Nov 30, 2020
THIS IS THE SAME URBAN SPRAWL OUTSIDE MY AIRPLANE WINDOW, the same mass of rusty rooftops, the same vast metropolis I’ve seen time and again. My work as a travel journalist takes me often to Phnom Penh, and therefore my visits here have come to feel business-as-usual. This particular trip is special though: I’m helping a pair of “forty-something” friends get over… let’s just call it a midlife hump.
With me is Neal—an accomplished architect who worked on iconic projects such as Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. He moans about losing his muse, and is looking for a way to reignite his creativity. Then there’s Alvin—a jetsetting sales executive who has forgotten the meaning of leisure travel. These guys are at the top of their fields, yet they yearn for something to kickstart their somewhat uneventful lives. Since I often organize shooting trips around Asia, I made it my mission to give them a kick-ass adventure, one that will get them out of their comfort zones, and help them rediscover their former freewheeling selves before grown-up life took hold.
I figured Cambodia would be the perfect setting for this. It’s fairly near Singapore (where we live) and has just the right blend of history, culture and good old grit to make for an off-the-beaten path escapade. My plan is to land in Phnom Penh and make our way overland to Siem Reap where our exit flights await. We managed to carve a week out of our busy schedules—enough time, we hope, for a (mini) epic quest for midlife meaning.
To be clear, this trip is only for the bros—the ones I frequently see at the neighborhood martial-arts gym. Our idea of post-workout hydration is beer, not lemon water. And we’re more gourmand than gourmet on our regular meet-n-eats. We’re those kinds of dudes, so no: there won’t be any emo crying, or group luxury spa sessions, or classy riverside drinks in this tale. Secretly, though, I relish this chance to witness their reactions to this place. I first covered Cambodia in 2003 when it was still off the tourist radar. Since then I’ve watched it grow into one of Southeast Asia’s popular destinations. By seeing this country through my buddies’ eyes, I hope to experience (once again) the wonder of being here for the first time.
From the airport we hop aboard the country’s national vehicle, the tuk-tuk remorque. This open-air motorbike-powered carriage is a good way to get the guys acquainted with this strange new place. Phnom Penh is busy as always, its skyline peppered with silhouettes of buildings under construction. At the downtown area, gilded temples, low-rise apartment blocks, bustling open-air markets and gleaming French colonial-era mansions jostle for space. We hit the nearest pub in time for a few happy hour pints, then head off to the Bayon TV Stadium to watch the evening’s live kun khmer (Khmer kickboxing) matches.
The local crowd here meets this trio of foreigners with curious stares. These easily turn into smiles as fellow fight fans welcome us into their midst. We watch fists, elbows, shins, knees and faces collide. Never mind the packed, sweltering venue; the delight on my friends’ faces is evident as they soak in the new and exciting atmosphere.
The Crisis Tour
The following day we meet midlife crisis head-on—by putting it in perspective against one of modern history’s greatest catastrophes. At the Choeung Ek Killing Fields Memorial, we walk through grisly evidence of Pol Pot’s drive towards Year Zero. The somber stopover is followed by a visit to the Tuol Sleng Museum—a former prison where we come face to face with the victims of the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1979 when the capital was under this communist regime, the Tuol Sleng “S21” facility executed almost 20,000 civilians deemed “enemies of the state.” Their photographs line the ground floor halls, faces forever frozen in a mix of resignation and fear. Upstairs, the jail cells still bear rust-colored bloodstains. Compared to such tragedy, it feels like a luxury to even complain about our everyday lives.
Despite the sobering morning, Alvin and Neal are slowly regaining their adventurous spirit. Thankfully they’re game about the constant immersion into the unknown. Instead of the usual hotel pancake breakfasts, I take them to the maze of stalls around Kandal Market for bai sach chroeuk (that’s barbecued pork rice) and nom banh chok curry noodles. And while other tourists head for the usual sights—the Royal Palace or Wat Phnom—we take a ferry across the Mekong River towards sleepy Koh Dach Island. Here we chill on a riverside hut, the rustic environs accompanied by cans of Angkor beer, locally made tuk noth palm wine and boun tia koun fermented duck eggs.
The Angkor State of Mind
By the time we get to Siem Reap on the fourth day, Neal is happily taking notes of local design and architecture on his handphone. Alvin, for his part, is content to just go with the flow and ignore the emails piling up in his inbox. Interestingly, these normally chatty dudes get introspective when we visit Angkor Wat. While Architect Guy is busy photographing the 12th-century temple’s Hindu-inspired lines, Mr. Salesman is quietly shaking his head, admiring the ornate bas reliefs at the indoor galleries. Frankly, I’ve never seen them this way, and I am quite tickled to discover a calmer side to my bros.
This trip has been eye-opening from the very start, but we save the best for last. Our final afternoon in Cambodia finds us on a rip-roaring ATV ride (all-terrain vehicles courtesy of Cambodia Quad Bike) through the countryside. Their issues all but forgotten, my buddies and I barrel gleefully through open fields and dirt trails toward the Roluos temple ruins, some 16 kilometers away.
As I gun the engine on my 4×4 steed, I ponder the effect that this Cambodian escapade will have on these guys. Perhaps Neal’s next big project will feature Khmer-inspired elements. And hopefully Alvin will now fit some sightseeing time into his many business trips. More importantly, I pray that they’ve learned to become a bit more curious about the places they visit—and that their travels from now on can help bring a different kind of fulfillment. As for me, I’m just grateful for the fresh experiences in this very familiar land. No doubt we’ll be talking about this adventure for many years to come. A change of scenery and a little help from our friends… sometimes that’s all we need to get over life’s challenges.