My Trip to Cambodia and a Lesson in Gratitude

While traveling through Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia, I read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Holiday discusses principles of stoic philosophy through the writing and behavior of Marcus Aurelius, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Phil Jackson, George Washington and Ulysses Grant, to name a few.

These iconic figures, and many others, turn seemingly impassable obstacles into opportunities for success and growth. Holiday reminds us to focus on the things we have control over in our lives rather than obsess over the inevitable setbacks and roadblocks life sends our way. We choose our attitude, not what gets thrown at us.

“The things that hurt,” Benjamin Franklin said, “instruct.

I’ll return to the book later.

I want to focus on Cambodia.

Cambodia has been my best travel experience yet. You could spend days exploring the Temples of Angkor alone. I was under the impression that there was just one big temple worth the visit: Angkor Wat. However, there are several temples, some just as impressive as Angkor Wat that I would encourage anyone traveling to Cambodia to check out.

Angkor Wat is massive upon approach and even more impressive up close. The detailed carvings on the walls and pillars are breathtaking. I was amazed that such feats were accomplished starting in the 12th Century.

Hanging out at Angkor Wat.
The entire outer wall was covered in these bas-reliefs (raised carvings that give that cool 3D look).

Apart from Angkor Wat, a few temples are worth mention. Ta Prohm had trees growing through and atop parts of the temple. There was also a scene from Tomb Raider filmed there.

Tree growing out of the temple at Ta Prohm.

Bayon is a three-tiered temple adorned with approximately 216 smiling faces that scholars believe to be the face of Jayavarman VII (I referred to him as J the Seventh for simplicity, judge if you like, but there are a lot of names!). Did I mention J the Seventh was the creator of Bayon? And they say Millennials are vain.

Bayon upon approach.
Full blown tourists with the faces of J the 7th.

Many of the temples were surrounded by amazing amounts of ruins, a result of the constant violence that has dominated Cambodia for decades. Japan, Germany, Italy, China and India have assisted in rebuilding and preserving these historic temples. Pictures really do not do these places justice, but it is mind-boggling to see how they have rebuilt parts of these temples from rubble.

Getting around the area was a breeze with our personal tuk tuk driver, Yin, who would wait for us outside each temple and take us to the next one. A tuk tuk, is a motorcycle with a little four seat trailer latched on. Yin’s services for the day, $15.

Money Side Bar: Everywhere in Cambodia takes US Dollars. Haven’t run into that on any other travels so far. Kind of strange, however, no need to exchange money at the airport, you just end up losing out on the exchange rate. On that note, the dollar goes a long way in Cambodia. Lunches ranged from $2-5, dinners from $4-10 and beer was never more than $2.50 if you wanted to spring for a Corona (gross), the local brew, “Angkor,” was $0.50-1. Cheers!

Besides temple hunting like Indiana Jones, the street markets of Siem Reap are a lot of fun. Prepare to haggle with the women who run the shops to get a good price on a t-shirt, knock off pair of Ray-Bans, or pants with elephants on them (yes, I bought the elephant pants). My Jewish Grandmother, who bargains at department stores, would have cleaned up at these markets.

The food was fantastic. For lunch, our driver Yin, took us to local spots around the temples where the fried rice and beef loc lac (beef cooked in red wine and oyster sauce) were substantial and delicious. The dinner highlight was a Cambodian BBQ joint that provided 7 types of meat, including crocodile, frog and shark, to grill at your table alongside a plethora of vegetables, noodles and rice.

Beef Loc Lac dinner.

The nightlife area, aptly named “Pub Street,” was quite a sight to behold. Each bar was crowded with backpackers and tourists. There were little bar carts on the street that sold Martini’s for $1. There was a cart that sold BBQ bugs, snakes and spiders; they charged $0.50 just to take a picture of the bugs if you did not have the chutzpa to give it a try (I did not have the chutzpa and out of principle did not pay to take a picture, sorry).

Pub Street!

We took a private Quad Tour through the back roads of Siem Reap, where little kids playing along the road waved at us, and by sprawling fields and rice paddies. The tour concluded watching the sunset over a beautiful lotus flower field, while we got to chat with our guide about life in Cambodia.

Sunset after the Quad tour.

The Cambodian people were some of the nicest and most accommodating I have encountered in my travels. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to help you out and did so with a smile.

At first, I thought Cambodia must be a great place to live in the world since everyone is so pleasant. Unfortunately, I was reminded that while Cambodia is a great place to travel to, it is a tough place to live.

According to our quad tour guide, corruption is pervasive at all levels of government, including the police force. For many, an annual salary is in the $100’s.

Cambodia has been strife with Civil War predating the Vietnam War, and continued until 1999. Sadly, I vaguely remember a very small part of my World History classes covering the Khmer Rouge and the constant tragedy that has plagued the people of this country. This is not a history lesson, but if you are interested in learning more about this not too distant history, there are worse places to start than a quick Google search.

This was the first time I have ever been in a country that had been so recently impacted by such atrocities. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million people were executed or died of starvation or disease under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and resulting struggles.

Today, Cambodia is a country of 15 million people, 50% of which are under 22 years or age! Their economy is growing thanks to a boom in tourism, but their environmental, corruption and education rankings are some of the worst in the world.

I really had an exceptional time in Cambodia, everything from the temples to the food to the quad tour to the night life was a unique and memorable experience. Having said that, on our last night, we talked a lot about the people of Cambodia and I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for my own life.

Gratitude.

Disadvantages and obstacles, that I have been lucky enough to avoid were all around me and, inadvertently, the topic of the book I brought with me on the trip.

Returning to The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains that the secret of “turning trials into triumphs” involves three parts:

Part one, “perspective.” Holiday writes:

“We choose how we’ll look at things. We retain the ability to inject perspective into a situation. We can’t change the obstacles themselves- that part of the equation is set- but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome.”

Part two, “action.” “We all either wear out or rust out, every one of us,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “my choice is to wear out.”

The Stoic Philosopher Seneca wrote:

“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.”

Part three, “will.” Holiday writes:

“After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t, and the break comes down to something you don’t control… you’ve got only one option: acceptance.”

“Let’s be clear, this is not the same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action- this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.”

Think about it for a second, imagine you are one of those 50% of the Cambodian population under the age of 22. Imagine the unfair challenges and disadvantages you had to face growing up in the aftermath of civil war and genocide. Imagine living in a world dominated by corruption, where it is really a privilege to go to school and learn to read. I think it would be really easy to crumble in the face of such adversity.

The people of Cambodia, just like any of us, cannot control the circumstances to which they were born. However, as far as I could tell, they choose to make the best of it, take advantage of what they can, earn a living, and care for their families. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone there for looking at tourists like myself with disgust. And yet, they were some of the happiest, nicest, and most hospitable people I have come across so far, and that is including countries in East and Southeast Asia which are far more prosperous and advantaged.

I know America has its own issues these days. I also realize that there are atrocities in the world being carried out right now. I am not trying to make a point about who suffered more. But, it takes some incredible strength to endure what the people of this country have endured, and continue to endure, and carry themselves in such a positive manner.

It is certainly a reminder for me to be grateful for the advantages I have had, grateful for the people in my life and those who paved the way for me. It is a reminder to put obstacles and unfortunate situations in their proper place. Things happen that we have no control over, what we can control is how we react to them and what we are going to do moving forward.

Alter your perspective; remain objective, tame your emotions and focus on what can be controlled. Action; will you wear out or rust out? Will you meet adversity with energy and an eye for opportunity? Will; manage expectations, accept what we cannot change and persevere in the face of inevitable adversity.

Thank you Cambodia for the unforgettable experience and the lesson in perspective and gratitude.

What are you grateful for?

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