I am standing at the top of Baksei Chamkrong temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the holiest places in Cambodia, peering down a long, steep flight of crumbling rock steps. Behind me are a solitary reclining Buddha and the scorching sun. Some 40 feet below are my husband, Frank, and the safety of the dusty ground. Our rented bikes are locked beside a banyan tree. The crowds at iconic Angkor Wat temple, about a half mile away, are hidden by dense jungle. In this vast 99,000-acre complex dappled with waterways, temple ruins, tourists and monkeys, Frank and I are alone.
“You have to climb down backward,” he calls up to me. “Like climbing down a ladder.”
I try, but I am terrified.
As my foot dangles behind me, reaching blindly into thin air, a familiar sense of dread sweeps through me: I am hanging on by a thread; there is nothing holding me to this earth but my own vigilance. I’m going to die young, just like my mom.
These thoughts—private fears, held close to the vest for a long time—must be banished, or I will be paralyzed. So I turn back around, peer down the dizzying rocks, drop onto my butt and inch down one step. Very slowly.
“You can’t come all the way down that way,” Frank calls.
As I begin my slow descent, I try to imagine my mother, in pristine white slacks and tidy sneakers, scooching down steps caked with clay-colored dust and bird droppings. It never would have happened. But I am a different kind of woman, and anyway, my mother has been gone for 20 years. She died of lung cancer at 53, the same age I am now. I cannot follow in her footsteps. Instead, I’ve followed in my 23-year-old daughter’s—to Cambodia, where I teeter atop the temple before shamelessly, painfully sliding down the thousand-year-old steps on my butt.
It’s not surprising that I climbed too high that day at Angkor Wat. I’ve always been afraid of heights, but even more afraid of missing out on the best parts of life and then dying too soon. My mom was a frustrated, often sad person. A homemaker when her kids were young, she later took jobs for which she was far too smart, and told me she’d never learned how to be happy. She postponed her adventures to after she and my dad retired, then died before she could have them. All my life I’ve made choices that I hoped would take me in the opposite direction. I’ve built a publishing and teaching career. I write novels, travel and push myself to take risks (like climbing up those crumbling temple steps) because to avoid risk is to avoid living. While I’ve missed my mom for decades, I’ve also spent those years trying to build a life more adventurous and connected to the world than hers.
When Melissa, the older of my two children, graduated from college and announced she was going to teach English at a private elementary school in Cambodia for a year, I was thrilled to have raised such a fearless, spirited daughter. But with her on the other side of the world and my son away for his first year of college, I was haunted by the memory of my lonely mother in her last days, wishing she had lived more, done more, been happier. I hate to admit it, but I soon became jealous of my daughter’s life: teaching in a developing nation, learning a new language and culture, raising money to fight child trafficking, spending her lunch hours playing with children at a local orphanage, running a half-marathon to help land mine victims and partying in Thailand on New Year’s Eve.
Reading her blog from the safety of my suburban Dutch Colonial, I suddenly realized Melissa was having the life-changing see-the-world-while-saving-it adventure that I’d always dreamed of. I’d come close to visiting war-torn El Salvador back in 1989 but reluctantly canceled the trip when I discovered I was pregnant at age 29. Since then, I’d built a meaningful life but never forgot my longing to live overseas and help people in developing countries.
When I turned 53, I was afraid not only of dying young but also of feeling irrelevant and stuck. With five colleagues and two friends laid off in a single month, Frank, a publishing executive, reluctantly realized that sooner or later he and I could be in that same boat, looking for our second act. Would Cambodia be the place for us?
The country began to haunt my dreams. I read books about the brutal Communist regime of the Khmer Rouge, which came to power in the 1970s, and the people who had survived its death camps. I eagerly supported Melissa’s volunteer fund-raising efforts for groups fighting child prostitution and trafficking. I raised $1,000 here at home—enough to pay two years’ college tuition for a girl living in a shelter. After a month of yearning and one searing scene with Frank in our kitchen when I cried, “I want to have a great adventure before I die!” it was decided: He and I would go to Cambodia for three weeks and deliver the money we’d raised directly to the Cambodian Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CCPCR). On the trip we would keep our eyes and hearts open, searching for a humanitarian adventure we could pursue after we finished launching our kids.
As I booked our flights, began researching the places we’d visit and started the inevitable round of inoculations, I felt excited but nervous. I knew the number of yearly visitors to Cambodia was growing, yet I felt fearful about visiting a land where sex tourism was pervasive and human trafficking rampant. “The government is corrupt, but the people are beautiful,” Melissa reassured me during crackling Skype calls.
“Move to Cambodia?” friends asked, incredulous. “You mean, sell your house and go?”
“Not exactly,” I said, hedging. Maybe they were right to think we were crazy. I’d just have to take the trip and find out for myself.
Frank and I arrived in Phnom Penh in darkness. The heat was oppressive. Peering from the taxi at low buildings on streets full of people in plastic chairs clustered around dying fires, I waited for the ring of poverty around the airport to open and reveal a gracious, sweeping city. It didn’t.
Despite months of research, I quickly realized I had no idea what to expect in Cambodia’s largest city. The Khmer Empire had ruled this land for centuries before it became a French colony; by 1953, Cambodia was an independent monarchy, but the Vietnam War tore the nation to shreds. The Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror followed, producing decades of chaos until the Paris Peace Agreements mandated democratic elections in the early 1990s.
We spent our first day with Melissa exploring Phnom Penh’s buzzing mass of streets and markets. At every turn we saw women and children selling fresh fruit, drinks or scarves and on every corner a man with a tuk-tuk carriage pulled by a motorbike. “Tuk-tuk, madam? Mango, madam?” They smiled and called to us, and Melissa answered in the singsong tones of Khmer, “A-tay, a-koon. No, thank you.”
Night came quickly, and soon the streets were teeming with thousands of Cambodians pouring into the capital city for the cremation of former king Norodom Sihanouk, who had died four months earlier. Fireworks exploded overhead, and the streets around Independence Monument filled with ghostly people in white, the traditional color of mourning. Barefoot monks in long saffron robes knelt along grassy meridians. Incense burned in small buckets, stinging my eyes. Melissa reached for my hand as we stepped into a crazy intersection. “Think of yourself as a minnow,” she said. “Yield to bigger fish but keep moving.”
The next morning we went to the Choeung Ek “killing fields” and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These are requisite stops for visitors who want to understand modern Cambodia, but it is a grim day. At the killing fields, about nine miles southeast of Phnom Penh, an audio tour led us to a ribbon-covered tree where soldiers had bludgeoned hundreds of children to death and to a temple piled with cracked skulls. After years of civil war, the victorious Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, a former teacher who was educated in France, wanted to make Cambodia into his idealized version of a premodern agricultural state. Within days of taking over the country in 1975, his army emptied schools, hospitals, businesses and urban residences, eventually murdering about two million people.
I was feeling overwhelmed by the time we took a break at the nearby Boddhi Tree guesthouse, where we ordered mango yogurt smoothies and read these words, attributed to the Dalai Lama, on a small poster tacked to a bulletin board in the café: when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
All day I’d been looking at Cambodia through a filter of death and darkness. It was time for me to look through a filter of light.
Tucked behind a tall wall in an airy corner of Phnom Penh, CCPCR houses some 50 girls between three and 25 years of age who have been trafficked, raped and abused. We were here to meet the director and arrange a bank transfer for the $1,000 we had raised. As soon as the gates opened, little girls danced around our car, hugging Melissa and tugging her to a table filled with crayons, paper and books—she’d been there before, visiting and playing with them, and they clearly adored her. CCPCR’s mild-mannered director, 39-year-old Nget Thy, introduced me to the shelter housemother and proudly showed off the girls’ weaving looms and sewing classroom. Like so many of the people we met in Cambodia, he’d grown up amid unimaginable poverty, fear and homelessness in the aftermath of the genocide. Yet here he was now, his offices on the grounds of a former brothel, reaching out to the next generation.
Cambodia’s population is disproportionately young, with about a third of its people under the age of 14. But for every adult the Khmer Rouge killed, a child like Thy survived and is working now to rebuild the country. In this land where so many lives were cut short, the survivors are strong. Given my fears about not outliving my mother, how could this not resonate in my soul?
I became an international adviser to CCPCR that very afternoon and began the work that I would continue back home: raising funds, writing grants and raising awareness for Thy’s grassroots organization, which helps hundreds of children through outreach programs and a border-rescue station. That day I started taking notes for a book that will trace how the life of one girl blossomed because of one donation. Before this trip to Cambodia, I’d expected to have trouble finding something I could do from the U.S. without having to uproot my life and move across the ocean. It turned out that joining forces with Thy and promising to tell the girls’ stories of tragedy and hope was as easy as getting myself there, asking the right questions and being ready to say yes.
I was fairly humming with happiness when we left Phnom Penh by bus to explore some of Cambodia’s other highlights: the beaches along the Gulf of Thailand and the Buddhist and Hindu temple ruins of the Angkor Archaeological Park complex in the northern province of Siem Reap. For eight hours we rode through the center of the country along miles of dusty roads lined with worn brown shacks on stilts and paths dotted with tiny schoolchildren on enormous bicycles. We saw live chickens being carried on poles to market, old minivans overflowing with workers—about 30 per van—and wedding parties that blared music into the countryside. It was Chinese New Year, celebrated with weeklong family gatherings in the villages and at the shore drinking Angkor Beer and eating steamed crabs, tiny hot clams, giant roasted prawns and more. At a roadside market, Frank, braver than I, tried a fried tarantula and swore it tasted like grasshopper.
In the bustling city of Siem Reap, once the location of the capital of the Khmer Empire, a local guide led us to Ponheary Ly, a woman whose father was murdered because he was a teacher. His legacy inspired her to create a major foundation that helps lift poor rural kids from poverty. We also met Piseth Luon, who spent the first years of his life homeless and returned to build a beautiful school in his home village of Mkak. In a gesture typical of the friendliness of the Cambodians we encountered, he invited us to his classrooms and to his parents’ house, where we ate a delicious lunch of sweet rice balls, chicken soup and banana-leaf salad. Meeting people such as Ly, Luon and Thy was inspiring and exhausting. I wanted to help every one of them: to go back to build, to teach, to live for a week or a month. And now I know that I will do that; I will return to teach, at least for a short while. But frankly, I was ready for some rest and reflection when our small ferryboat crossed the Gulf of Thailand to Koh Rong island.
I’d chosen Koh Rong solely for the R&R factor. Touted as an undeveloped beach at the end of the earth, it consisted of a funky ring of laid-back bars and a string of simple coconut-and-palm huts dotting the white-sand beach with a backdrop of dense jungle. Tropical birds nested and called from thick palms, and our charming bungalow—wooden, with a thatched roof—had a straw hammock on the porch, a huge bucket of clean water for washing and panoramic views of the bay filled with brilliant longboats bobbing streaks of red, yellow and blue across the water. Frank, Melissa and I slept in beds draped with mosquito netting.
After absorbing so many stories of death and renewal on the steaming, crowded mainland, we let sunny, barefoot days and evenings of wine, music and barbecue at water’s edge lull us into unbroken tranquillity.
On our final morning, I was awakened in the dark bungalow by a blazing strip of orange light. Finding my glasses, I pushed aside the mosquito netting and threw open our crude shutters. Dawn poured through cracks in the walls and up through the floorboards beneath my bare feet. I grabbed my camera and stepped into a silent world bathed in pink.
Pulling on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I coaxed my husband onto the empty beach. The blaze of dawn was gone, but the morning hush was opening into something ripe, filled with gentle tides. Soon we would be returning home. I thought about the date and came to a stop.
For years I’d anticipated the day I would outlive my mother, and feared that day might never come. That morning on Koh Rong island, the specter of that dread lifted. My beautiful mother was 53 years and two months old when she died. I was now 53 years and three months. Without my noticing, the day I’d long feared had come and gone in the heat of the trip. As I remembered Mom’s final words to me—“You are so lucky, Laurie”—I felt nothing but joy.
“The rest of my life is a gift,” I said. Then Frank and I swam in the turquoise water.
LAURIE LICO ALBANESE is an award-winning fiction writer and memoirist. She is working on a novel about Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
Next: Experiencing Cambodia
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