The following is a guest post from writer & graphic designer Maria Gotay. Maria quit her job and is backpacking across Southeast Asia, documenting the journey for DJO.
There’s a feeling that pervades the arid, uncluttered landscape of Cambodia.
It’s the same feeling that you see in the faces of young fruit vendors, broken-back farmers, English speaking tour guides, eager school children and nearly-blind beggars.
It’s a country slowly recovering from a devastatingly brutal history, nursing and re-attaching its warn-torn pieces.
It’s a people that are regretful but resilient, fears and hopes tied nowhere but to the future: the dreams of their children and the progression of their nation.
The seas of change are slowly rolling in—tourists and expats recognizing the spirit of this place, the next generation’s intentions gently floating to the surface.
Cambodia has a long, complicated history.
Once home to the world’s largest civilization, it was the center of the holy world, then later a flourishing French colony, and at one time the sophisticated center of the ASEAN world.
Most recently, Cambodia experienced one of the worst genocides in history, during the Vietnam War.
After a flourishing of high culture from the 50s to the 60s, Cambodia was thrust into a bloody spotlight.
North Vietnam’s communist party’s influence shifted across the border to the mountain towns of Cambodia, where the US dropped bombs and mines in protest.
The Communist Khmer Rouge was scrapped together, and Cambodia’s Southern population, normal hardworking people and families, alongside famed artists and progressive academics, became the enemy.
As the South fell, they were murdered or sent to work camps, and Phnom Penh, once the “pearl of Indochina,” fell empty.
Progress for Cambodia halted in 1978 under leader Pol Pot’s unrealistic, agriculture-centric regime.
When the dust settled, It’s estimated that as many as 3 out of 8 million Cambodians were killed.
I came to view the beautiful country through kaleidoscopic glasses—a confusing and painful splintering of present and past.
When you look around you, you know that anyone aged forty or older has suffered badly in their lives.
Everywhere we visited, we felt the effects of the wars: the minefields, the graveyards, the scarred communities.
Every town and city was devastated in one way or another.
Every family has lost someone.
You get the overwhelming feeling that you are surrounded by ghosts, the potential of what (and who) was lost, and at the same time is still present; A haunting reminder of a history so recent.
Alongside the darkness blossoms a light: the humble nature of kind, genuine people who hope their next life will bring less suffering.
In Battambang, the arts capital of the country, beautiful murals remember pop stars and national heroes that were murdered in the war—Sin Sisamouth and Dorathea.
The second-biggest city in the country, it’s a sleepy riverside town full of colonial architecture and a new wave of art galleries.
There we discovered a community of curators and artists, a motivated local community promoting expression and learning, art providing a way for many to illustrate the pain of being Cambodian today.
Many ex-pats also live here, fronting small shops and bars, most notably a French wine bar with imported cheeses, the owners of which hail from Australia and maybe some of the biggest influences on the city’s newfound touristic appeal.
In Kep, the Southern coast, agriculture and tourism overlap.
It’s quiet and undeveloped.
French vacation villas, built in the modernist New Khmer Architectural style, lay abandoned and bleaching under the strong sunshine, their residents having fled in the 70s along with the architects who created their unique style.
The sea laps crystal clear alongside empty beaches, crabs pulled up by the bucket and served with ginger, where a handful of tourists have found heaven.
In hippie Kampot, yoga studios host visiting teachers and open mic nights cater to the temporal community’s artistic leanings.
Farm fields provide the people with work and the world with amazingly vibrant peppercorns, trademarked after the region.
It’s a sparsely populated and rarely-visited community, one that is finally getting its groove back.
In Phnom Penh, the grand streets and spinning roundabouts are allusions to the grandeur of a society passed.
The city has a charming in-limbo quality to it: the infrastructure is strong while the society itself is still playing catch up, it’s underbelly very apparent.
In its place, small trendy businesses have blossomed, giving the town an international grassroots feel.
We spent days browsing the traditional jam-packed goods market and dancing alongside an excessive mob on buzzing waterfront, nights discovering Cali Style Mexican joint and at $3.50 movie theater called Flicks, lounging on pillows, watching English-language films set in Cambodia.
The energy of the city is undeniable, a mix of old and new, of friendly people and polished infrastructure.
Nearby, The Killing Fields lay as they did in 1979, no other expression but despair.
The tone is heavy and self-deprecating: we did this to our own people, our own people did this to us.
And while the national tone is a sad one, it doesn’t have to overpower your experience in the beautiful county, whose temples and attractions hold centuries of history and stories.
The real gems of Cambodia are its people: attentive and kind, they are forthcoming to help and generous with their smiles.
They are happy that someone like me is enjoying their country, they hope it means that better things are coming.
While life is improving in Cambodia, and tourism is one of the major factors helping the economy off its knees, most people here still live in poverty with limited basic human rights.
The next generation, those my age and younger, are the ones seeking education, staging protests, preparing for a new wave of power.
When it comes, I hope a great nation will emerge, washing the ghosts from where they lie, releasing those alive and dead to forgive and forge on.
Follow Maria’s entire journey here.
Dreaming of location independence? Join the conversation and meet other remote writers in the Wi-Fi Writers Club.