Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Adventure Khmer: Prelude to a Journey of Discovery

Adventure Khmer


Prelude to a Journey of Discovery

by "Antonio Graceffo" antonio_graceffo@hotmail.com

After nearly a year and a half in Cambodia I had finally finished writing my
Phnom Penh book, Letters from the Penh. A hands-on adventure-writer, in that
book, like all of my others, I had participated in every exciting or interesting situation I could find in Phnom Penh. I had boxed professionally, attended the coronation of the new king, interviewed colonies of families living in the city’s garbage dump, spent some time with the ethnic Cham Muslim minority, stared in a kung fu movie with the national boxing campion, attended a cock fight, interview survivors of the Khmer Rouge prisons, followed a group of glue addicted street children, freelanced for the Ministry of the Interior, learned about micro-credit and poverty, interviewed the commandant of a Khmer Rouge prison, appeared on TV,
movies, and posters, met an entire village whose homes had been stolen by the army, free lanced for magazines, heard gunshots, learned to speak and read Khmer language, caught the explanation of grenade attacks the next morning, got caught up in the internal squablings of the Communist Party, seen an entire street pick up sticks and beat an alleged thief to a pulp, surrounded myself with Chinese, listened to the vile talk of sex-pats, made a lot of friends, taught at the university, and become both enamoured with and repelled by my Khmer hosts.

In short, I was exhausted, completely out of energy and out of new ideas. I was disheartened and disenchanted with Cambodia. The country had shown me so much, but at the same time, buying in to Cambodia, developing an emotional attachment to the people and the nation had worn me down. It was human to care about the people and their future, but the roller-coaster of emotion, the ups and downs of a corruption ridden society where my young friends seemed to have very little hope for the future, had defeated me. I wanted to leave, although, like any addict, I was hooked. Filthy, dangerous, corrupt, violent, depraved, and alluring once Cambodia got under your skin, it wouldn’t let go.

In my time in Phnom Penh, I had met all too many lifers, ex-pats who swore they hated Cambodia, and talked about nothing other than the negative aspects of the country. Each year, they swore they were leaving. And each year, the signed on for one more year. Some of them had been here since UNTAC in the early 1990s. The most extreme ones had come on special visas immediately after the Vietnamese pullout or even before Poll Pot.

The bad ones were bound to the land by the easy availability of cheap drugs and depraved sex. The good ones couldn’t let go out of some unwillingness to accept a system so completely lawless. Not wanting to leave a mystery unsolved, they sacrificed years of their lives, trying to make sense of a world where up was down, black was white, and George W. Bush was a liberal. In reality, everything in Phnom Penh was shades of grey, but the images only made sense if viewed through lenses of experience.

My bags were packed. I was nearly out the door, but I just couldn’t leave. What if I had gotten it wrong in the first book? What if there were more to see? Maybe they had a cure for cancer out in the provinces? Maybe there was some truth to the myth of Angkor Wat…

I was wrestling with my departure, both craving an dreading the finality of the steel door slamming shut when I had left Cambodia for good. I knew that the moment I hit the submit-to-publisher button on Letters to the Penh, it wouldn’t be safe for me to return to Cambodia, possibly forever.

That was when my good friend, and sometimes sponsor, Bill Whurst showed up in Phnom Penh, and took me to dinner at Le Royal. Bill was a rarity, an educated gentleman in the classic sense, who dedicated his entire life to travel and adventure. He was a renaissance man, pursing intellectual interests in a variety of topics, reading and ingesting extensively the history of everything. It was Bill who had urged me to cross the Taklamakan Desert, Bill who had supported much of my writing in Phnom Penh, and Bill who was about to put up a large chunk of the money I needed to escape Cambodia and begin a months long expedition in Borneo.

And, it was also Bill who introduced me to Long Leng, of Phnom Penh Tours. They had been looking for an adventure writer who already knew a lot about Cambodia and who spoke Khmer, to travel the entire country, getting to know the remote regions and completing adventures as he went. They wanted someone who could ride elephants, scuba dive, handle a kayak, live with hill tribes, trek long distances, train with the Khmer traditional grapplers, fly a space shuttle, and cure lepers. Although I couldn’t I couldn’t do the last two, it seemed like a perfect fit.

“I have to warn you.” I said, honestly. “I am completely burned out on Cambodia.” “That’s OK.” Smiled Long Leng. “I will show you things you never even dreamed of.” “You aren’t just going to drive me around in an air-conditioned mini-van, looking at temples are you? Also, we aren’t planning to eat spiders, I hope.”

The look on Long Leng’s face said, that was the original plan, but that it had now changed. So, we made a deal. Long Leng made up a deluxe tour package for me. But, to jazz it up, we made the agreement, that where possible, I would travel under my own power, either on a bicycle, in a kayak, or on an elephant (elephant power). And, any crazy ideas I had, destinations and events to be added, Long Leng was happy to agree, and modify the trip.

But I still won’t be eating any spiders.

On our agenda is full of kayaks, bicycles, canoes, elephants, and some professional boxing (participating, not watching), but no spiders.

The benefit of travelling with Long Leng and Phnom Penh Tours was that I was going to be driven in an air-conditioned minibus between my destinations. I had a translator and guide, Mr. Thavrin, and everywhere we went, we were met by professionals who could give me great information. At night, we slept in four and five star accommodations, and ate gourmet Khmer food.

This is an experiment in travel writing. Perhaps for the first time in the history of adventure, every single adventure in a country, namely Cambodia, has been carefully mapped out and planned. And I, an adventure writer, will follow the adventure trail, through the Khmer Kingdom, completing ALL of the adventures which the country has to offer. As I go, I will file stories daily, or as close to daily as time and energy permit. This makes my trip a nearly real-time web-broadcast of the printed word.

Not just another self-serving, diversion of a journey, this is adventure with a purpose. First, using my background and knowledge of Khmer language, culture, history, and customs, I will attempt to interpret and understand each adventure, giving the reader a unique cultural education on this land of turmoil. At the same time, I am on a personal quest to fall back in
love with this country, which has grown on me like an addiction.

And, if I run out of things to write, maybe I will just east some spiders.

Contact the author at Antonio....@hotmail.com

You can reach Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at

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