Cambodia

It is a warm September afternoon in LA. I am sitting on the patio of a coffee shop in Los Feliz, a slight breeze on my face. The patio is beautiful. Plants everywhere, small wooden tables arranged haphazardly and a mix of comfortable and uncomfortable chairs. I am on my second cup of coffee and staring at this book called ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus. It is a gift. A keepsake from a dear one. Truth be told, I haven’t even made it to the second page. She often tells me that it is okay to just be. I am learning slowly. Mind is meandering to various moments in the past one year.

Do you think we should meet in June? But, I can’t come to India right now. How about somewhere outside? Options? Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. You pick. Cambodia? Okay then. And just like that, we were booking tickets for this country. I clubbed this trip with New Zealand, which meant packing for both winter and monsoon/summer. A day before leaving, I was sitting in my apartment with my stuff all over the place. The usual suspects were helping me pack. Cracking poor jokes at my cost was the order of the evening. Amidst the laughter and warmth, maybe I was able to hide my travel anxiety. I knew this wasn’t just another trip. They did too.

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One of my favourite shots from the trip

As usual, comfort paid the price for a cheap flight. I had an excruciating layover in Shanghai. Mental note to never take layovers in Shanghai or anywhere in China. You get introduced to the step-child of internet, where nothing works like it is supposed to. Not Google and not social media. Realised that I am a closet internet addict. Lack of it is extremely unsettling, especially during a long wait in an empty airport. With a child-like impatience, walked the corridors, pretended to read, opened my laptop, closed it again and then killed some more time. I was finally headed to Phnom Penh. Landing at 10.15 pm on 15th June.

We spent 8 days in Cambodia. This post will only have some snippets. And some photographs. Rest are just memories which will stay with us. I will never be able to figure whether my love for Cambodia is for the beautiful country or for the company. Probably both. All I know was that, that one week was everything it needed to be. Maybe more.

We had about two days in Phnom Penh. I am a history buff and I had told her that the one place I wanted to visit was the Killing Fields. It had been on my list. Not because there is a checklist that needs to be checked, but darkness also has the ability to ground you. The fact that there was a time when helpless families were tortured, children were shot in the head, women were raped for no good reason – it wakes you up a little bit. The fact that 25-30% of the population in that country became victim to some egomaniac’s fears makes you think. There is a deathly calm (for the lack of a better word) as you enter the Killing Fields. The place itself is green and fresh. There is a background music that keeps playing. We quietly walked from one point to another, as the audio guide gave gruesome details. It was a warm day and I remember having goosebumps on my skin. The central memorial/stupa had a stack of skulls lined up. Different ages, different methods of death. As the godmother of a precious child, this felt real and scary. There is only one question that comes to your mind, as you walk through such places of mass massacre. Why? And this one question is never answered. Not in books. Not anywhere else.

Wait, isn’t your birthday on 17th? Pause. Laughter, for a long time. Damn. If there is one thing I can recommend in Phnom Penh, it would be to indulge in a happy herb pizza. If happiness is your thing. 🙂 This evening was mine to plan and I had done my research on this one. There was a slight mix-up with birthdays and an unfortunate incident with a birthday party at the pizza place which is renowned for these pizzas. Yet, that evening was one of the most memorable ones. You can choose your happiness quotient for these pizzas. If only life had such options. We picked medium happy and had a couple of slices. The taste, abysmal. The high, incredible. 🙂 Also, I believe 17th will continue to be a day worthy of celebrations.

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Happy Herb Pizza

About 3 hours from Phnom Penh is this small, sleepy town called Kampot. Lush green mountains, small cafes, an affinity for bicycles and a beautiful treehouse, that had our hearts the moment we walked in (in spite of two large geckos living inside!). Relentless rains followed us through our three days here. The roads full of mud; the driver not very steady. We walked in mud, drove in knee-deep water, got thoroughly drenched and then, sipped on hot coffee to warm up. This place slows you down in a good way. We had no agenda. Conversations over coffee and wine was the norm. So was unbridled laughter. A small travel journal was filling up slowly. Her questions and my answers. And then some. Epic Arts cafe, Cafe Espresso Roastery, Ecran movie theater, Bokor mountains, the church we didn’t see, that song on the harmonica, another birthday and time that flew by.

We were sitting in this room in Ecran, watching a private screening of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Somewhere in the movie, this conversation came up. We smiled.

Clementine Kruczynski: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.
Joel Barish: I know.
Clementine Kruczynski: What do we do?
Joel Barish: Enjoy it.

Another 6 hours in a bus and we landed in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat – a place we both had been aching to visit. Siem Reap again, was much more than we hoped it would be. We started our stint there in the most apt way possible; at Pub Street. There was a palpable warmth on that street. Happy people milling around, beautiful weather, music at every corner and we never ran short of a glass of wine. Danced till the wee hours of the night to the kind of music which doesn’t change across borders. As is the norm in most countries, crowd lost its calm over Despacito. So did we.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat and seeing the Bayon temple were high up on our list. Bayon because of a card I had received and Angkor Wat does not really need a reason. If you have seen a picture, it must be on your list too. We rented the worst kind of cycles to bike to Angkor Wat. One way 7 kms. Sunrise was way too optimistic. Age, partying and waking up for sunrise cannot happen at the same time. Just cannot. So, we settled for a quiet coffee in the morning before pushing our steel frames of crap. One of us biked on a flat tire, without knowing about it. I had no words. Maybe the flat tire was just so that we could go to a local tire fixing shop and hear some pretty mind-blowing music. Anyway, we did reach and spent hours walking in and around Angkor Wat and Bayon. There is nothing I can write here which could explain how beautiful that place was. Quietly walked from pillar to pillar. Me with my camera, and she on her own. A place with such beauty and history tends to move you. We had spoken about this particular moment for months. And here we were. Standing in front of the smiling statues of Bayon. It was surreal.

My last evening in Siem Reap was spent in a hole-in-the-wall bar with $2 whiskeys. Eight days were done, and each day had a story to tell. We were already reminiscing. She had another week in Siem Reap, while I was headed to New Zealand. The travel journal was almost full. I left it with her, for the stories when I am not around.

Do you think we should meet in India?
Yes.

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