Postcards from Cambodia

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photo by Pete Heck

I had my usual death grip on the small metal handle curved around the edge of my seat. The traffic was lighter at that time of day, near noon, but it only meant that everyone drove faster. A quick burst of speed into an open lane and my new hat went flying off behind me. I turned to see it land on the dusty street and get run over by a moto. I turned back and pouted, sure that it was gone for good.

A minute later, I held it in my hand again. Another moto driver had picked it up off of the busy three lane street and caught up to hand it back to me. It was an ugly hat, bought only to save my sensitive head from the hot sun, and now it was filthy. But I didn’t care, I smiled so broadly and profusely thanked the man who retrieved it. He gave me a weak grin, shrugged, and raced off ahead of us.

I needed that hat. But more importantly, I needed that moment of kindness.

Phnom Penh can be a tough city, and Cambodia, a tough country. It is still recovering from genocide and civil war, and coming to grips with its own growth and influx of foreign tourists. It can be infuriating one moment but entirely brilliant the next – throughout our month there I tossed furiously between appreciating it and counting the days until we left. I was fond of driving through the countryside but didn’t care for its most popular beach town. I adored the temples, but was sorely tormented by the intense violence we witnessed.

I wish I could say I loved it. So many people do, and I fully expected to. But every time a flicker of affection was felt, that spark would quickly be extinguished, whether by witnessing the heart-wrenching exploitation of children, learning about crimes against our friends, or something else. It is ultimately a beautiful but challenging place to be.

I’m so glad we went. I’m glad we experienced Cambodia. But after one month in the country we were both ready to move on, and for now have little desire to return. So instead we left with some great memories, others that we wish we could forget, and one dusty hat to save my head another day.

Pink Sunset

Moto Rider

Praying Buddha

An Offering

The Killing Fields

Angkor Wat Sunrise

Angkor Wat Reflections

Kandal Market Phnom Penh

Fish Amok Cambodia


Sihanoukville Sunset

Sunset on Wat Steung Machai


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  1. I’m really interested to visit Cambodia for myself now. I’ve heard these conflicting things about it from many people, and wonder if I will feel similarly about it. We’ll see, I guess!

    Regardless, lovely postcards as usual!

  2. This is such a beautiful post. I feel very similarly about Cambodia, though my blogging partner just went there and loved it. I just saw so much bitterness and hate when I was there – the country’s history is incredibly sad. Still, you captured it beautifully!

  3. I understand your feelings entirely. Cambodia really is a tough country to visit, for many reasons, and it’s one of the few we have been to that we left feeling no strong desire to return to, certainly not any time soon. I’m glad for the time I spent there and don’t regret any of it, but there are many other places in Asia that I feel far less ambivalent about!

    Beautiful photos (as always)!

    1. I’m glad that we are not alone in our feelings, I was a little nervous about stating them. So many people do adore it, and I can understand how they do, but it just wasn’t for us.

  4. Completely agree with your opinion that after few some time you have enough of Cambodia. We had it after two weeks. Dont know why, but it is just like that. Worth to visit, but there is something in the air..strange is, that another countries, who were tormented so much also, as Laos for example, do not have this strange feeling and are much mure easier to travel.

  5. I can’t wait to visit for myself in a few months.

    Cambodia is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about the country, although more recently it seems there is more negative to say than positive.

  6. Nice postcards, I am glad you enjoyed Cambodia, I guess everyone takes away different things from a country. For me I am always constantly impressed with the resolve and strength of the people, yes you hear a few horror stories from tourists getting things stolen or cheated etc….this will happen in Thailand/Viet Nam/Laos etc, if you have common sense it will happen a lot less. My wife is Vietnamese and I have lived in Laos and Thailand over the last 5 years and I am curious, what specifically did you find infuriating about Cambodia, in contrast to say Thailand or Viet Nam? By and large most of the locals speak better English in Cambodia than in Viet Nam and Thailand. The bus network in Cambodia is straight-forward and easy to use, the locals are very friendly. I do totally get your point about child exploitation, but likewise that exists in all of the other regional countries, although it is arguably more visible in Cambodia. I hope people don’t leave Cambodia with memories they wish to forget.

    1. Hey Jackson, thanks for your comment. We haven’t traveled extensively in the region (only a month in Chiang Mai outside of our month in Cambodia), so I have no real basis for comparison. Witnessing the deadly protest was a tough thing to swallow and one I wish I could forget. I do agree with you that the strength and resolve of the people is impressive, but the other side of what happens there – the exploitation of children and young women is definitely very difficult to take. For example, in the story I gave above about the man who returned my hat, my smile was wiped off only moments later when I saw young children approaching foreigners in tuktuks begging for money, while their countrymen and women drove around us in expensive vehicles. I personally just found that very difficult to take, and it was so rampant.

  7. Great postcards. I have a bit of ambivalence sometimes about Cambodia. I’ve been here three weeks now and I’m planning to stay a year. For the most part, I’ve had some amazing encounters with people in the country. More good than bad and that colors my view with more beauty and love for the country.

  8. lovely photo postcards and I appreciate the honesty in the review of Cambodia – haven’t been there yet but as a travel photog it’s on the list 😉 — hoping your 2014 is memorable! keep on sharing!

  9. It is always so interesting to hear about different people’s takes on countries. We really enjoyed our time in Cambodia, and found so many of the people to be kind and so friendly. That is what makes travel so great! There are millions of takes and point of views on one location. We didn’t particularly enjoy Laos, but we know so many people who loved it!

    Love the post cards. They conjure up fond memories of Cambodia.

  10. Very interesting to read your take on Cambodia. Personally I am in the “wildly in love” camp. I’ve been twice and am planning a third trip. I frequently list it as one of my favorite countries (I usually answer that question with a three way tie!). That crazy country just has my heart!

  11. Visually, I found Cambodia to be quite photogenic. But, I, like you, was not thrilled with the country. Gorgeous shots!

  12. For someone like me who has yet to visit the country but is planning to be there for a month this time next year, your article makes enlightening reading. It won’t put me off going but I’ll certainly be doing some more “homework” on the issues you’ve raised before I go.

    Great photos too!

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