In a TED talk on depression, Johann Hari talked about the experience of a South African doctor. The South African doctor was in Cambodia in 2001 when chemical anti-depressants were introduced in the country. Trying to explain what these meds were, the doctor received an unexpected response: We have these anti depressants. Asked to explain more, the Cambodians gave the example of a farmer who had his leg blown off from a landmine. Severely depressed, the doctors spoke to him and then gave him a cow so he could be a dairy farmer. Soon the depression went away because the farmer had found new meaning. That cow was the anti depressant.
It is quite a nice story and one that indicates something about Cambodians. They are always smiling. The old, the young, the kids, the tuk Tuk drivers: Everyone I came across. Kids wave out and say hello everywhere. They just want a wave and a smile from you. The smile, in my view, is the cow equivalent from the story. It uplifts you. It brings you joy. The laughter from the kids and the smiles all around makes the whole travel experience very memorable. And best of all, it is free. Yet it is priceless.
Laos and its psychology is defined by the war. In Cambodia, the genocide and the wars don’t define the country and its people. At least that’s the impression I have got. You have access to the information but people are not defining themselves by this time line in history but they are not forgetting it either.
Having said that we should all know not just about Pol Pot and his Genocide but also the wars between USA and Soviet Union which ended with both Cambodia and Laos being bombarded in the US secret wars. The killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phonm Penh are recommended. The Cambodians don’t shy away from explicit depiction of the horrors of the Genocide and rightly so.
Another time line defines the country: The time of the Khymer dynasty which built the amazing temples. Most are familiar with Angkor Vat and it is beautiful. But there are so many more: Angkor Thom, Bang Malea, Banteay Srei, Ta Promh, Prasat Preah Vihear and many many more. It is quite an experience to go back in time and marvel at these stunning buildings. But before you do so, a visit to the National Museum is a must. Having a background on Hindu mythology and practices are key to understanding the temples and the designs. Shiva and Vishnu are pivotal in these temples. Over centuries, Buddhism took hold and is prevalent today but you can take the time and enjoy the history and culture of the past. There is a lot to absorb.
The temples dominate but there is more to the country. Some additional highlights are
1. Bat caves in Battambang: This is my favourite experience so far. I love nature and seeing millions of bats leave the cave in search for food was enthralling.
2. Pepper farms: Cambodian pepper is quite good and visiting the farms in Kampot/Kep is worth the experience.
3. Food: Cambodian food is quite similar to Laos but I found the food a lot more richer in spices. Lok Lak, Amok, Cambodian curry, Kampot pepper crabs, BBQ squid, seafood dishes are really good. Having said that, after a month of noodles and rice, I went nuts on KFC (2 Zingers, 4 pieces of fried chicken, fries, mashed potatoes) though I earned the binge by walking around 23km exploring the temples
4. Floating village: These are villages where the houses are built on very long stilts. The entire village is designed this way. Along the lake Tonlé Sap villages exist and you can do a day trip from Siem Reap to experience these villages. The reason why these are called floating villages is because in the wet season the entire area gets flooded. Water levels rise from 4/5m to 10/11m and the area grows from approx 3000sqkm to 9000sqkm.
As I head to my next destination, I can’t but help think: If you forget to pack a lot to Cambodia it’s ok. Just don’t forget to bring your smile. You will need it. A lot. And if you forget to bring a smile, don’t worry. The locals have a way to get those facial muscles working again.
As always thanks for reading