A Goodbye to the Faces of Cambodia

An ancient history of greatness; a recent history of tragedy; and the present that is a breadth of culture, charm, and optimism–and all of it with a natural backdrop of unique terrain peppered with its beautiful wildlife.

The definition of “idyllic” is: extremely happy, peaceful, or picturesque. Cambodia is idyllic. And it seems like she was fated to exist.

Many ancient civilizations have come and gone, either by war or by wither. Cambodia “should’ve” followed the same path. Ancient Thai invasions took all they could from the ancient Khmer empire but hadn’t the reach to wipe them out. In the 1800s, the Thai and Vietnamese were sandwiching the Khmer people to annihilation. But then France came in, and though they dominated the Cambodians themselves, their form of dominance didn’t seek to eliminate them. Decades later, when they were independent, it was actually their own leaders who put Cambodia on the brink. But n 1979, Vietnam ousted them. Finally today, Cambodia has strengthened with the help of the latest version of outside leadership: the U.N.

One could argue Cambodia is pretty lucky to still be around. Perhaps it’s fate. Perhaps Cambodia’s survival is a statement of the Khmer character. I’d also like to think it’s a statement about the progress of humanity, now working to retain a culture. If so, Cambodia–and the Khmer language, music, traditions, customs, cuisine, and more–is our gift.

It may be a single culture, but don’t mistake that for lack of variety or individuality.

The gift comes in many forms. Let’s look back at the faces of Cambodia:

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Workers chipping away at the puzzle pieces




The temple water boy


Aye aye.


Helmet-headed monsters

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My 12 days in Cambodia had me reflect, “Gee, if one can get so much from a relatively small place in such a short amount of time, what does this say about the rich offerings before each and every one of us wherever we are?”

That is the magic of travel: a fresh take on life when your environment is reset to the surroundings of your destination.

Thank you for traveling Cambodia with me.

Going to a Cambodian Kickboxing Match

After the weight of the previous post, I was ready for a lighter side to Cambodian living–something spirited, celebratory, and proud. Well, the same taxi driver who escorted me to the genocide museums knew of a Cambodian boxing event. So off we went…

If you read previous posts, you know that the Cambodian people (the Khmer) have experienced turbulent times since their geographic peak. It was in about 1100AD that the Khmer empire encompassed much of modern-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Back then, pictures of fighters employing a similar style as today are etched into the temples.

But then the withering of their empire began, and the Khmer almost went the way of other great, ancient civilizations. Almost. Like a skinny, but persistent fighter, they’ve scrappily held on. Today the Cambodians continue to fight–literally and figuratively.

The Cambodian boxing of today was influenced by French colonizers who formalized the matches and introduced gloves and a ring. The Khmer Rouge of the 70’s had outlawed the sport. The art was resurrected in 1979. Today it’s Cambodia’s national sport, and many come each week to watch the bouts. Matches are held each Sunday in a mid-sized arena behind a TV station. This way, fights can be televised live:

Pregame show

Pregame show

The ring sat in the center with bleachers and chairs filling with spectators.

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They'd get more excited once the fighting began.

They’d get more excited once the fighting began.

I got my seat and awaited the bouts. Soon, out came fighter #1:


And then his rival:


They got to their corners and prepared:


Cameraman needed to pump himself up:


What’s Cambodian boxing (pradal serey) like? A more knowledgeable source (like this Wikipedia article) can offer you better details, but I can tell you that the big difference here is the use of kicking.

Another difference is pre-fight rituals: opponents walk around the ring bowing. Even the referee bows to the crowd. Traditional music plays loudly to introduce the boxers, during their pre-fight, and even during the match. As the fight begins, the music starts off slow, but soon the pace quickens. The result, at times, was a dance-fight appearance, each fighter bouncing to the beat and punching or kicking to the rhythm.

Each evening features five matches. This night, the first one was called because one fighter’s face wouldn’t stop bleeding. Another fight ended in knock out. The young man in this fight must’ve had the heart of an adult to along with his adolescent body:


His opponent:


The boy survived a knock down and five-count in the first round.


In the second, he took a few punches, and while on the run, another connection knocked him down. Attempts to get up were met with drunken-like, off-balance tipsiness. The state he must have been in! Was the room spinning? I can only imagine a mother watching her son in this state. Then again, this is a sport that evidently makes the country proud. The audience cheered; the fighters showed honor in their partaking.

Here’s some footage from fight night:


’til next week,


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Questions in the Dark


It’s that time of year.


Nope, cold season.

Knocked out of work on Friday, I was in bed about 40 of last weekend’s 48 hours. Upshots included the chance to dive into a book and an unexpected, intriguing, quiet solitude.

For a couple of these hours, it was very quiet.

I was asleep before nine Friday night. With the help of a stuffy nose and cough, I awoke at half past midnight and couldn’t get back to sleep for two hours. I wasn’t tired, so I just lay there in dark staring across my room, barely able to make out the furniture. Not a peep from outside my window in the middle of the cold night; not a noise in my apartment except maybe the refrigerator.

Countering my physical congestion, I enjoyed a mental-emotional clarity. First I just felt the unfamiliar nothingness, this novel lack of stimulation. Then out of this emptiness came crystal clear questions:

Why do I live in Minnesota if I don’t like the cold?

Why have I never been engaged?

Why am I not as successful as other writers?

What’s stopping me from living up to my potential?

One doesn’t the realize the degree to which he is regularly distracted until struck by the questions that await him in the silence.

I then could make out patterns of my past — the avoidances, the shortcuts, the distractions — traps that have kept me from being more and living more. I was simultaneously fearful that these new found patterns were scripted to continue while motivated by my sight of them to change.

Everyone has those moments where you’re able to step outside of yourself and say, “What am I doing with my life? Is this what I want?”

I realized the stimulation of daily living has allowed me to evade such questioning and doubt. My cold, then — and my inexplicable decision to not surf my phone — was a blessing that placed these questions before me.

I can’t say how/if I’ll change in response, but it is safe to say that I feel better today — not just because I’m getting over my cold, but because I carry with me the insight and direction from facing the questions that arose when nothing was there to distract me from them.

I have some friends that attend a silent retreat each winter, a 72-hour weekend, where attendees don’t say a word. I think I’ll ask them about going along this year.

The Genocide of the Khmer Rouge

In the early 1970′s little Cambodia was in the middle of civil and international war–intricately tied to the Vietnam War. But on April 17th, 1975, the existing, American-backed government fell to the revolutionary regime, the Khmer Rouge (“Red Khmer,” Khmer being the predominant ethnicity and language of Cambodians and Red being the color of Communism). They walked into the streets of the capital Phnom Pehn, and residents greeted them with cheers and celebration. The fighting was over. And the Khmer Rouge was to escort Cambodians into a new era of peace.


But like waking abruptly from a pleasant dream, the Cambodian people were jolted into the cold, grim reality that things would get much worse before they got better. A day after the cheers, the Khmer Rouge troops ordered the capital to be evacuated–immediately. Sick? Old? Awaiting amputation? Didn’t matter. Go.

Imagine a city larger than Duluth or Fargo or even St. Paul being completely emptied and you, the resident, having to leave all your belongings. Some pushed their cars; most just trudged a suitcase or two. All were on foot and would suffer a bruising journey to the countryside. Before April 1975 had ended, the capital was a ghost town. This was all according to plan. The evacuation of all large cities was the first step in a series of extreme measures taken.

The Khmer Rouge ideology was based on a disdain for Western influence and the idea that all would be wonderful in their society if equality was forced. This led to two extraordinary goals: a return to their agrarian roots and a removal of anything or anyone who was tainted by the ways of the West. Pomp wealth and arrogance would be eradicated as all would know what life was like in the fields. No classes would rank the members of society.

Any nobility seen in these motives would be irrelevant, as it doesn’t matter how good you think your idea is if what you have to do to see it through is evil–or turns you evil.

Troops relished and exploited their authority. The educated, wealthy, and former party members were eliminated–shot on spot. They were luckier than some. A seemingly dark drive to see others suffer motivated torturous actions. And paranoia of suspected non-followers and traitors led to accusations, imprisonment, and death to thousands upon thousands more. The worse it got, the more people wanted out, the more traitors there were.

Those who escaped suspicion didn’t escape the difficulties. The Killing Fields is the name given to a book and film depicting the long hours, no days off, few tools, and no medical supplies typifying the conditions on the farm camps. Also typical was constant fear of death, as fellows would be taken away in the middle of the night by soldiers never to be seen again.

Out-with-the-old revolutions are nothing new, but the difference here was the amount of blood used to try and clean the slate. Today, there exists two sites in Phnom Pehn that memorialize the genocide.

The remains from mass graves have been unearthed and are on display at Choeung Ek Memorial and museum just outside Phnom Penh.

This is the centerpiece--an elegant, harrowing structure.

This is the centerpiece–an elegant, harrowing structure.

Inside it holds stark reminders of what had been buried here:



They put body on the bones:


This vessel held 8000 skulls of all ages.


Some of the mass graves are still underground. Visitors walked among this graveyard.



Others have been unearthed.


Photo from museum

Some bones here were unearthing themselves.



This location basically became a killing factory in the late ’70s. Housing had to be built for executioners and grave diggers. Thousands were brought here to be executed. Most were shot, but bullets were pricier than using a machete or a knife.

Many of the victims above were former prisoners at an institution known as SR21. Today, it is known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

It was originally a high school.

It was originally a high school.

Accused spies, conspirators, and other untrusted people were held here for forced confessions. Around 17,000 people were imprisoned.

Twelve are known to have survived.

The interior of the five-building complex.

The interior of the five-building complex.

Visitors are allowed to walk inside the cells.


Other buildings showcase photos of what went on.


They also share those who died in this complex. The prison kept records of its inmates.


Now the photos are used to give faces to the victims whose bones we already saw at the Choeung Ek Memorial.

Walls of faces looked back at you, revealing to you a scale of the eradication. But it seemed life was stripped away from the people even before death became them.


Perhaps she knew her and her baby’s fate.

As was the fate of all of these little faces:


One young woman looking at these faces near me started to cry. I wished to say something comforting. I’ve thought about it since, and if given another chance, I would’ve said, “They’re not suffering anymore.”

Humans actions require human explanations. Internal and external variables here in the late 1970s were arranged in such a way to create a regime and individuals that could somehow twist morality into justifying their atrocities.

While this went on, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge also expressed concern for their people. They talked with other countries about the problems they had with high malaria and lack of medicines. They even broke their own rule and accepted medical aid from the West.

But the organization became a breeding ground for all the hate and inhumanity that its members could muster. The dreams of a Khmer Utopia literally turned into a killing contest, soldiers inventing new ways of causing death and torture. Animals may be more apathetic, but humans’ capacity for sympathy and compassion has an opposing potential that destroys. Roughly 2 million of the country’s 8 million died as a result of less than four years of Khmer Rouge rule.

In January 1979 Vietnam invaded and ousted the leadership. Today, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal court continues its 18+ years of trying former Khmer Rouge leaders. They’ve imprisoned three.

All the rank and file members live with the public today.

As a Khmer Rouge soldier; as a civilian today

As a Khmer Rouge soldier; as a civilian today

Less than 40 years removed, practically everyone middle-aged and older has a story to tell. In Battambang, my tour guide’s parents were killed. This is normal. Yet somehow so is the positive demeanor among the Cambodians, it being written about in my guidebook and discovered myself upon my arrival.

The healing is uplifting; the apparent ability for normal people to ravage humanity is unsettling; the darkness that became this country and the anguish its people went through is unforgettably haunting.

It’s hard to juggle the mixed feelings one has visiting and learning about the Khmer Rouge. The only certainty is walking away a changed person.

For more about this history, read its Wikipedia and check out The Killing Fields.

Write for Good


This past week, I’ve come to appreciate the use of writing for good because of a story about my employer that was used for bad.

The narrative included a hero at my school who was “beloved” and a villain who oversaw “several dark years.” What was supposedly a news story about a legal matter at our school district was really an opportunity for a local writer to express her unpleasant bias.

We at the school see the kids’ smiling faces, the tears at graduation, and the cheers at sporting events. There have been challenges, of course, including the one the writer highlighted, but the idea of “dark years” had us scratching our heads.

But it’s common for the news to exaggerate for provocation.

More troubling were the personal attacks.

We also know the “villain.” Imperfect as anyone else, yet few at our school doubt her motives as anything but wanting the best for the students. In fact, the successes at the school are abundant. Yet the writer missed (or ignored) all this in favor of highlighting a controversy and injecting snide remarks. This bias not only limits one’s perspective and scope from which to write about a topic. But it’s also just mean. I’ve since watched this woman whom the writer attacked go about her job at the school doing her best to ignore what’s being written about her.

I know tabloids are built upon this kind of writing and that celebrities and various leaders have to live with these judgments all the time. I just never appreciated the ugliness of it all until it was directed to something I’m connected to. I had to wonder why this writer would feel satisfaction in tearing people down and skewing the truth. And while no writer is without bias, so many these days seem to blatantly incorporate their hate into their nonfiction stories under the guise of being on the right side of the issue or with the excuse that they are “punching up.”

The lesson has been threefold for me: sympathize with the targets of a writer’s ire, spot the cases where a story warps the truth, and then work to avoid this in my own writing.

Teaching English in Cambodia

My second day in Battambang, I decided to rent a small motorcycle. There is no better way to cruise a foreign city in the tropics–faster than walking or biking and more exposed than riding around in a car. You take in the city buildings, the market, the sellers and shoppers, the commuters on their bicycles, the rattling pickup trucks. Get outside of town and take in the hills, trees, and fields from the dirt road.

On such a dirt road, I wasn’t sure where I was headed–that’s was the point–but after a farm field to my left, I saw the entrance to a property. At the head of the driveway, the front gate featured plaques reading “World Health Organization” and “United Nations.” I pulled into the dirt driveway. Ahead was an aged, long wooden building. Outside, there was a gazebo under which sat two women and a man dressed professionally.  I thought this was a clinic.

I parked and approached the gazebo. The man responded a few English words. I was at a school, it turned out. I looked up and toward the building and indeed could make out a class in session through an open window.

I walked in and said hello:


Despite their straight-faced pose, they were pretty surprised to see me. Then with the permission of their teacher, I did what I knew best (I had been teaching English in China this year.)

Some could say ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’; we went from there. I was struck by how individual students greeted me. Asking a student a question meant them standing up, putting their hands together for a brief bow of thanks, and then the answer. Me thanking them for the answer meant another nod of respect from them before sitting.

While I taught, other classrooms in this building heard what was going on. Minutes later, I looked out the window frames to see kids staring and leaning in. I got them involved a little as well. After 10-15 minutes, though, the headmistress came inside in a stern manner one might expect. The kids in the window scattered, those in the class scuttled out of the room, and she questioned the teacher whose class I taught.

“Uh, whoopsie,” I thought sheepishly. I got the drift that the students were supposed to be at recess.

But I don’t think it was a big deal. The headmistress offered a friendly look, and I stuck around a little while outside to watch the kids play.


I said a few more words to the gentleman I met outside before starting my motorbike and riding off with some disbelief that I had just taught a class in Cambodia.

I never confirmed but assume from the plaques on the front gate that this institution had backing from worldwide educational initiatives. This school certainly was a different version of education from the classroom I saw along the road the day before.


Two other places I visited the day earlier included a hill with temple atop and cave at its side:

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Cave guide

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Shrine in the cave

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The other attraction foreshadows next week’s post. It was a memorial to those who died at this location during the country’s genocide in the 70s.

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Artwork at the memorial

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Human bones as a result of the genocide


Monk on site

On the third morning, I was saying goodbye to Battambang, grateful for the school that I visited, for the wedding party I celebrated with, and for the crocodiles I walked beside.

At the bus stop, the city surprised me with one last image:


Cockroach salad


Visiting a Theater Costume Warehouse for a Halloween Costume

An invitation to a Halloween party this weekend had me in search of the perfect outfit.

After having tried a few conventional methods for getting a costume (party store, online retailers), a Google search inspired another source.

On Saturday I pulled into the parking lot of Costume Rentals in Minneapolis, provider of an enormous collection of costumes used in Twin Cities theater.


Their website said they had 30,000 costumes collected over the years. Entering their warehouse, I was blown away by the selection–not just the volume, but the variety and quality.

Rows and rows of racks stacked two high.

Outfits, props, masks, and footwear.

“This is 40 years of history of the Children’s Theater and the Guthrie Theater,” said my guide and fitter, Lolly.


Lolly standing in front gear that looked to be useful for Beowulf or Lord of the Rings.

My need for a costume quickly became secondary. This was a joy just to walk this museum.

Barbarian coat and various battle equipment


Furs galore

Pope cloaks, military gear, American colonial clothing… All these outfits revealed the various fashions that have donned the bodies of humans; all the props demonstrated the various ways of life throughout the ages and around the world.

Millennia of history encapsulated in one warehouse.

But we had to get down to business.




More than an expert in costumes, Lolly is a theater coach. She told me how to act in each outfit, explaining the context of the style as well as the manner in which one would wear the clothing.


For the above Shakespearian top, I learned how to bow with hips back, one foot forward, left hand on the hilt of my sword, and right hand extended.

I didn’t learn how to bow in this get up:


I’m not sure how often a Roman soldier would bow.


But I did learn how to squat in this one:


I found one I liked the best (the Shakespeare) and now look forward to a weekend of chivalry and candy.

If you’re in need of an outfit for Halloween, are in the Twin Cities, and don’t want to settle on this year’s Halloween costume, check out Costume Rentals (www.costumerentals.org) at 855 East Hennepin, contact: 612-375-8722 / costumes@guthrietheater.org.

This weekend I hope you get to experience living the life of another era — or another creature.

Happy Halloween!

Battambang, Cambodia: A Crocodile Farm and Wedding Crashing

Our boat approached the landing in Battambang. We twelve travelers jumped off the boat onto the bank a couple of feet away. While waiting for my luggage, a motorcycle driver approached as they often did at opportune times in Cambodia. He looked friendly and knew English. I believed him when he said that the other drivers here offering free rides to hotels they worked for were misquoting room rates to lure guests.

Along with Sven, a German fellow traveler I met on the long boat ride, we hopped on this driver’s transport: his motorcycle towing a two-wheel carriage, also known as a tuk tuk.

It was early evening when Sven and I found a two bed room in a decent hotel for $11.

Battambang is a second-tier tourist city. It didn’t have much flair, but it provided a genuineness I didn’t get anywhere else.


The next morning, we met out driver for a day of sightseeing. There were a couple of places mentioned in my guidebook–abandoned Pepsi factory and a crocodile farm. We started out seeing these places.

Sven and driver

Sven and driver

The city blocks were made up of lined, one-story buildings–restaurants, grocers, stores. Picking up speed and leaving town, we rode a few miles to a homestead just off the main road. I didn’t see any signs of crocs. I saw a house and across the driveway a patio area with a guy laying in a hammock watching TV. Our driver said a few words to him, the guy rolled out of his perch, and the crocodile farm tour began. The back side of this “patio” was actually the concrete wall of the crocodile compound.

First thing our guide did was walk us into the juvenile section. Yep, walk into. Third World croc farm means front row seats. No regulations to hold you back; no lawsuits to fear. Just watch your fingers.

Actually, walking into the tiled floor of this large, open area with pool in the center, I was a bit disappointed that the adolescent crocodiles were way more afraid of you than you of them. The dozens of them out in the sun suddenly scattered, scuttled, and wobbled comically on the slippery tiles into the depths of their pool.

Huddling near their pool

Huddling near their pool

I was able to get close enough to grab one’s tail. It didn’t like that.

After this pen, we went younger to see the “children” crocs.


After a few minutes staring and “awwing,” these babies allowed for nice contrast to our final pen.

For this last one though, we weren’t allowed to go inside. We climbed atop the three-feet-wide concrete dividers to look down upon the monster adults.

These were scary even from a safe distance. Huge. And I was staring at, like, 30 of them.


Come and get it. The lure of rat skin was too much for them to resist.


The one in the middle looks to be in a precarious position.

Getting this close to so many made their awesomeness obvious. Enormous heads, dramatic scales.

Helmet-headed monsters

Helmet-headed monsters

These mega-reptiles are grown, sold, and used for their skin and meat. Until then, these animals make for an incredible zoo.


Later in the day, we were back on the bike cruising on another road outside of town when we saw a gathering alongside the road. They looked to be partying in a large tent.

“Should we stop?” Sven and I mulled. Yes, we decided.

“Stop!” we yelled to our driver over the roar of the motorcycle.

While walking up to the crowded tent, an arm with beer in hand popped out from between two folds in the tarp. A beverage welcome-offering for Sven. He declined, though later would accept. We were at a wedding party.

People wanted pictures and were honored to have us take part in their event.

Sven and I with bride and groom

Sven and I with bride and groom

I wasn’t too surprised that they welcomed us. People here are excited to see Westerners. I considered the fact that most Americans would likely not welcome foreign strangers to their wedding. But I dropped the thoughts to also allow myself the chance to just go with it.

The families wanted to feed us, but we didn’t want to keep our driver waiting. (Interestingly, he didn’t want to enter, because he didn’t know this family.)


But we could dance! Music played and a few were already moving. Sven and I joined, and we all started a circle of folks going round and round as they do here.

This wasn't in the travel guide.

This wasn’t in the travel guide.

They were honored to have us, but how could I not walk away with the honor being all mine? They let me experience a culture so far away in such an intimate way.

And I learned more so the differences and the commonalities we all share.

Next week, I rent a bike of my own and visit a local school.

Acknowledge Your Mortality, Be Your Best Self


“I get sad coming back here seeing familiar places…”

A friend said this on Saturday. He is originally from here in Minnesota and was visiting from his current home in San Diego.

Our automatic response upon hearing him say this might be, “What for? Do you have regrets or bad memories?”

But he finished his sentence by saying, “…because I know I’m going to be leaving soon.”

My friend has fond memories of where he grew up, but visiting family and seeing his old house was a sweetness made bitter by the fact that this reunion was temporary.


I remember my last day working at the secondary school in Tanzania—soon to be returning to my home in Minnesota. I had been in this village about seven months, walking the same paths, passing the same students, entering the same buildings countless times. Yet on this last day, the tall grass blowing in the wind, each step of the dirt path, and every student interaction I had, were noticeably precious.

I realized I had gotten into a groove in my months at the school (or was it a funk?), walking by each building and student preoccupied by tasks I could be doing, plans I could be making, or simply daydreaming. But this final day the details of this environment were right in my face, because I could feel the end nearing.

Unfazed by mental distraction, I sauntered over to a group of students and lightly interacted, asking the adolescents about their interests, about their plans after school, and joking about my (mis)adventures trying to fit into their culture. It was one of the most meaningful days of many there. I was excited to be going home, but now I was also sad to be leaving all this beauty so clearly apparent—that this part of my life with all this beauty was over.

Related, I was recently dating someone. Our parting was amicable, but I was sad afterwards recalling vividly the best parts of this person and our relationship.

A breakup, a departure, or any recognition of drastic change, is a troubling reminder to us that all is mortal, that we can’t take the blessings of this life with us. Fear and hurt resist this truth and fuels the desire for these moments (with a former partner, at our former home) not to end—just as my fear of death will have me wish I was young again when I’m an old man. We want good things to last forever.

I think my friend tapped into a fear of mortality ingrained into the human condition. It encourages us to not face our mortality, to hover just below the level of presence and assume a false sense of permanence. There’s a comfortable numbness to it and perhaps a practical need, so that we can work on that project spared the sentimentality of existential crises.

Yet because we couldn’t escape the imminence of our departures, the beauty of the present was also inescapable for my friend and I. For him, every street, every house, every family member, and every moment visiting his old stomping grounds was richer now that he was visiting rather than living here.

Where we live often has us slip into “autopilot,” going about our day missing all the details. This delusion of permanence, unconscious of our limited time, has us take our moments, experiences, possessions, and relationships for granted. We may slunk into a mental state that compromises our priorities—neglecting family, service, and love in favor of thrill, grudge, gossip, righteousness, and simply daydream or other escape.

Conversely, my friend’s visit (and my last day at the school) allowed us to feel temporariness, and so we rang as much out of every precious moment as possible.

Isn’t everything temporary?

Many people who become terminally ill or who escape a health scare seek opportunities to express love, aware that time is too short to invest in anything else.

This prioritization doesn’t necessarily replace routine and certainly not work. In fact, I think we’d be spurred on by our desire for legacy and leaving the planet better than we found it.

So why wait until we’re knocking on death’s door to realize what’s important?

Face the fear of mortality and have our acknowledgement of temporariness move us to be our best self.

The Floating Villages of Cambodia

After getting admittedly “templed-out” (my guide book warned me about that), I was ready to trade in the ancient and the touristy of Siem Reap for the peace and slower pace of Battambang, a less-visited city of 150,000 in the northwest of Cambodia.

But before I made that trade, I had another exchange to make: sturdy earth beneath my feet for the soothing sway of water beneath the hull. A big reason I traveled to Battambang was because of the ol’ adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps this is especially so when the journey consists of a boat ride along a river snaking past splendid natural views and revealing a unique way of life among the people…

The van picked me up from my hostel at 6:45am. Though off the beaten path, I was joined by a host of other tourists on this boat trip. I met a few young folks from England, a German, an Aussie, a Slovak, and a pair of Chinese. The van was undersized. We rode clown-car style on this sunny morning, leaving the city and driving past the palm trees and dusty, dry-season air.

We approached and parked on a grassy flat above the docks on Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. Before we could make our way down to a boat, though, aggressive local peddlers selling breakfast foods met up as we opened the van door.

“You no breakfast on boat,” one said.

That convinced me, and I bought some cheese and croissants.

This southwest boat journey started just south of Siem Reap on Tonle Sap’s north end and then taking the river to Battambang:


Doesn’t look too far but that there’s a 7-hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang.

Our group walked down to the docks and boarded our boat.


The long, skinny vessel had a needed canopy protecting from the hot sun (in February, by the way). You can see the “W.C.” in the background of the above picture. That’s the bathroom. And what made the back of the boat worse for those riders was the noise of engine. I luckily sat at the front–even out on the nose of the boat for a time.

At this marina, tourism took a back seat to fishing. Locals were abundant, making their way “out to sea.”



A sea of chocolate milk. Not exactly picturesque, but the scenery got a lot better quickly.

We started out. Our captain took his place near me at the front of the boat.

Aye aye.

Aye aye.

Our boat’s engine roared over the open water of now-blue Tonle Sap. Wind blew past our faces on this smooth cruise on this low-wave, low-wind day. Soon, distant shores crept close.


Cruising along with the rushes in the distance, the foreground was populated with patches of weeds slowly approaching then racing by at random; port and starboard, distant and nearby, each on their own trajectory.

On the roadways of water it’s easy to find the right path. There is only one river to take.

The shores around us narrowed and we were swallowed by the mouth of the river. Earth began to pour by in a smooth flow. The terrain was low and marshy with low-level brush framing the river banks.


Along the way, we occasionally stopped to pick up a local passenger.


You wouldn’t see this in the US or Europe, but here in Cambodia, tourism transportation doubles as freight transport. Because why not take advantage of the option? So in hopped the young fella in the back of the boat pictured above along with his sacks of goods.

Leveraging river traffic was especially crucial in this part of the world, because the river is the dominant means by which people commute.  Not long into this river route, we began to pass that which I’d heard much about: the floating villages.

Here’s the deal: Most people like living near water. But this river rises incredibly during the rainy season. So the buildings with foundations are up atop the banks on stilts several feet off the ground.

And the foundation-less buildings? They float.


When they say they live on the river, these folks mean it.

These first buildings appeared around a bend. Then we slowed as we passed by:

Floating School

Floating school

Floating Post Office

Floating Post Office

Can you imagine sitting in class, rocking to mathematics as outside boats go by? How about conducting business at the post office? Get up in the morning and roll out of bed, but watch out for that first step. Joking aside, imagine the hazards for sleepwalkers, infants, or if you’ve simply had too much to drink.

Floating Store

Floating store

Floating homes

Floating homes

Thinking about their poverty, it seems this lifestyle of needing to float every where for everything would limit commerce and cap wealth potential.

But Cambodians are known for their contentment and welcoming demeanor. Indeed, they acted in a manner you’d expect from folks you meet on the water—a lot of smiles and a lot of waving as we passed by.


A lot of naked kids, too. I think they start donning underwear around the age of 5.

In all, we must have had 100 children stop what they were doing to wave like we were a float in a parade. I wanted to throw candy at them, but had to settle for waving back.

This whole situation also got me thinking about being here, as a Westerner and as a tourist. I travel around and marvel at the ways of “these people.” I am intrigued “by their ways.” It all screams hierarchy of the human race. But I love learning about, and witnessing, other cultures.

Travel is a paradox in this realm. It juxtaposes and evidences (and enforces) the reality of differing social evolutions. Yet it also nurtures an inter-culture intimacy.






After 8-9 hours, we saw signs of urbanization. Battambang was near.

Along this trip, I had also met a travel companion. Sven would join me over the next two days touring our destination which had surprises waiting: crocodiles, a Cambodian wedding, and a cave.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the lives of the river folk here in northern Cambodia. You stretch your ideas of what life could be when you see how others live theirs.




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