I always try to get a clear idea of a place before I get there. I look at pictures, read blogs and guides, do research, and form an image of what I think the place will be in my mind.
But when I decided to go to Southeast Asia in May, I didn’t have an image in my mind. Every article I read contradicted the next. Every picture looked different than the last.
What I discovered in Thailand and Cambodia proved that this region of the world is particularly difficult to describe. I felt every emotion while exploring, got lost in translation and in the humidity. I saw poverty and wealth at the same time.
I found it was when I observed scenes of everyday life that I slowly started to fall in love with the culture of these places.
There is a bamboo rail line in Battambang on which handmade bamboo trains run every time they need to carry food, goods, or people. The Khmer people have used these rails since the overthrow of Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s.
This man was one of those train drivers.
Our journey was silent. No words, just the occasional glimpse. When we came to a stop so he could change the track direction for the return trip, I snapped this picture. He smiled at the last second, and it seemed to me that he was trying to communicate something only with his eyes.
It seemed that everywhere in Cambodia, children were traveling on bikes. My curiosity was too much, and I asked my local guide if these bikes were provided by the government.
He responded that the government doesn’t care for the Khmer people. “Instead,” he said, “We buy bikes for our children to help them to go to school easily.”
Since their parents were busy on the farms, the distance between villages was a barrier for these children to access education. These bikes were what kept them on the road to their futures.
Tonle Sap Lake
I didn’t expect this place to have such an effect on me. Our driver took us to Mechrey Pier instead of Chong Kneas, so we might have been the only tourist boat trying to experience the local villages. It was a strange, beautifully green world.
There were markets, schools, and even tailor shops for wedding dresses — all on the water. Lives dictated by the cycles of rising and falling waters.
Angkor Wat Temple
While exploring the temple at Angkor Wat, one of the biggest in the world, I was approached by a young Buddhist monk who asked me where I was from. I told him, and, after a short conversation, he asked me if I wanted to be blessed by him.
I accepted and watched as he prepared for the ceremony — lighting incense, sweeping around his carpet, arranging the donation box — in focused conversation. The preparation was more interesting than the blessing itself.
Later, I found a man standing near the lake, in the quietest part of the temple. He seemed not to move at all, just looked at the water in silence. I found peace myself just by looking at him.
I climbed the four kilometers to the top of the hill in Phnom Sampov, alone save for a few monks and the bats flying in the air.
Near the temple on top of the hill, several boys stopped to greet me in a traditional way — hands clasped in front of their hearts, fingers pressed. Then they continued on their way, eating ice cream bars and making jokes with one another. Their innocence was touching and I realized in that moment that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world — children are children.
As I observed the women working in the silk centers in Banteay Chhmar, one woman stood out. Her movements were so repetitive, so hypnotic. I watched her for a while and tried to imagine what she was dreaming about while she worked.
Vendors sell fresh fruits and Thai food everyday in the floating market in Bangkok. One woman stopped selling mangos and coconuts for a short time to take a break. I paused to take her picture.
After I clicked the button, she looked at me and smiled. She recognized that I was one of the few visitors who took the time to slowly explore and make eye contact, while everyone else was in a rush.