and march forward.

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Education maybe lacking at the moment, but young Cambodians are well trained in the school of life.

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The future seems bright, even though there’s a long road ahead.

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

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For more Secret Map posts on Cambodia, there are Where the Buffalo Roam, Return to the Land of the Buffalo, and Journey of Life: A Cambodian Odyssey

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16 thoughts on “10 Life Lessons Learned from Traveling Cambodia

  1. For me too, the earth slightly moved on its axis when I started exploring Cambodia for hard family reasons and it was the start of an intoxication with Asia … various trips to different Asian countries later and before a 4th stay in Cambodia, I come across your fine post and sensitive photos … thank you for your look on the inhabitants’ reality

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    • I bet you didn’t intend to stay two months initially either! That place really sucks you in and holds a tight grip. Did you meet Mom? I was going to include a photo of her but then decided to limit myself to a certain amount of images for the sake of flow. Those sunsets hey?

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  2. Simon,

    I really like your writing – especially your views toward life. Thank you for sharing the article. I was a Cambodian child who lived through the Killing Field – managed to escape to the US 34 years ago. I began writing a story about my shattering past during the Killing Field era, but I have not had the opportunity to finish it. I was wondering if you are interested in helping me to finish the story. I live and work in Wash DC.

    Please let me know when you get a chance.

    Regards,
    Dara

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  3. Simon, thank you for taking the time to visit my country. I know there are a lot of places to visit so I always appreciate the tourist who take the time, money and effort to visit Cambodia. I really enjoyed reading your post and seeing your perspective. I wish you can achieve whatever you desire in your life.

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    • Veerak I love visiting your country, it was my 4th time there. Thank you also for taking the time to read the post and i’m really happy that you enjoyed it, especially because you are Cambodian. I also wish you the best and I think that you can accomplish the things you want in life if you work hard and have determination – good luck to you 🙂

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  4. I just got back from three-months in Cambodia, two of which were spent on a solo motorbike journey exploring every province and just about every town in the country. All I can say is that you don’t have a clue what Cambodia is about if you stick to the siem reap, phnom Penh, sihanoukville tourist routes. GET OFF THE TRACK AND EXPERIENCE THE REAL CAMBODIA BEFORE THE WESTERNERS ROOK OVER!

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  5. Lovely site and words…! I’ve just got back from my first visit to Cambodia having travelled a lot to other SE Asian countries this really captures the spirit of what it’s like to scratch the surface of such a wonderful special place, what it’s like to confront life through an alternate lens, and to just be in awe of it all.

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  6. Not sure, I got there at the right time for me! The contrast which you describe so well here is still being processed, alongside the photos. Someone here said to me surprised ‘Why Cambodia?’ and Cambodians may well ask that same question but from a very different perspective. Interesting. Its unique imprint and people have certainly been made and would love to see more of the place.

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