My Holiday in Cambodia
I’m sitting in the back of a pickup truck somewhere between the Thai border and Siem Reap, Cambodia. The floor in the back of the pickup is fake. The driver is smuggling goods. Every 30 minutes or so, he slows down (it was a mud road, so we were never going fast), and he hands a cash bribe to a couple of guys holding AK-47s. I’m in shock.
It's now 1987, and I was thirteen and had fallen in love with the Dead Kennedys. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand half the references in their songs; the anger and emotion resonated with me. I remember listening to a dubbed cassette of the album Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables. My favorite song was “Holiday in Cambodia,” even though I didn’t know where Cambodia was or who Pol Pot was. I looked up Cambodia in an old encyclopedia at my suburban Houston middle school library. It being 1987, the encyclopedia contained nothing about Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge, but there was a lot about Angkor. Even though I never told any of my fellow prepubescent punks, I looked at those unbelievable pictures of Angkor for an eternity. Angkor Wat seemed way more incredible than the medieval castles I was learning about in history. I promised myself I would visit one day.
It’s now 2002, and I’m almost finished with my first year of teaching at Friends Seminary. I have an entire summer off, and I want to travel. I walk by the old STA travel in the East Village. There’s a deal on a flight to Bangkok. I looked at a map and realized that Thailand is next to Cambodia. I remember my promise to myself. Before I knew it, I purchased a round-trip ticket for twelve weeks in Southeast Asia. I didn’t have any idea what to expect.
Even though that trip was twenty-one years ago, I remember it vividly. I wandered the streets of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) with a local dude who practiced his English. I spent days in northern Vietnam hiking with a Hmong guide. I rode a speedboat along the Mekong River. I spent a week on an isolated Thai beach, sleeping in a palm hut - I still have the sarong I purchased on that beach. I ate foods I never knew existed and loved them. I have so many stories I could tell. That is what travel gives us.
The exceptional part of that trip was spending days exploring Angkor. I watched the sunrise over the temples. I spoke with Buddhist monks about their days in the temple. I ran my hands along beautiful reliefs carved in stone. It was everything thirteen-year-old me dreamed of.
That trip changed me. I began uncertain but curious when I landed in Bangkok at 1 AM. Twelve weeks later, I found a passion. The thought of learning from more of the world excited me. Twenty-one years later, I’ve been to over seventy countries - many of them for multiple trips. I continue to imagine visiting places as I did as a thirteen-year-old punk. I’m now sitting in Indonesia thanking punk me for bothering to look at an encyclopedia. Getting lost in other cultures and opening myself to the possible is what I love doing. If we let it, travel can teach us about the world and ourselves.