Cambodia challenges you to care

boys playing in siem reap cambodia At the age of 14 I walked the Kokoda Track, an experience that changed my outlook on life forever and ultimately led to me working for a company like Intrepid. Yes, it was physically and mentally challenging, but it was actually meeting the local people and experiencing their way of village life that put things in perspective for me as a teenage girl. Fifteen years on, I had another of these life-altering experiences – I travelled to Cambodia.

Of course I was excited to finally be visiting the temples of Angkor Wat, something I had dreamed of doing ever since seeing my first Indiana Jones movie. I can say for certain that they did not disappoint. Angkor Wat itself is huge, it is like an entire ancient city. For it to still be standing today is astounding – a testament to the magnificence of a Cambodian civilisation. The cooperation that has gone into its restoration is inspiring. But many visitors may not be aware that there are numerous other temples scattered around Angkor Wat, of which my favourite was Bayon with its all-seeing faces.

It may surprise you to know that it was not these magnificent temples that led to my epiphany. It was in fact a museum; yes a museum that seemed to have a soul of its own and a thousand stories to tell. Stories of horror, of pain, of a part of history that even I wanted to ignore. The S21 prison museum in Phnom Penh moved me to tears, as I felt the heavy weight of those who died there and the very few who had survived. During the rule of Pol Pot, in the late 70’s when most of the people I know were striking a pose on the disco floor, the Khmer Rouge soldiers were capturing and torturing millions of innocent Cambodian people. I was gutted to learn that the Khmer Rouge were in actual fact only children, brainwashed by a man that I cannot find the words to describe. The terrible acts they committed must surely haunt them today as much as it does those who suffered at their hands.

What amazes me the most is that the people of Cambodia who survived this horrid time, a time when it was every man, woman and child for themselves, remain today as some of the most welcoming, generous and friendly people I have met in my travels around the world. In my life I am used to hearing people complain “I had a traumatic childhood” and “life sucks”, these words often used as excuses for why people feel they don’t need to be generous, friendly or even decent. Unlike these people in my modern society, the Cambodians revel in having the luxury of now being able to share, to actually be allowed to help others without fear of pain or death.

I have gained so much from a society that still has so little, but feel as if they have it all and are filled with joy in being able to welcome people like me into their lives. Like the Cambodians, no longer will I look into the past and wallow in my pain, but I will enjoy the now and look to the future with new vision. A lesson I feel many people today could benefit from, and for them to realise this it may take a journey to Cambodia.”

Tour Cambodia with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Cambodia Adventure – 12 days
Indochina Trails – 19 days

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* photo by Thomas Maguire – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author'
Skye Gainey - Skye’s travelled to so many amazing destinations and can’t wait to see many more.

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I too was moved to tears at S21 prison – it certainly brought to life a period of history that is too brutal to imagine. Our guide on that day lived through that time – moved out of Phnom Penh to work in forced labour in the country and when we asked how he could bear to relive by coming to S21 day after day his reply was that it was important to remember so that it never happened again. They are an amazing people – we could all learn a lot from them.'

Thank you Skye for sharing. I really enjoyed reading your article you have a nice way with words. I have just booked my own journey to Cambodia and Laos for June this year. I have really warmed to Asian destinations in the last few years. China with Intrepid 2 years ago and two trips using local buses and trains through Vietnam have opened my eyes. I am truly in support of your comment about moving forward and not wallowing in the past and yes I agree, it may take a journey to Cambodia for some people to realise this.'

I spent two weeks last June touring Cambodia by bicycle, which allowed me a chance to get off the beaten path and meet many wonderful people. I came away with exactly the same sentiment. It is amazing how warm and welcoming and friendly the Cambodian people are, given the tumultous history of the country. I was fortunate to meet two of the surviors at S21. I have been saying the same thing to everyone and recommending Cambodia as a destination to everyone I know. It was an amazing experience.'

I, like Skye, was astounded by the impact that Cambodia had on me on my visit in 2009. The resilience that the Cambodians have shown as a people is astonishing to me even now almost 3 years since I visited. My goal is to give something back to the Cambodian people, as they gave so much to me. This is a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lives, if only to gain a better perspective on their own lives.'

Beautifully written Skye. Cambodia is a place that will never leave me, even after spending only a brief week there. Their resilience and tenacity is amazing and they are beautiful people who simply keep building and moving forward. Your article briefly took me back to how I felt after visiting and reminded me of a few basic lessons I need not forget. Thank you.'

Thank you for this story I have been to many places round the world but Cambodia is my most treasured and loved place the people most of all are beautiful and friendly after all they have been through. I also have intrepid to thank for making my time there so wonderful.
Loved it miss it and will travel there again one day soon I hope'

Before I went to Cambodia I read about other people’s experiences and many said it was life changing. The main thing Cambodia did for me was put my life into perspective. It made me realise that anything i may have been through wasn’t that bad compared to what other people have experienced. In the western world we just take things for granted and don’t even realise how lucky we are.

This is so true, I visited Cambodia last year and have travelled much of the world and it was Cambodia that really touched my heart! Visiting S21 and the killing fields is something that will stay with me forever and was such a moving and heart breaking experience.'

Thanks for a great article. I completely agree about Cambodia. Some of the loveliest and friendliest people I’ve encountered in my travels despite such a difficult history. I would also encourage people to visit the killing fields just outside of Phnom Penh. The audioguide is extremely well done and it is an incredibly sobering place to visit. It reminds you of the frailty of life and how we all have to be vigilant against such regimes.'

How utterly fascinating that we all seem to have shared such similar experiences and feelings in Cambodia. I was lucky enough to win an Intrepid competition when I was researching Cambodia, and would you believe the trip was to my chosen country and also Vietnam. I could not believe the coincidence, or my good fortune. I, too, was moved to tears at Tuol Sleng, and almost every time I think about the photos of the innocent faces with expressions of hopelessness and terror I begin again. And yes, Angkor Wat seems to draw me back like a magnet, however the thing I will always remember most is the only thing warmer than the Cambodian sun (and it is VERY hot) is the Cambodian people. They are the warmest I have ever met in my 30 years of travel. I am currently plotting my return………….

Skye, you have captured my thoughts and feelings on Cambodia and Cambodians too.
Thank you for expressing it to the world. It is funny how sometimes you need a big trip to teach you a simple lesson.'

I literally just got back from 15 days in Cambodia and I can say with certainty that it was one of the best trips of my life. Skye has put into words all the thoughts that are floating inside my head…the splendor and majesty of Angkor, the enigma of Bayon, the horrors of Tuol Sleng and The Killing Fields, the delightful children who smile and wave with choruses of “hello” as you meet them, the sheer persistence, joyfulness and cheekiness of the Cambodian people…all of these are memories that will stay with me forever. I find it hard to describe my trip to people who ask me about my holiday…it was such a mixture of emotions. What I know for certain though is that I feel a strong urge to visit Cambodia again and I’m sure I will in the not so distant future.

I had the same experience 2 years ago when I visited to volunteer at the VDCA school in Siem Reap. The people are wonderfully generous and welcoming with the warmest smiles and happy disposition, which is amazing considering their history. Am just about to organise another trip there.'

I agree with previous sentiments and in particular the generosity of spirit shown by Cambodians toward each person they meet. I travelled there a few years ago and have been continually inspired by some of the people that I came across. I met a lovely girl who acted as my guide in Siem Reap and she was telling me about her life and included me in it by taking me back to meet her family who were peasant farmers but the most wonderful welcoming people. They opened their home and their hearts to me. In all of my years travelling I think this was one of the most treasured. I will certainly go back and visit these wonderful people again.


We made a fleeting visist to Cambodia (one day as a cruise ship call) and engaged a local driver to take us in to Phnom Penh. We specifically wanted to visit S21.

We entirely agree with Skye’s feelings. I spent the entire time sobbing. It was the most moving place either of us have ever been.

But instead of a people who have every right to hate the world for allowing the horrors that Pol Pot’s regime inflicted on them, we found a proud and amazingly welcoming people who have the biggest smiles of anywhere we have travelled to.

It was just a day, and it is the one day that we still both tell people has been the most memorable of any of our travels. Cambodia has been calling us back since and in the next couple of years we will be answering its call

pete and al'

This article really hit home for me because I felt exactly the same when I was fortunate to spend a few weeks in the country a few years back. For people who have been through so much and have so little in terms of material possesions they really do put the western culture to shame! Amazing country and having done a lot of travel in the past 7 years as a travel agent, Cambodia still remains at the top of my list of places people should visit once in their lifetime!

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