Feb 5, 2024

Touching the soul of Cambodia: A reason to return to Southeast Asia


When most  Americans think of traveling in Southeast Asia, they think of the beaches of Thailand or the historical sites and scenery in Vietnam. Few consider nearby Cambodia, a country bombed by the U.S. to destroy North Vietnamese hideouts, and later ravaged in the late '70s by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime.

Tom and I rarely revisit places where we've traveled in the past, or when we do, we focus on new cities or areas. Our upcoming trip to Cambodia is an exception.

We last visited 19 years ago on a  “Reality Tour” sponsored by Global Exchange, a San Francisco international human-rights organization dedicated to emerging participants into the heart and soul of the culture and countries they visit. 

Along with trips to the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and a pre-dawn boat ride through the floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake, we’ve spent a morning in a shanty town behind the Phnom Penh train station talking with women and children suffering from AIDS; shared duck and mushroom omelets prepared by Buddhist nuns; and talked with beggars who lost arms and legs in land-mine accidents. 

Our most memorable experience was spending the night In the rural village of Anchanh Rung where water buffalo outnumber motorcycles, and the night noises come from animals my Western ears can’t identify. Bowls of rice were passed, then fish steamed under leaves on an open fire under the house; strips of chicken and beef; a soup with coconut milk; and for dessert, pencil-thin potatoes that we peeled with the back of a spoon and dipped into palm sugar. 

Friendship with Cambodia is in its 21st year

Our guide was Bhavia Wagner of Eugene, Oregon, author of a book called  “Soul Survivors,” an anthology of first-person stories from women and children who survived the Pol Pot regime. Since that time, she deepened her ties with Cambodians through her work with Friendship with Cambodia, a humanitarian organization she formed after making her first trip in 1991. 

We and a few others in our tour group became involved with FWC after we returned to the U.S. Our main activity was sponsoring the education of students as they made their way out of the rural villages to go to high school and later university in Phnom Penh. 

Many were the children of poor rice farmers. Part of the money went to providing the families with a subsidy so they could afford to let their older children attend school. Our graduates have gone on to careers in social service, engineering, nursing, and other professions, enabling them to earn money to support their own families, and help their younger siblings with their education. 

Bhavia stayed involved with FWC, expanding its activities to empowering women, helping victims of land mines, homeless children, HIV/AIDs patients, publishing a guidebook on responsible travel, and making seed grants to help rural villages build schools, rice banks, fish ponds, houses and wells. 

Last year was the organization's 20th anniversary, marking $2.23 million in humanitarian aid for Cambodia. It seemed a fitting time to make plans to go back together and see the progress first-hand. Planning and scheduling logistics bumped our return trip into this year - the 21st anniversary of FWC - but we couldn't be more excited about seeing it all come together now.

Our route

Tom and I will follow our 10 days in Cambodia with a week in Hanoi, where we last visited 17 years ago for a story for The Seattle Times. Traveling to Southeast Asia has its challenges. Our flight is a non-stop between Seattle and Seoul, South Korea (13 hours) followed by a six-hour connecting flight into Hanoi and a 15-hour time change.

Like post-war Vietnam, Cambodia has come a long way since the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. Bhavia, reports there are 100 new skyscrapers, mostly built to house Chinese, in a city that had almost no cars, just cargo trucks when she first visited in 1991. There are Uber-like apps (Grab) for getting around by taxi or open-air Tuk-Tuk auto rickshaw and restaurants specializing in food from throughout the Western world.

The people we will meet will no doubt seem optimistic and content, but scars remain when it comes to access to education, healthcare, the sex trade and employment.

Among our activities will be a group meeting with our students who will talk about life after graduation, and make a presentation about traffic accidents as a way to improve their public speaking. We'll meet with staff at the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center, take a student-led architectural tour of Phnom Penh and travel to rural Kampot where we will meet Vanna, a village woman mother of 50 orphans, who, with the help of a Eugene, Oregon, benefactor, founded an organization called OEDDO to help children, the elderly and disabled. 

The Tuk-Tuk, a main mode of transport in Southeast Asia

We saw the major sights on our last trip, thus the focus on people rather than places, but we're looking forward to a few new diversions such as taking a cooking class at a fair trade pepper plantation in Kampot, and a morning breakfast food tour of Phnom Penh by Tuk-Tuk.  

As tourists, we know our our actions can make a difference in people's lives. One way to do this is to book experiences with local entrepreneurs rather than use big tour companies; patronize  restaurants that exist to train and prepare young people for culinary careers; stay in hotels that discourage sex tourism; and shop for crafts that support fair-trade practices, 

When Tom and l move onto Hanoi, we've signed up for a walking tour with a student through Hanoi Free Walking Tours, and a visit to a farm outside the city booked through Eatwith.com, the Airbnb for dining with locals. Our host, Mandy, pictured at the top of this blog post, promises a visit to the local market, then a trip back to her home to cook with her family and have lunch. We'll travel there using the Grab app. There are more expensive (Mandy's price is $35 per person) ways to spend a morning cooking in Hanoi, but none, I suspect, as adventuresome or more fun.


  1. Thanks for the sharing, Carol. So very interesting and informative and sounds like fun. Susan Mueller

  2. Sounds like an interesting journey. We got a taste of Cambodia last year. . .would like to return one day.

  3. Thank you for allowing us to 'travel' via your amazing adventures! Chris & Myra

  4. Looking forward to reading and seeing more! Hope you’ve arrived safely and travel was as good as possible.

  5. Currently live in Vietnam and in China 7 year prior. Cambodia is one of our favorite places to visit. In Seim Reap I strongly suggest you go on a "country side" tour with Dan of "Bees Unlimited" - it is a non-temple tour and focuses on local life and traditions. It is authentic and non-scripted. The Phare "circus" there is also amazing - and the APOPO tunnel rat (find landmines) demonstration is great. Cambodia has many local providers and interesting people.

  6. I always feel I’m traveling with you thanks to your words and photos!