Monkey Business Part 1/2

Posts have been lacking. Apologies. More are in the works and on the way.

Much has happened, and yet there’s been a lot of not happening. It is a curious conundrum.

Perhaps chiefest among the big events would be visiting my home-area if Upstate New York for a month after 1.5 years away in Viet Nam. I find myself repeating the same stories, sometimes with details forgotten, only to be remembered later. The following is a brief dissertation of my exposure to the primates of South East Asia.

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One of my favorite shots from outside the Batu Caves; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I’d seen monkeys on television and YouTube videos. Most of us have. I’ve seen monkeys in zoos, imitated them as a kid (and adult), read about their symbolism in various mythologies as tricksters, or scientific studies as test subjects. It should come as no surprise to any sentient, *sapient* being of the modern era that these things have a lot in common with us.

I’ll never forget the time traveling with a group of friends in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Monkeys ruled the trees and the streets like squirrels, seen picking through garbage bins and tussling with stray dogs.

We had arrived in the late afternoon, having taken a morning bus from Sai Gon, Viet Nam. The five of us moved as a group, following the rough advice of a half-remembered Google Maps coordinate along some haphazard streets of the city. Compared to Sai Gon, my chosen city of residence, Phnom Penh stretched on as a sleepy, unhurried city full of inhabitants as eager to smile as they were to stare.

Near the de-facto center of Phnom Penh there lay a round, mountainous park, encircled by a roundabout and topped off with a dollar-admission temple to gods whose names I may never know. Trees shaded out the sun, and we welcomed the respite, but the monkeys walking leisurely along park’s floor caught our attention above all other things.

A gangly-limbed specimen drew close to use; I can remember my General Animal Instincts being overpowered by White Man Tourist instincts as curiosity filled me. The monkey showed no fear, its interest chiefly focused on the garbage seen either discarded along the sidewalks or collected in rubbish bins.

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Anna always had a way with bonding with the natives.

One of my travel mates, Anna, took a seat to get some zoomed photos, and the same simian we observed came quite close, electing to take up a perch on her shoulder with a vigorous hop. Like any benign cousin it preened through her blue-dyed hair, doubtless in search of grubs, and though she laughed (as I caught the event on video) one of us caught sight of a patrolling local signalling us — gently — to let the monkey be.

“That is a human,” one of my travel mates, Will, had remarked after we left. I watched the monkey stroll off and tussle playfully with a stray dog.

Seeing a monkey online or on television or in a book is certainly one thing. To see a monkey — and realize that it *sees* you back; at first with assessing the danger, then assessing your worth, and then disregarding you entirely — is quite another.

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The following day, after we arranged a plan to take a riverboat up from the capital toward Siem Reap, another travel mate — Will — and I decided to take a stroll on the streets of Phnom Penh in an attempt to get a good look at the monkeys again. Seeing as it was our last evening in the city, we knew not when the chance would again present itself. Returning to the same park, we found none, and we opted to return back to our hostel but took a slightly longer route for the sake of exploration.

The sky deepened with the tangerine and apricot shades of an approaching sunset, and as the two of us swaggered our way along, remarking on whatever hooked architecture we saw or what mad things we had seen up until then, movement along the rooftops caught my eye.

“Will,” I said, nudging his shoulder with one hand. He followed my other hand as I gestured above us. “We are being watched.”

The orange sky quickly faded to dark velvet blue, and the silhouettes of small, thin-limbed simians could be seen stalking the two or three stories above us. At first I felt unnerved, imagery of the Jungle Book, in one of its several film incarnations, coming to mind, but I quickly realized the monkeys above cared about as much for us as people on a tour bus might care for poverty-stricken locals through whose villages the vehicle passed.

Monkey Business Part 2 next week.

 

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Fixing My Sandals

A 12-Minute Read.

~~~

So I went to Cambodia again.

I saw Angkor Wat again.

And again I ate of the delightful mangoes that country has to offer.

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How many kinds of fruits you see here is directly proportional to the number of reasons why I enjoy living in this part of the world.

 

While passing through Phnom Penh – that mad city of tuk-tuk drivers, charlatan monks and sparrow-catchers – I decided I would get myself a pair of sandals of higher quality than your standard flip-flop variety. More often than not, I frequent markets in an attempt to simply look and browse, and am pretty much the opposite of an impulse buyer.

As I always like to explain to my Vietnamese students, “I am the kind of person who likes to keep the money.” This translates into haggling more than the av-er-age bear, much to the chagrin of merchants and sellers who would otherwise see me as an easy target to price-hike.

Obscure reference is obscure.

In any case, I found a decent pair and talked the stubborn seller down to $12. The label said “Made in Viet Nam,” much to pride of my travel companion – a Vietnamese – and the seller of course assured me of its quality. Off I went, wearing awesome high-quality footwear.

The next day, as I emerged from an overnight bus-ride to Siem Reap, one of the straps broke. With an exasperated sigh, and a sense of stubborn pride, I came to the resolution that I would have the things repaired, rather than simply replaced.

I sought someone to do said work, and while I am no stranger to stitching, often enough I see cobblers on street corners or people in the markets in the process of mending someone’s sole.  Using body language as well as English, I asked on the outer periphery of the Siem Reap Central Market.

“Inside,” one of the sellers told me. I went in, asking another shoe-seller. They shook their head.

“Outside,” someone else told me. I emerged out the other end, asking various people, and following the pointing fingers of a number of sellers – as well as a friendly tuk-tuk driver or two – I made my way to a street just off to the side of the Central Market.

“Down street,” another person said with a gesture. “Unda da trees.”

We continued, until at last finding some lads sitting on tiny, plastic chairs. Their workstation included a coffee can full of various small tools and a key-copying machine.

I demonstrated through hand gestures that the sandal strap was in need of repair, and it took them all but half a second to understand my need. My companion soon discovered that the two boys could apparently speak Vietnamese fluently and, as they began to work, we sat with them. Chatting ensured, though I was, as is the norm, part of possibly 6% of the total conversation.

Turns out the boys’ mother is Vietnamese and their father is Cambodian, and apart from their parents’ mother tongues, they boasted of speaking fluent Burmese as well. Being trilingual is a valuable skill in any crossroads cities, as one might imagine, though their English was extremely limited.

I watched them work, and had bits and pieces of the conversation sporadically translated to me. They were aged fifteen and sixteen, two brothers, though by all appearances (whether a result of genetics, malnutrition, or simply my own lack of ability to guess, I could not say), I would’ve estimated them to be around ten or eleven.

But it was only in outward appearance that these two resembled adolescents. I watched the way they spoke not only to my companion, but to other people – adults or otherwise – who rolled up on bicycles, motorbikes, or sedans to do some form of business or other. Turns out the two kids were quite well-known, able to perform repairs not only for shoes, but the mechanics of motorbikes as well. I saw a multitude of people seeking them out for various purposes.

Through translation and simple observation, I learned that the two young men knew how to do many things, and many other people knew this as well. These were the guys to whom most people seemed to go when they needed something done, and much like how I arrived at their “shop without a sign” they were probably known simply by word-of-mouth.

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The older of the two brothers, sitting and chatting it up as I sat quietly in the shade wearing my tourist-pants.

 

I found the experience rather eye-opening, as well as simply interesting. I saw them hand a pair of shoes that looked noticeably more expensive than my multi-strapped sandals to a car-driving businessman; I watched the older brother pay off a patrolling street guard (common practice for anyone operating a small entrepreneurial — illegal — business like this), and through my companion I asked a few questions.

“Do you go to school?”

“No,” was the translated answer. They said they quit school to work. And I soon found out why: according to them, they made as much as $50 a day doing their various work. Even if these are the hyperbolic words of an emerging teenager, and in fact they made an average of about 20% of that, this is still nothing to sniff at for Cambodia. Indeed, I found myself struggling to reason why anyone in their position would continue going to school when they had a business to run that — proportionately — brought in more cash than jobs I’d done back in America earned.

Hell, if you know where to eat, $50 can feed you for a month in Siem Reap.

They seemed savvy and street-smart, not the type of children you see advertised on television commercials stating “If you send us just $1, you can feed this child for a day.” They played mobile games on a new-looking 5-ish-inch Samsung Galaxy (the exact model of course I could not know), though they wore shoes and clothes tattered and dusty.

“Do you have plans for the future?” I asked them.

“No,” was the simple reply, though the younger of the two brothers said that maybe one day he would try to go to America, where he would do the same work of cobbling shoes. They were quick to jump on the prospect of work, and even quicker to laugh and smile. If there’s one thing that continues to intrigue me about Cambodia, it is the attitude of the people living there. People will over-charge you without a second thought – it is expected and customary, especially in the tourist areas – but there are just as many who’ll gladly give directions or recommendations for “the best” place to go, like where to buy mangoes or get a decent exchange rate for converting money.

“Are Vietnamese shoes good quality?”

“No,” was the laughing reply with a vigorous head-shake.

In any case, meeting the two Cobbler Boys whose names I couldn’t possibly write here with any accuracy, I reached a minor realization while watching these “adults in the bodies of young people.”

Whenever reading a YA novel or watching a movie based off one, or even simply a film written for the Young Adult audience, I always had difficulty swallowing the premise of characters who spoke and acted like adults. I always felt like novelists wrote such characters more because they were, themselves, adults, and the best they could do was write child-characters as “small adults.”

Perhaps I found my suspension of disbelief strained on account of bad acting, or perhaps indeed due to inept writing, but I will also unabashedly admit that my experience with children (or teenagers who, gods be good, are half my age) is probably limited. Perhaps I simply haven’t met a lot of street-smart young adults to which to compare to characters of which I read in books.

The two Cobbler Brothers had a sense of independence and responsibility about them that I am quite unaccustomed to feeling from people so young. Living in a country as famous for it’s abject poverty as it’s nasty, bloody, recent history, it would appear that these guys are doing pretty well for themselves given the obstacles that a foreigner such as myself might otherwise find discouraging and overwhelming.

In fiction, a few immediate examples come to mind. One being Locke from one of my all-time favorite fantasy books The Lies of Locke Lamora. Another being Liesel, from the The Book Thief. Last, for the purposes of this list, is one of my least favorite characters (at least initially) from A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark. She got awesome later, don’t worry, I ain’t hatin’.

Each of these characters were thrust into situations where they were forced to leave behind their childhood faster than most people reading the books would ever encounter. People who got street smart – fast, and for different reasons – or they would have died early (like many of their peers who simply didn’t grow up fast enough). At various points in their respective stories, I sometimes found myself thinking “Would a child really be talking like that?” They each have their supports, of course.

Locke has an origin making him a bit more than an average human (as revealed in the third book).

Liesel had one of the most wonderful and encouraging adopted fathers in a story I’ve ever ‘met.’

And Arya had the outrage of a murdered family to fuel her will – which in and of itself isn’t unique as stories go, but she seems to stand apart from all the other vengeful young people we see in fiction all the time.

My encounter in Cambodia gave me first-hand experience with street-smart young adults that made me rethink my earlier ideas, and my future perceptions, of such characters. Perhaps such people may even appear in my own fiction-to-come as a result.

Cambodia: The Ancient Past

There will be many pictures in this post.

Phnom Penh left its impressions. Imagery and emotional shadows that I will never forget. And that was but the start of our journey.

Most visitors to Cambodia go for the star event, Angkor Wat. My party and I were no exception, and there was no denying that that was the prime reason for going to Cambodia in the first place.

Things began early in the morning, and as per the adventurous insistence of the Thorneater, we chartered a boat that would take us from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, rather than go the conventional way – by bus.

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 Early in the morning, earlier than lazy people like me have any business being up.

In fact I had just gotten over a nasty upset stomach, which the previous night had me afraid I would be missing out on the remainder of the trip.

Thanks perhaps to the power of garlic bread, I survived.

Our boat, long and thin, was not what we expected. The dock had a number of boats, and we found ourselves eyeballing one of the larger Louisiana-styled riverboats. But then, after waiting around a bit and fruitlessly looking for something to eat, we found ourselves directed to a smaller, albeit no-less charming little boat with ample seats.

As we boarded, I noticed the luggage of fellow travelers being strapped to the roof. Some foreign travelers opted to sit upon the roof along with it, and my party and I followed suite.

In the distance I could see early-risen fisherman at work in the Ton Le Sap river. The day started cool, but soon warmed as the sun climbed.

The boat’s motor started, so loud that only higher frequencies in my companions’ voices could be heard. It sounded like everyone had inhaled a balloon full of helium.

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With little more than a chrome rail to hold onto, the boat took off, and seeing as no one was asked to please take a seat within the boat, we stayed atop it and enjoyed the view.

As we sped north, we eventually left the stretches of Phnom Penh, and urban sprawl on either side of the river gave way to floating shanty villages. The further we went, the more often we saw solitary stilt homes, fishermen casting nets, and floating houses lashed together with ropes and empty-plastic-bottle buoys.

Most memorable of this part of the trip, however, was the people who waved at us as we passed. Adults, children, and sometimes even other tourists. As I admire the palms and stilt-huts, I cannot help but wonder whether the Cambodians, those along this river as well some we had met in Phnom Penh, are genuinely happy to wave and smile, or there’s some sort of agenda running in these SouthEast Asian countries.

I can only imagine that board meeting.

Later, when expressing this thought to Thorneater, we realized we each had the same thought. We wondered whether the parents trained their children, or if there was some sort of secret government conspiracy or program at work, geared towards putting a smiling face on every civilian whenever a foreigner passes by.

Or could it be that people are just genuinely

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Riverside sights. There was a whole of empty river banks, too, as well endless horizon once we hit th Ton Le Lake.

Eventually we landed in a small town just outside of Siem Reap, where a prearranged tuk-tuk awaited our party.

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 And then we spent a night at the hotel, as was arranged by our previous host.

Siem Reap is a mad place. If you have any experience in Sài Gòn, it would be comparable to Bui Vien Street; if you have any experience in Bangkok, it would be comparable to Khao San Road. If none of these names mean anything to you, allow me to paint you a picture.

To understand these various tourist hotspots, one must delve into a realm of lawlessness that can best be compared to the American Wild West. Drugs are prevalent and prostitution is (as I understand it) illegal but in common use. What all these places have in common is a crowd, and subsequent atmosphere, bent on indulgence. People traveling across the world to indulge themselves, and people who live here providing the indulgences.

It’s really not my kind of scene, but it is worth seeing at least once.

To shamelessly copy Thorneater’s words: “There are deep, dark basements in this town where nothing is stopped.”

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Pub Street. A bit more straight-forward in it’s naming as opposed to Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy or Khao San Road, or Sài Gòn’s Bùi Viện or Phạm Ngũ Lão streets.

What makes this city really significant, as in for the good reasons, is it’s proximity to one of the most significant locations in Southeast Asia.

The fortress temple ruins of Angkor Wat.

My party and I rented bicycles. We left before mid-day. Siem Reap has a tuk-tuk madness to it that any cyclist unfamiliar with the rigors of peddling in traffic would find daunting. Yet once broken free of the dusty roads of the main town — and cycling is a most excellent means of transport even if for the sole effectiveness of making the rider tuk-tuk-proof — we made our way north, along one of several main roads, only to find out that tickets were needed in advance.

This is the face of a man in control of his destiny.

This is the face of a man clearly in control of his destiny.

Also, this is the part where I recommend you play this music as you continue reading.

Regrettably, I came to realize that my enjoyment of experiencing Angkor Wat was directly proportional to the agony of the intense sunburns I acquired from the boat ride.

 

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat ("Capital Temple").

The fortress temple city of Angkor Wat (“Capital Temple”). Pic taken Thursday, February 27th 2015, approximately 800 years after it was built.

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Two of my travel companions under the bullet-hole pockmarked archway entrance of Angkor Wat.

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We aren’t certain, but after seeing a multitude of places structures similar to this, we figured that – even if it wasn’t true – it would seem quite fitting for this to be full of water.

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Outside the main city, along the outer rim.

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Within any multitude of the structures, I could not help but feel the same sense of stony austerity as I’ve always felt in caves, museums and old libraries.

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Angkor Thom (lit. “Great/Capital City”) was also built over 800 years ago, but one could feel a different sense of craftmanship in the stone.

 


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Throughout my explorations with my friends here, I could not shake thoughts of all the games I’ve played and stories I’ve enjoyed. What I saw was the inspiration for countless temples whose depths I had plumbed for riches and glory, and as I set my feet upon the stone of ages, I found myself looking warily for traps.

We even debated on what the colossus would look like from this place, a la Shadow of the Colossus.

The bloody history witnessed in Phnom Penh inspired awe, the ancient past witnessed in Siem Reap inspired awe as well – but a most different form of the emotion.

Traveling in Cambodia inspired in me quite the range of emotions, and I have garnered memories from which inspiration for my writing is easily drawn.

But beyond that I want to encourage everyone to consider putting Cambodia on their list of places to go.

With common sense in action, it is a safe place to be. The locals are friendly and $10 will feed you for the day even in the touristy areas.

I can very easily dip into the thriftyness and cost effectiveness of this stuff, but I may dedicate a finance-oriented blog post to that sort of thing. This is more about the experience, one I will never forget – both because of the sights I saw, and having shared the sights with the close friends with whom I was traveling.

But the place is the American Wild West, like I described in my last post. Caution should be exercised at all times. Tuk-tuk drivers are generally rather pushy, something for which the country is famous. But, more than once, late at night while walking along the street, there were occasionally more overt propositions.

“Tuk-tuk?”
“No thanks.”
“Okay. You want drugs?”
“No…”
“Heroine? Cocaine? Marijuana…?”

One could argue that this is part of the charm. After all, accessibility to this sort of thing, in addition to prostitution and a whole pile of unaccountability is what draws many foreigners to this place. As such a large chunk of the economy is geared toward this, it is a sad thing to see in practice.

Yet, whether you are in a group, or traveling solo, I couldn’t recommend anything more than traveling.

And you could do worse than Cambodia.

The contrast of life is sublime there. In the face of tremendous tragedy, the people fight to better their lives in the best ways that they can. There is a dark underbelly beneath the ruins of ancient civilizations about which much the world has heard nothing.

I am so glad I went.

Cambodia – A Tattered Nation

I have returned from quite the journey. This is in part why my posts have been lacking. And, having returned, I have a number of stories to tell from my travels.

Living in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the Lunar New Year (or rather what many other nations know as Chinese New Year) loomed over this country much in the same way Christmas and [Gregorian] New Year’s does over the nation I left behind. They call it Tet Holiday here, and it is undisputedly the number one event in Viet Nam.

As such, many locals take this time to flee the city and return to their hometowns around the country to visit family. Most people have up to one week off, while others sometimes have as much as two. In a city where I’ve met people who work seven days a week with one day off per month, coupled with the layers of tradition that so permeate the culture here, pretty much every aspect of life, many weeks before the holiday, is geared towards the holiday itself.

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This is what happens when a profound hat-wearer, such as myself, encounters something Tet-Holiday-related that is profoundly in need of a hat.

 

Naturally, foreigners living here such as myself are affected by this, as much of Sai Gon empties of locals during Tet. Most expats are allotted vacation during this time as well, whether they work for official companies or their jobs are a bit more independent – such as in my case, where much of my student base is out of town anyway. Thus, the annual stage is set for vacation for many, and my case was no exception.

The plans began with the arrival of four friends flying in from New York, beloved peers I had left behind when I set out from home Ashitaka-style. Fast-forward eight or nine months, and I was waiting at the Tan Son Nhat Airport of Sai Gon after midnight. They landed, made it through customs, and I embraced each of them in turn around 3:00am.

Subsequent days were spent touring Sai Gon, and I was able to show them a few delights of this city I’ve come to love. Vegetarian restaurants, a surprise Cat Café I did not know existed, and the positively divine mango smoothies available. Not to mention the usual landmarks; Ben Thanh Market, the Post Office and mini-Notre Dame, and the usual motley of mad things to be seen in this city that I’ve gotten used to seeing.

Mad motorbike traffic, motor-bike taxis sleeping on their bikes in the middle of the day, people cooking food on the street. The cacophony of horns, the occasional smell of sewage drifting up from grates in the street, the glances from locals that are just as often smiles as they are scowls.

Boy, I love this town.

You wouldn’t guess from its appearance, but a little alleyway filled with cheap blue plastic chairs, located just off Bui Vien Street (the center of the center, in terms of tourists and backpackers), happens to be the best smoothie place in town.

In any case, the real adventure began when we established an itinerary to Cambodia. Having lived in Viet Nam for as long as I did, I actually have done very little traveling. My only understanding of Cambodia was: just some country nearby. I saw it once – passing over it in a plane to Thailand – and getting there was remarkably easy.

Many foreigners living in Sai Gon, with intentions of extending their stay, make runs to Cambodia to hop over the border and return with a fresh three-month visa, so I had heard about it often enough from them.

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My party and I took a bus from Sai Gon to Phnom Penh, and crossed the border at the Moc Bai gate without incident. Throughout this entire journey, I could remember the words written to me from family many months ago, concerned about my mental health for even mentioning going to Cambodia. For those expatriates seeking to merely renew their Vietnamese tourist visa, the process is simpler and does not even require continuing to the Cambodian capital. Our goals were different, of course, as the star event of this journey was the fortress temple of Angkor Wat.

But this post is not about Angkor Wat. Not yet. Nor is this post meant to describe our journey there in any great detail. Not yet.

This post is intended to be about Cambodia as a country, and why it’s a place you ought to know more about.

There is something universally abhorrent about genocide. But it is also easily written and understood as “a word that means something really bad.” We find it instead easier to focus on matters that directly affect our lives – as opposed to the lives of people on the other side of the planet.

This is natural. This is human.

Cambodia is a struggling South East Asian country whose recent history is rife with conflict. I don’t claim to be an expert on the histories of the Khmer Empire, or the current monarchy, or the Khmer Rouge himself, but I have read things, seen things, felt things.

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, "Wow, wouldn't that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne...wait..."

I remember approaching this statue and thinking, “Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome if it was made out of guns like the Iron Throne…wait…”

Those of us from the West most readily associate the word genocide with the Holocaust of World War 2. While it remains a staggering and breath-stealing example of what humans – not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans – are capable of, the Holocaust is far from the most recent on such a wide scale.

In fact, even to me – a huge fan of the story Maus by Art Spiegelman, and myself a former Jew – feel very little personal connection to the Holocaust. The mists of time have fogged a screen over it, relegating the Holocaust to a historical event from a long time ago.

But in the history classes of my so-called education, I don’t think there was a single mentioning of the Khmer Rouge. No one talked about Nelson Mendela or Rwanda, either. I wonder whether the excerpts of these things have appeared in public school history books at all, and I wonder whether I don’t recall mention of them simply because there was no personal connection from me – and thus, I simply forgot.

As of this post, I am approaching my 29th year of life on this spinning marble. But I’ve had more life-changing experiences in these last two years than the rest of my life combined. I’ve written about one or two of them.

There is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, known simply as the Genocide Museum. Most of the touristy hotspot things to see in Phnom Penh revolve around the former dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge; the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, things of that nature.

I and my party decided that, as visitors of this country, we felt an obligation to see this museum. Most tourists came to places like Cambodia to have a good time, and the landmarks of Phnom Penh are far from uplifting – and there was universal agreement that we should expose ourselves to the truth and the bad, rather than keep ourselves wrapped up in tourist bubbles as most people tend to do.

To call the museum a tourist attraction would be like calling Auschwitz an amusement park.

Long ago, this place was a school for children. Then when the Khmer Rouge took over and commenced his genocide of educated, artistic people (especially targeting those people of certain ethnic persuasions), the school was converted into an interrogation camp.

Pay the fee, take your ticket, pass through the gate. The sounds of the city behind us faded as austere silence permeated the courtyard. Birds tweeted, wind rustled the branches of the trees that dotted the concrete walkways. No one spoke among us and my party dispersed about the main square.

It took some time for me to organize the mix of emotions and cognitive thoughts swirling in my brain while walking from one room to the next. The rooms themselves were mostly barren, save for an occasional lone bed-frame with a few rusted chains and manacles upon it. Upon the wall of some rooms, a large photo could be seen on display, showing the unidentifiable body of a man or woman who had been subjected to the interrogation.

These were pictures taken presumably after the place was stormed and the guards fled. I could see the black and white depiction of a tiled floor  — the same tiles upon which I stood upon, gazing at the image — covered in blood. I saw limbs strapped to the bed-frame, a dripping, heavy metal rod nearby. The imagery was the very definition of the term graphic.

Other rooms had walls covered in photos of people who died there; mugshots of Cambodian men and women and children, some of them smiling. Display cases bore small piles of “clothes worn by prisoners,” and when walking about the rooms one had to watch one’s step, as there could be found the occasional steel ring hammered into the floor.

I can remember feeling my eyes get misty. I can remember hearing other tourists walking and chatting as they passed from room to room. My friends were each affected heavily by this; as it was our second day in Cambodia, but their fifth day in South East Asia. The direct-exposure to poverty on this side of the planet affected everyone, though I know I had gone through that initial shock mothers prior.

The museum instilled each of us in turn with strong emotions.

One among us found herself so nauseated she had to find a bathroom, where she emptied the contents of her stomach.

Another found himself so overwhelmed by what I can only describe as the energy of that place that he had to leave. I didn’t see him go, but I later learned that it took about fifteen minutes for the emotions to overwhelm him before he went to wait for us outside the entrance.

I, for one, found myself increasingly worn with each room. There were at least two main buildings, each with five or so floors – I barely got past the ground floor on each building before I couldn’t handle it myself.

I found another travel-mate outside in the courtyard, sat a book’s chuck distance away. After awhile I moved closer, saying only “I don’t know why, but I don’t want to sit alone.”

I remember feeling simple animal kinship in that moment. As though despite any differences in upbringing, creed, bloodline, education, or preference were all invented as a means to divide us and forget a very fundamental fact:

Human animals. We are all human animals.

We waited quietly for the rest of our group, unsure where everyone was at that moment. I sat thinking about whether it was appropriate to break the silence. Eventually I did, expressing that very thought.

My companion informed me that while he had been walking, he happened by a group of other tourists. They weren’t nearly as affected as we were. Some even pointed at the photos and laughed.

Whether these people were making light of the severity in order to cope with what they were taking in, or they were genuinely insensitive people, I will never know. Regardless, their mere utterance of words in that place seemed taboo to me.

There was a time when I wondered whether I was an empath. I used to feel things other people couldn’t – or maybe it was my imagination at work, inventing reasons to feel more special in a world of mundanity.

The Genocide Museum (among other places) did not instill me with anything beyond what my cognitive senses brought me. While my friends might have felt them, I certainly didn’t feel any “ghost residue” as I had been half-expecting.

No, the Genocide Museum is a place of solemn recollection. Seeing bedframes used for unspeakable tortures, photographs of victims before and after, or passing under trees in the courtyard whose bark probably drank of the blood of those lashed to them … it leaves an impression.

And in spite of it all, this recent history, the people of Cambodia struggle on. The people of these various war-torn countries exemplify a resilience such as I can scarcely imagine.

I remember walking with Thorneater later that day, and we talked of our experience. Only one word came to describe that afternoon.

Awe.

Awe at what humans — not aliens, not orcs, not robots; just fellow humans — can do.

And what they, for whatever reasons or under whatever pretexts, they cannot feel.

And yet I’m increasingly convinced that people are inherently good. We are all just animals, this I heartily believe, but when men, women and children from countries that suffered atrocities of immeasurable horror can be so open and welcoming to strangers, it gives a sense of hope such as I’ve never really felt back in New York.

I decided before, and though brief homesickness and life obstacles shook me once or twice, that I can’t go back and leave this all behind.