When first stepping foot on foreign soil, one of several things immediately takes hold of your senses. Often, it’s a smell – from the Spruce and wood smoke of northern Italy, all the way to the petrol and piss of Mumbai. Sometimes it’s a sound – unfamiliar, loud, disorienting, yet strangely pleasing. Occasionally, the place will simply look like no where you’ve been before. But once in a great while, a place will enliven all of your senses simultaneously. For me, Cambodia was such a place. From the vibrant orange robes worn by the Buddhist monks, to the loudspeaker call to prayer, to woodsmoke rising above grilled squid, to your clothes sticking unforgivably to your body – Cambodia let you know you where you were. And once immersed, you discovered an incredibly kind people going about their daily lives – but not without a smile to a foreign stranger. And not without exchanging laughter with friends and neighbors. For a people that have recently endured a tragedy most of the world will never know, Cambodians surprise you with their easy laughter and eagerness to show foreigners delight in their own local traditions.
We travelled to Cambodia to document the unique story of a genocide survivor, Kilong Ung who was bringing his family to his homeland for the first time for the documentary Risking Light. He explained to his children how he was lucky to be alive and showed them the rice paddy where he was forced to work as a slave for four years before escaping to America – but not before losing the majority of his family to the harsh conditions of living under the Khmer Rouge. It was throughout this process of remembering and discovering that he taught his son and daughter what forgiveness has meant to him and what it could mean to them.
And so document we did. And discover. And taste. And learn. And imagine what life must have been like. And reflect upon what it means to be born in one corner of the world versus another. And then feel gratitude for the perspective one is given by connecting with a foreign people over one the most basic of human pleasures – sharing our stories.
My journey through Cambodia was a profound one. It was an emotionally and physically exhausting one, but one that brought a newfound perspective on life back home – one that made daily living more meaningful upon my return. One full of those rare, perspective-expanding moments when you pause amidst the chaos and think, “This moment here. This is the reason I travel.”