Cambodia, where my heart cracked open


Cambodia broke my heart.

It’s where I learned to cross the street as soon as I saw child beggars approaching from the corner of my eye.

The adult beggars, much harder to shrug off in the calm of Siem Reap as opposed to amongst the noise, lights and debauchery of Khao San Rd.

Tucked into a temple corner, a wizened woman cradling the bloated form of a young boy, his proportions all wrong – balloon head, stick figure body.

A dead dog in a stagnant creek. The most emaciated cows and chickens I have ever laid eyes upon. Skeletal would be too kind a word.

Thick, low-hanging bunches of power lines marring the beautiful, vivid Spanish-style buildings.


spanish style building in siem reap
A rare clear shot of a Siem Reap building

A lifetime of World Vision ads on TV leads you to believe you understand what’s out there, but do they really penetrate through the layers of scepticism, indifference, fatigue?

No. What does compute is a hippie-looking American, who checks into your lodge just after you do, to a familiar cry of surprise and joy from the owner.  Later, you sit at the table next to his, where he chats to a local about his fundraising efforts. Articulating his dream of clean drinking water and good solid meals every day for their children. Attempting to come up with a number for this undertaking. That’s what it takes.

Personified, I think Cambodia would be that tough-as-nails woman who’s withstood everything life could possibly sling her way – divorce, cancer, bankruptcy, recession, depression, the loss of loved ones – but is still soldiering on.

17 thoughts on “Cambodia, where my heart cracked open

  • Reply krantcents June 5, 2013 at 07:47

    Seems like a real eye opener! I don’t know if I would visit on vacation though.

  • Reply Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce June 5, 2013 at 08:33

    I had a similar experience in the several years I lived in Burma, now Myanmar. There are great ways to get involve in poverty relief when you’re back state-side!

  • Reply Michelle June 5, 2013 at 08:48

    Wow sounds like a hard place to visit. Don’t know if I could do it.

  • Reply Revanche June 5, 2013 at 09:31

    I feel like I can’t vacation in Vietnam or Thailand because of the reality of the poverty. It just feels wrong when I feel at least some kinship to the lives there.

  • Reply Linda June 5, 2013 at 10:35

    Sounds similar to India. Before any of my friends or colleagues go to India, I always refer to them to this article and tell them that it is very true: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/welltraveled/features/2004/trying_really_hard_to_like_india/learning_to_like_india_a_fivestep_approach.html

    Here’s a quote:
    “The thing is, if you go to India as a tourist, you’ll have to make some sort of peace with all this. Because it’s one thing to see poverty on television, or to get direct mail that asks for your charity. It’s different when there are tiny, starving children grabbing your wrists and asking for money wherever you go.”

    Just change out India for Cambodia and it sounds like the same place. I know it’s really hard to see the depth of poverty in some of the places you travel. Please keep writing about your trip!

  • Reply cantaloupe June 5, 2013 at 15:22

    Where are the pictures of all that stuff???? Why only a picture of the rare pretty house????

    • Reply eemusings June 6, 2013 at 01:03

      Photo of dead dog – a crappy phone picture not worth a damn.

      Other animals seen from a moving vehicle.

      Really? You’d feel comfortable snapping an up close photo of a beggar? Especially one you’re trying to get away from? (And as for the kids, they are the biggest hustlers ever. They will follow you around, or stand by your table for minutes badgering you to buy a postcard or whatever. I imagine they’d expect hefty payment if I were to take their photo)

  • Reply Your Daily Finance June 6, 2013 at 01:24

    Not sure I would really want to visit. I here people talk about how fun it is and cheap but they never really hit the things I know to be there like poverty and of issues. Not some place I would want to spend a happy vacation. Maybe more for grounded myself to remember I don’t have it as tough as I would like to think.

  • Reply Digital Nomads June 6, 2013 at 07:56

    What an experience, not sure if it encourage anyone to visit! Except if you are a traveller, you will head there directly 🙂

  • Reply Kristine June 6, 2013 at 15:12

    This post reminds me of many of my vacations to the Philippines. I remember the times when I would eat at a restaurant and just see little street kids watching through the window – it broke my heart. I would just stop eating and give the food to the children that were watching. Even dogs looked like they were starving too. My heart breaks every time. I guess that’s why I have not visited the Philippines in 7 years.

  • Reply Kelly June 6, 2013 at 16:54

    I’ve seen some real poverty and it’s just difficult. You can’t give money to everybody and sometimes it feels wrong to enjoy yourself so close to where people are barely surviving. Once I find a reputable volunteer programme my ideal travel situation would be living in a country and volunteering or working for a humanitarian organisation. It really makes you feel grateful for what we have here, grateful but useless.

  • Reply Manda June 7, 2013 at 02:48

    I didn’t stray far from Siem Reap/Angkor Wat when I was in Cambodia (no time), but it sounds similar to what I saw in a rural Laos. It might be the same type of stuff we see on TV, but seeing it in person just hits home on another level.

  • Reply Megan June 7, 2013 at 06:14

    Sigh. It’s heartbreaking and sobering to think of and see these things, but certainly something that you have to become accustomed to if you’re traveling in certain places. It’s truly difficult to walk the line between apathy and empathy – you don’t want to become cold-hearted, but you have to acclimate to certain amounts if you want to keep your sanity.

  • Reply Cait June 8, 2013 at 04:04

    I can only imagine what it would feel like to be in Cambodia. Many friends have shared similar sentiments, including that it felt “immediately different from anywhere” they’d ever been.

    Have you ever read The Road of Lost Innocence? There is imagery that will never leave you, but an honest tale that I think everyone (man or woman) should read.


  • Reply Dave Adair June 20, 2013 at 15:35

    “When we feel both our love for this world and the pain of this world – together, at the same time – the heart breaks out of its shell. To live with an open heart is to experience life full strength.”
    ~ John Welwood

    Is our heart going to break out of its shell as we’re laying on a four star beach having someone mist us when it’s too hot? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. For me, that’s why I go to places like India, where the view isn’t always pleasant – but is likely to be enriching, engrossing, aggravating, complexifying (I made that up!) and beautiful.

    When I first started India travel my technique, which “worked” pretty well was to act like the beggars were invisible. I never responded to them, acknowledged them, or acted like they were there. They pestered me less, but it didn’t feel right. Eventually I started practicing looking them in the eye, greeting them, interacting with them, and still never giving them anything other than love. Little beggars turn back into children, problems become real people, and for me it’s a much nicer interaction. I recommend trying it!

    I also take a lot of photos of beggars, but I (almost) always ask permission first.

    Thanks for the article. Cheers,

  • Reply Jennifer August 12, 2013 at 20:10

    Great personification of Cambodia as a woman that has had everything thrown at her. I think Laos is similar – its been through everything but yet just sits there silently just getting on with things.

  • Reply Travel vs vacation - the different types of travel January 12, 2014 at 15:33

    […] I’ve been pondering the differences between a holiday (or vacation) and travel. Cambodia deeply affected me, and some of the comments on my post indicate that my reflections were somewhat off-putting from the other […]

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