I found this essay that I wrote a year ago and never shared. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you are well.
How a Cambodian Travel Guide Helps Me Endure This President
Things I did prior to our three-week, four-country tour of South East Asia: got the recommended vaccines and immunizations for travel to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; printed out the itinerary created by the travel agent; set up the cities of travel in my weather app so I could pack appropriately; purchased a globe; figured out how we would celebrate Christmas so far from home; start paying for this extravagant trip – what I thought of as a last hurrah before our older daughter Emma graduated from high school.
Things I didn’t do prior to our trip: learn one damn thing about the countries we were going to visit halfway across the world.
That’s unusual for me. I like to read a book about anything I want to know more about; my library card is worn out. Friends suggested other people who had traveled to these countries who I could talk to about our upcoming trip. There are a million sources of information a click away on my laptop. I did none of it. Let it come, hit me as it will, reveal what treasures or travails that these foreign lands have for me. The thought of being informed about the eight stops we were visiting in four different countries seemed overwhelming. That’s why we arranged for guides, right? Instead I focused on getting physically prepared to be gone for three weeks with one roller bag and a backpack. I made arrangements for a house sitter, a dog walker, a plant waterer, and paid our household bills early. I didn’t have the energy for more.
The days in Kansas were getting shorter leading up to our trip, dark before dinner, and as I considered the practicality in dragging Christmas stockings and bags of candy for my teenage girls in my suitcase, I wondered if I had made a good decision in weaning myself off of my antidepressants over the summer. The winter blues, I told myself, and read a book about the Danish idea of hygge. I vowed to create coziness as the cold Kansas winds stirred up. I bought candles to supplement my efforts and was delighted to discover that hot chocolate could be part of my hygge plan. I curled up on the couch away from the cold, under my fleece blanket with candles lit and holding a steaming cup of chocolate. I could have been reading something – anything – about what was to come on what could accurately be described as a trip of a lifetime. I didn’t and I wasn’t sure why. Winter blues? Depression popping back? I decided to wait until after the trip to address it – maybe the warm temperatures and final days of the trip on the beach in Thailand would do the trick.
“It’s raining in Hanoi,” I told my husband. I texted my daughters, “Sunshine in Phuket.” Weeks out from departure and I became obsessed with checking my weather app. I focused my attention on the most obvious thing I couldn’t control: the weather.
The four of us spent a lot of time in airports on the trip, typically spending three days in a location before flying to another. Delays were part of the deal. Emma and Cameron shared a screen and a set of air pods to watch episodes of Modern Family on Netflix to pass the time. Finding Western snacks like Pringles in the airport gift shop was a highlight. My husband Robert and I re-watched a favorite series of ours, Homeland, and we became Zen about things not going as planned – I wonder if this flight will even leave tonight? Maybe all of the temples and Buddhas we had already visited were rubbing off on us. When our flight did make it to Siem Reap, Cambodia it was after midnight. We were met by our guide who took us to our hotel and told us the plan was to meet the next morning for our first day of tour at Angkor Wat, a spectacular (and enormous) temple complex. Over an exceptional breakfast (Chocolate croissants! Smoked salmon! Piles of fresh mango!) I asked my family, “What’s our guide’s name?” Everyone shrugged. He was the seventh guide of our trip and I made note in my journal of all of their names. “Starts with an S, I think,” Robert offered.
That first morning in Cambodia, we decided to refer to our new guide as Shawn. I felt pretty sure that it was close, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask, yet again, how to pronounce his name. The other guides had clearly memorized thousands of facts and dates to communicate – the year that this king died or when that empire ended or what material was used in the construction of the temple in front of us. Not-Shawn knew all of these facts but he went off-script and provided analysis too.
“It’s like your President Trump not wanting the health care of your Obama,” he explained, trying to articulate why a King would abandon the enormous temple building project that was started by a predecessor and leave it unfinished. “He wanted his own work to live on, not the former ruler’s.” I stiffened when I heard the name of our President spoken on the other side of the earth; part of being away meant I had escaped the daily shit-show of news that our current President was generating. The United States Federal government had just shut down as we left the country, the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Americans held hostage over a proposed border wall. I felt lighter not hearing about every Tweet that our President wrote that made the national news. But this man, Not-Shawn, clearly had a grasp of international politics. He probably knew what day we were on the shutdown, but I didn’t ask. I was surprised and delighted to see his understanding of the world outside of Cambodia.
And yet paying attention wasn’t easy. For the first time, I had sympathy for my daughters spending all day at school. Being an active listener takes a lot of energy, and all the more when there is an accent involved. Not-Shawn’s accent was heavier than the other guides we had; I understood maybe three-quarters of the English words he spoke. Later, I learned that he wasn’t taught English in school as a youth, he had the misfortune of being caught up in the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. He was trying to stay alive when others were smoothing out their English accents in a classroom.
“See here,” he pointed toward a line of dozens of stone pillars with the centers scratched out, like a child’s drawing who didn’t like her creation but couldn’t find an eraser. “King changed religion to Buddhism, for like a peace treaty. But just for show, all of these were carvings of Buddha. Next King had them all destroyed, return to Hindu gods.”
We were at Angkor Wat, a UNESCO site and gigantic temple complex that is grand, vast and both finely detailed and crumbling. We climbed treacherously steep staircases for far-reaching views, examined the detailed carvings that seemed to stretch forever of daily life in the twelfth century, and saw bullet holes made during fighting between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese in the 1970s. I strained to listen to Not-Shawn’s commentary as I wiped the sweat from my forehead, made worse by the requirement to cover both one’s shoulders and knees out of respect.
“Worship is mixed up, even now” he told us as we approached a towering Buddha statue with an orange sash draped over the shoulder, in a similar style as the many monks we had seen since arriving in Southeast Asia. There were tables filled in front of the statue filled with platters of roasted and split animals (pigs?), columns of lit candles, spears of smoking incense poked into sand, people of all colors bowing before it. “Animism and Hindu gods not separate,” he explained, “Here they offer to Buddha and to spirits.”
I felt awkward. I’d learned a lot about Buddha on this trip – a brief life story, the relevance of his portrayal in physical positions (my favorite, reclining), and the abundant art and temples created to honor him. I didn’t feel the urge to bow before this spectacle of an altar, complete with gold sequined fabric. I saw my own confused spiritual journey in my mind’s eye, similar to scratching out the representation of Buddha to make room for a Hindu god. My word-study New Life Translation bible, not opened in years, next to my books on yoga and meditation. My absence from the church pew, yet prayers coming unbidden while lying in Shavasana, the ending corpse pose during my yoga practice.
But Not-Shawn was moving away already, a swift gait that always seemed to have a destination in mind. We trotted behind him where he led us to a shady spot with a ledge and gestured for us to have a seat. It was a welcome break in the humid heat and it took me a minute to realize he had something he wanted to say, he waited for us to finish sipping from our water bottles before he began. And as he talked, some fireworks went off inside my mind, clearing the clutter from the fog of the incense of the altar and the heat of the day. Pay attention, Molly, this is important. This is why you are here, to listen to his story.
He was separated as a young boy from his family when the Khmer Rouge came through his village. At seven years old he didn’t go to school, he worked the rice fields. Lazy or sick boys were killed in front of him. He carried an AK47 as a child soldier, taking careful steps among land mines. When the Vietnamese came to help, he didn’t know they were human beings, he thought they were an actual monster based on what he was taught. He survived. After the UN came in to his country his mother found him at a refugee camp. The UN educated him and taught him English. He used to dream of being a lawyer but now sees the judicial system as too corrupt to make an impact; now he wants one day to run for political office. Education is everything, he said to us, as we squinted up at him from our ledge to avoid the sun. People who can only think to feed themselves cannot be made to want more.
He survived. A witness to the Killing Fields that I had only vaguely heard of was standing in front of me, trying to educate me, because education is what saved him.
He showed me on his phone where he was quoted in the New York Times in 2012 in an article about Cambodia and the benefits of the increased tourism in his country. At the very end, his name is printed – Kong Soeun – and reads, “He says the tourist industry helped resurrect his life. His early years were shattered by the Khmer Rouge. Of 11 brothers and sisters, 6 disappeared. But he put himself through university with income earned as a tour guide…”
He wasn’t bragging and he wasn’t urgent; he was teaching. That day in Cambodia, I was a student in a way that only travel can offer. I heard, and tried with much effort, to understand every word of Mr. Soeun’s story of his survival of a genocide and his redemption through learning.
We know that the wounds and pains we carry go with us when we get on an airplane. And yet surely part of why we travel is the notion that they can be left behind. Maybe the unexpected magic of going away, anywhere but where you are, is that we can encounter the pains and joys of others and give space to carry them alongside our own. I’ve returned to the cloudy winter days on the American plains, but tucked away within is also the story of Mr. Soeun’s childhood terror and ultimate survival. Now that the longest partial government shutdown is over, I can see it in the long view of world history – this king, that president and still we all are trying to figure out what we believe and what to worship. Now I am checking out stacks of books about Cambodia because I want to continue my education.
But, I’m still me, sitting in front of the SAD lights at the library, wondering when I’ll feel the lightness of the sunshine on my back. I’m also carrying the fatigue of working the rice paddies and the fear of the next day and the exhilaration of learning a new word, because once you face the stories of another and let them in, they are somehow yours too.