Welcome to the Jungle: Glamping in Kep

I woke up at 3.30am, desperately needing to pee (there’s your ladylike lede right there, folks!). I tried squeezing my eyes shut and convincing my bladder it could wait another few hours, but no dice. I carefully untucked the mosquito netting wrapped around my bed, groped around for the flashlight on the floor, and tiptoed across the wide-paneled wooden treehouse down the wobbly stairs slick with rain. After paying a visit to the garden (read: open-aired) bathroom and examining the back of my leg for a possible mosquito bite, I crept back up the stairs and shrieked loudly as a bat – yes, a bat – flew at my face suddenly before veering away. Yes, folks: I went glamping in Cambodia (that’s “glamorous camping,” for those not in the know).

As I type this, I’m sitting in one of those wicker round chair things on our treehouse balcony looking off into the valley as the sun dips lower and birds chirp merrily around me. I have to admit, my life could be worse. 
When my dad first started planning his part of the trip, he immediately booked a treehouse in an “eco-resort” in the seaside town of Kep. Yes, I keep saying treehouse. We are in a bona fide, no-fourth-wall, perched-up-on-stilts, treehouse. I promise you it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. And that whole eco-lodge thing means that electricity is mostly for lights – no A/C – and WiFi in a non-starter. We decided before arriving to cut our trip short a day, in order to split up our travel to Vietnam over two days. So when we arrived to find our, ahem, rustic accommodations, I was glad we were only staying for a day and a half.

Even though I was eager to leave, I have to admit that all in all it was a pretty relaxing 36 hours. Although we had to endure several bumpy tuk-tuk rides on the very rutted dirt road leading up to the lodge (I can’t even begin to describe how bumpy that road is), we had some enjoyable relaxing time on our balcony, rode in a tuk-tuk through the countryside to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper, guys, it’s a thing), enjoyed some meals on the sea, and most importantly, sussed out restaurants with WiFi and went crazy.

So the verdict on glamping in Cambodia? Definitely not something I’m eager to do again, but it certainly has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to kick off my last week abroad.

P.S. Re: my Facebook query a few days ago, I did decide to start taking malaria pills. Can’t tell if I am having wildly hallucinogenic dreams or not; my dreams have certainly been vivid, but I’ve always had pretty vivid dreams. Bummer, huh? But no malaria yet (touch wood!).

The light and the dark of Cambodia

Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)

To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda. 
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy. 
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields. 
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me. 
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”

Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed. 
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died. 
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.

Next Life

To kick off our tour of Cambodia and Vietnam, my father and I decided to start out big: exploring the temples of Angkor. This massive area in the western part of Cambodia was the original seat of the Khmer empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world’s largest religious monument, and the site of historical and cultural significance in Cambodia and, arguably, in all of Southeast Asia.

We hired a car and a tour guide (I love getting to splash out now that Dad is here. Hello, rose and lemongrass martini.) and set off exploring on Dad’s first full day in country. Just to make sure he would really feel the jetlag, it was – as always in SEA – miserably hot by approximately 11am and a hellish inferno by 1pm.

Despite the oppressive heat, we managed to explore quite a few temples over the two days we had our tour guide. From intricate narrative carvings, to temples of thousand faces overlooking the area, to jungle temples with trees entwined as part of the landscape, to taking in the mass of the famous Angkor Wat, I think it’s safe to say I can call myself a tomb raider. (Fact: Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was filled over two months in the temples of Angkor. I know this to be true because our guide said this fifty thousand times, and Cambodia in general is fairly obsessed with that fact as well. As Dad and I have not seen that movie, we can neither confirm nor deny.) It’s also safe to say that by the time I get back, I’ll probably have bug spray permanently affixed to my skin. My hypochondria has kicked in big time, you guys.

As we wandered the temples, we also chatted with our guide about his life and experiences. One of the things that struck me the most was how he would often say “Next life!” with regards to a specific experience he had not had. I’m not sure if he was being glib about it, or as a man living in a Buddhist country, referring to a deep-seated religious belief.

Either way, the things he had never experienced but hoped to in his next life, if his karma sticks out, ranged from amusing to thought-provoking.

“Do you get snow in your home town?” [Exclaims over a photo my dad shows him of 3 inches of snow outside the house] “Ooh! I never seen snow! Next life.

“Those apartments over there [really gorgeous three-story townhouses] are very expensive. $11,000 a year! Next life.”

“How long was your flight here? THIRTY HOURS?! Wow! I never take a flight before. Next life.” 

[In response to my dad’s question if he has ever been out of Cambodia, such as to Thailand, which is an easy bus ride away] “No, all my money saved to pay for kids’ schools. I never leave Cambodia. Next life. 

[After asking if we would come back to Cambodia and in response to my dad saying he should come to the United States] “Next life, I will be BORN in the United States!” 

Needless to say, it was a humbling experience. I’m sure I will have more to say about the challenges of being seen as a walking ATM but also about understanding more about the incredible poverty modern-day Cambodians face, on the heels of the horrors the country has experienced so recently. But even this side-comment by the guide had me thinking about both the privilege I have by simple virtue of where I was born, and also the importance of doing what is possible in this life with what I have been given. Considering those things include watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, I am a lucky girl indeed.