Red Earth: Cambodia Part One

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I feel a tap on my shoulder. I wake up and open my eyes to a stewardess smiling at me as she hands me a box of food. I smile back and say thank you. Then I look out the window and there it is, Cambodia. And I get that feeling that I live for again. Wanderlust bliss chills shooting up my spine and reverberating throughout my whole body like golden light echoing through my soul.

Some time later the plane descends, then I find myself on red earth.

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I started in Siem Reap. I worked for the first couple of days, writing, editing photos, creating social media content, exploring around town in between and doing my best to keeps a good balance of work and exploration.

Then I meet Tom, a fellow wanderer hailing from New York, who was just fresh off the dust from a little motorbike adventure that started in Vietnam and ended in Cambodia. He invites me to go see Angkor Wat with him the next day. We share a tuktuk, walk around in the scorching heat. We wander and speak in depth, sharing our beliefs in intelligent beings playing a big hidden piece of the puzzle in history and the mysticism beneath it.

It’s a surreal feeling when you’re in the ruins and you find the stillness. I run my fingers through the intricately carved stoned walls and think of all the possibilities of how this magical place came to be. May we keep our minds open to the possibilities that lie within our planet and beyond the cosmos. We are, after all, earthlings pulled by the gravity of a rock floating like a mote of dust in a universe that stretches out through infinity. Possibilities are endless.

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God I love ruins. In my head I’d picture ancient times. I’d think about the humans and other beings that created all of this, the many possibilities of how it all materialized into the physical realm, collecting the puzzle pieces together. I delve deeply into these thoughts as I look around and let its essence envelope into my own.

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A beautiful stranger wanders around the ruins.

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Rewind to over a year ago. I was part of a motivational retreat set in the mountains of Big Bear, California. One of our workshops was an eye-gazing meditation. The facilitator told us to pick someone out of a group and gaze into their eyes for 15 minutes. Somehow, Philip and I found each other. I can’t even begin to explain the depths of gazing into someone’s eyes. I was at this meditation gathering a couple years before that when I tried eye gazing with strangers for the first time. We would walk around the room and pick anyone who we’re drawn to. It’s as if their flesh and bones dissolved and they were stripped down to their soul and their soul was stripped down to the core of the universe. And when I tried it again with Philip in the mountains, I cried. We both has tears in our eyes. I saw his pain and his love and his light and I felt like I was becoming him, or we were becoming each other and it was the most overwhelmingly beautiful feeling, the eyes really are a portal to the universe itself. After the retreat, a lot of us had realizations, ground-breaking insights and epiphanies. Philip’s was to sell most of his things back in his home in Minneapolis, quit his job, and travel the world for a year. About five months before I took off for my trip to Asia, he sent me a message saying “I will absolutely be meeting you in Asia. You just let me know and I’ll be there!”

Our paths would continue to run parallel to each other until there we were, standing in the hall of our hostel. Big, warm hugs thrown around, I was happy to be reunited with my wonderful friend. For next couple days we would venture together along with my traveling sister Adi, and our new friend Yemmie, exploring more temple ruins, stone carvings, jungles and waterfalls as we consume the magic vibrating all around us.

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Before I left, Philip shared his humbling thoughts with me. During that retreat in California, we reflected upon our eye-gazing experience. I had told him then that I saw and felt such intense pain just gazing into his eyes. He told me that back then he thought, “What pain? I don’t have any deep pain”, then he said the look in my eyes after the meditation and my words haunted him. He said that I saw straight through his barriers and told him “a truth that would churn his inner pain like bad street food and force him to puke it up, bit by bit.” and he thanked me for mirroring that to him. And that he’s learning to acknowledge and accept pain instead of hiding it under dust. Teary eyed, I thanked him for sharing that with me. I told him that it was such a beautiful insight and I gave him another warm hug.

The next day, I had to leave for six days to go to a yoga & meditation retreat called Hariharalaya. I said my goodbyes and see-you-laters to my wandering friends. When I came back, I was completely rejuvenated from those magical six days. Then on that same day Adi, Sienna (one of the lovely girls I met at the retreat) and I took a minibus to Phnom Penh.

During the ride I look to my right and Adi’s bobbing around, trying to get some shuteye. We’re all getting thrown around each other as our minibus swerves and zips through the crazy bumpy road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. About six hours of this. I laugh as the driver flies through the big dips, dodging the onrush of trucks, headlights and silhouettes, as we wildly bounce around our seats. This would probably be a good time to have seatbelts. The sunlight hits the dust creeping through the windows. I wrap my sarong around my face to breathe. I close my eyes, get lost to the music flooding my ears and find some stillness. Then I open my eyes and watch the sun beautifully disappear into the darkness.

It’s a pain in the ass sometimes, this marriage I have with the road. But it can do whatever the hell it wants to me and I’ll still love it madly.

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I wanted to avoid this, honestly. Before I went to Cambodia I didn’t want to see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. I didn’t want to feel the heartbreak, until I arrived and experienced the beauty of this country and its people. The more I explored the country, the more I wanted to know why. It’s only been three decades since this happened. It’s so recent. So fresh. When you walk around the Killing Fields you can still see their bones protruding the earth. You can still see the bloodstains on the floors of the prison cells. My heart felt heavier and heavier as I walked around. Tears flooded my eyes. I couldn’t believe how much hate can generate from your own kind.

Then time healed them and nature grew over their pain. You can sense this country’s resilience. Death and rebirth, the cycle continues. I appreciate its beauty so much more now that I have seen its darkness.

Because to not want to see a country’s sad parts is like not loving a human being because of their struggles. That’s what makes it worth being human, after all.

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“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

― Mary Oliver

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51 thoughts on “Red Earth: Cambodia Part One

  1. What a beautiful post. From start to finish. Wonderful photography. Clear heart-felt writing. I feel a bit diminished by your prowess telling a story, wishing I had it, and loving you all at the same time. How could I not love someone who sees, and writes with such clarity.
    Alison

  2. Thank you for sharing. It is so beautiful! The pictures were so deep, and captured the history, the life of the people, and your writing was very profound and guided me through the images. I simply loved it!

  3. Thank you for sharing this, you write so well I feel like I’m visiting the country with you. Can’t wait to hear about other parts of your trip

  4. I, too, felt a deep sense of trepidation in Cambodia as I knew I would be visiting the Killing fields and S21 and it was justified. I cried unashamedly as I quietly walked those grounds and tried to fathom the mindset of the people that perpetrated the atrocities. I failed.
    But then I also walked the aisles of Angkor Wat and, like you, felt a deep sense of history and passion in those walls. Cambodia is one of the few places I would visit again to see what I missed first time around….and to sign the walls in the Angkor bar in Sien Reap again!!
    LOVE your blog!!
    xx

  5. “Because to not want to see a country’s sad parts is like not loving a human being because of their struggles. That’s what makes it worth being human, after all.” Beautiful words, so real and spoke straight to my heart. and I think to myself sometimes, to love is not only to love the good sides of someone or something, but to embrace it all. It’s so easy to love what’s convenient. It’s so easy to love what we only choose to love.

    For some time in my life, I thought that everything was easy and perfect for me, and I thought well how could life ever be tough. Then I realised that maybe something was missing, that there is more to life than easy and I felt light, wondering why it is that I could feel nothing that would be good enough to shake me, and move me. and then all of it came flooding in and damn, I felt real and alive for the first time. The realisation that we are capable as human beings to embrace and feel every pain, struggle and emotion possible is so beautiful, gives our lives meaning.

    If embracing it all is what it takes to be human, to feel real in this world, I’d take it any damn day over being safe and in a comfortable position. and the same goes, to truly experiencing a place and a country. If having to experience the sad parts of a country is the price to pay to fully unravel all there is of what it can offer you, so be it 🙂

    Another great post, Stephanie!

  6. This is just so wonderful, everything about this post! The writing, the pictures, and the way I feel after experiencing it. Thank you so much for sharing your insight and your love of life with us–it is truly inspiring.

  7. How I hope to meet you and listen to your stories one day. your posts are truly inspiring. i left for indonesia by myself a few months ago after reading your stories. Glad to say Im flying off again tomorrow! 🙂

  8. I know you’re extremely busy and get so many replies and comments but it would be insanely amazing if you could make a post describing your budget for your trip or just reply to this explaining!! I know thats not really your style of writing, but I would so appreciate it! I see you’ve been gone for about 7 months now? Thats basically how long I want to go for if not more, and all the places you visit I want to visit ( Thanks by the way for putting the location on your instagram posts) Ive been working 2 jobs to save for this trip and It would be awesome to know roughly how much to budget, how much you’ve spent in your 7 months traveling around. Ive asked around but everyone has different spending habits. From your posts you seem to stay in hostels and really amazing places. I want to bus and train and stay in hostels. Real backpacking budget.

    anyways,
    your pictures are incredible, thank you for inspiring me 🙂
    enjoy your travels xx

    • Hello there!

      You can easily travel in any SEAsian country with a budget of 1,000 USD per month, some countries even much less than that. For me it ranges from 600-1,000 USD per month. Hostels, home stays, super cheap guesthouses, buses, trains, boats, ferries, bought some very cheap plane tickets via AirAsia. Check out skyscanner.net for that as well. But for the most part I travel by land and sea. All depends on how you choose to travel 🙂

      Cheers!

  9. What a moving post. So true what you said about not wanting to see the sad things when you travel but they are in fact a part of the experience! And perhaps make you appreciate the place even more. I went to Yad Vashem, a holocaust museum in Jerusalem, on my otherwise fun, crazy trip in Israel. I must say that the experience was quite shocking and reminded us of how lucky we are to be alive, travel and just have fun. 🙂

  10. Thank you for sharing your gift. I am a 56 y o guy who cannot travel like I used to. I have been profoundly impacted by your writings. The Cambodia piece is superb. You are immensely talented and I look forward to following your experiences.
    David

  11. I feel something quivering. That must be my inner. I feel water springing. That must be my tears. As I read your words, I feel. I thank the Universe for blessing you. Safe travels, love!

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