How Cambodia Broke My Heart -

How Cambodia Broke My Heart

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“Be careful because Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.” – Joseph Mussomeli, former US Ambassador to Cambodia


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My relationship with Cambodia bears a striking resemblance to a passionate but wildly insecure romance. One where I find myself falling for someone with such an uncertain future that I become consumed with seeing, touching, tasting every facet of them out of fear that they might disappear in an instant. Like a lovesick fool, as much as I predict the impending destruction, I allow myself to fall deeper and deeper.


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I am one of the millions of people who has fallen in love with Cambodia. Yet every day that I spend here, it breaks my heart.


This is how.


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During the Buddhist calendar’s full moon, people throughout Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar escape the cities and head to their hometowns to celebrate the beginning of a new year and the possibilities it brings.


Fortuitously I found myself spending it in Cambodia between Koh Rong and Otres with spectacularly kind locals, dancing in circles to foreign music, having talcum powder thrown in my face, and escaping the water balloon attacks of children. The wholesome joy that they emanate in each of these acts is positively contagious and the sentiment, letting go of past pains and remaining open to new light, is inspiring.


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The morning following the end of the New Year celebrations a Khmer woman staying at my guesthouse brought some traditional sweets made of ground sticky rice, coconut, and palm sugar steamed inside of a banana leaf for us as a gift. Smiling, she handed me one and told me that eating these treats reminds her of surviving on palm sugar while in the work camps instated by the Khmer Rouge.


“No food, no food, nothing, so I eat palm sugar. Good for the eyes. You see I don’t wear glasses!”


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She talks about searching for palm sugar during Pol Pot’s horrific dictatorship with the casual tone one might use to describe hunting for eggs on Easter.  I simply listen.


Over the next hour she describes losing her husband, her two-year-old daughter, and her newborn baby to starvation under the Khmer Rouge when she was just 20 years old.


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She tells me she was captured once for stealing some rice to feed her baby but managed to escape; everyone else that evening was killed. Her only motivation to survive was knowing her baby was waiting for her at home.


She recants returning to Phnom Penh once Vietnam invaded, full of hope that she might reunite with her relatives. Then quickly discovering that her parents and all of her siblings had already been killed.


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She says she felt so depressed and so alone.


I can tell she has told this story many times. It flows with distance and detachment. I try to achieve the impossible feat of understanding what she endured. Instead I continue with my leisurely day of swimming and sunbathing.


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At sunset she finds me on my beach lounger and insists I indulge in some sticky rice candies rolled in sesame seeds she has brought me.


She begins to tell me the same stories again. And again. It reminds me of how each time I visit my Grandmother she tells the same stories about my Grandfather as if by retelling them he might somehow come back to life.


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But each time this woman retells her stories, she reveals more details. She begins to attach to them. She begins to feel them. She talks about her daughter begging her for food. “Mommy I’m hungry,” she would say.


She recalls waking up next to her husband and realizing that he would not be waking up that day then floating his body in a boat down the river. She describes digging a grave for her four-month-old baby and burying him in the woods.


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All alone.

As strong as I want to be for her, eventually we both cry.


She admits that in her quiet moments in bed at night she remains haunted by these memories as much as she wants to see the beauty in her present life. She tells me that every time she sees a woman or a man of a certain age she sees her children in their eyes.


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I hold her hand and we watch a dazzling sunset, witnessing the incredible capacity of life to bring such beauty and such pain.


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I wish I could tell you that her story was a shock. The unfortunate reality is that almost every person who lived during the years 1975 to 1979 perished in a similar way. Even more unfortunate are the lasting effects of this unbearable trauma.


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I read recently in Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley that studies in California with Khmer refugees following the genocide suggest that two thirds of subjects suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


Considering the atrocities that took place, I’m inclined to assume that number is closer to one hundred percent of victims, former Khmer Rouge soldiers included. Most disturbingly of all this study deduced that children born after their parents had fled Cambodia, in first world countries, had actually inherited PTSD.


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Generally I find Khmers to be the kindest, most generous, and most welcoming people I’ve ever known. They appear to savor the moment, not sweat the small stuff, and find joy in the little things. But there are moments when I see dark pain behind the friendly exterior; even moments when I see their eyes glass over with hardened distance.



This striking contrast between lightness and weight has been the prevailing theme throughout my travels in Cambodia.


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Swimming in the crystalline waters of one of Cambodia’s many beautiful undeveloped islands I’m constantly reminded of the impending development plans by foreign bazillionaires. Airports, casinos, and resorts will all make their way to these paradise islands, snuffing out the magic and replacing it with so called comfort.


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The government gets a hefty payout and the people of Cambodia seem to get nothing. Basic necessities like healthcare, education, and proper waste management don’t seem to be high on the agenda. It’s not uncommon for even five star resorts to lose electricity daily or occasionally smell of sewage. Frankly, there’s no infrastructure to support this kind of development, just a greedy government looking to make a buck no matter the long-term cost.


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I saw how a distasteful pocketbook can destroy a once natural paradise on Bokor Mountain, a stunning national park, which happens to have a casino at its top. We managed to find our own lookout above a mist-covered canopy where we could still hear the sounds of the birds and feel the energy of the jungle. I wonder how much longer that will last.


This corrupt government, still run by former Khmer Rogue, seems to disrespect its natural surroundings as much as it does its cultural monuments.


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I hear that the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, one of the most incredible, spiritual places I have ever visited remains dangerously at risk of being destroyed by under regulated tourism. In fact the awesomely eerie smiling faces at Bayon are actually sinking into the ground because of the many hotels in Siem Reap that use groundwater for their facilities.


UNESCO representatives have warned Cambodia for years that the magnitude of tourism to Angkor Wat each year presents considerable risk of irreparably damaging the structures. I wonder whose pocket my $40 admission ticket made its way into.


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Nearly every tourist in Phnom Penh makes sure to visit The Killing Fields, a memorial site for those who perished under the Khmer Rouge, which was a mass murder site of tens of thousands of Khmers. The memorial is upsetting, moving, and honorable of the culture and its past. Visiting an expensive shooting range nearby is suggested by tuk tuks and tour companies as a follow up activity. Yes please, after hearing about the unjust murders of an entire generation of people I’d like to go and shoot a gun.


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But some tourists actually do. Others go and visit orphanages, which consequently have become tourist attractions, encouraging poor families to send their children to live there.


To my surprise many of the expats I met during my travels, and nearly all of the backpackers, were existing on some type of substance from dawn until well…dawn the next day. Did they consider Cambodia to simply be a cheap and easy place to get wasted?


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And somehow, something impossible for me to comprehend is that there are Westerners who come to this beautiful country for no other reason than to pay for sex from desperate people. Often they choose children who were sold by their own parents.


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By stark contrast there are hundreds of NGOs throughout the country, feeding, housing, educating, and empowering the people whose government seems to have forgotten them.


Clearly Cambodia is a country that some people love and others selfishly rape.


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I see an elite few become richer as tourism in Cambodia grows and every inch of land is sold to an eager investor. Meanwhile I have met some of the most privileged Khmers, those with youth, education and good health, who still must work more than three jobs to support themselves and their parents.


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With this new awareness that Cambodia has offered me, I find myself heartbroken perhaps most of all, over my constant questioning of so many of my personal affirmations.


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If we actually live in a world of absolute abundance, how can so many people starve? How can I preach that everything happens for a reason when people have suffered genocide and unspeakable loss? If all humans are capable of manifesting their dreams, how can so many people live in poverty, as victims to their own government, despite a rise in education empowering them to do more?


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I wonder if my beliefs about the magic of the universe only apply to those with enough privilege to not wonder or worry how tomorrow they will eat.


Otres 2


These are questions that I wish I had the answers to. For now I leave Cambodia equally touched as I am torn. Knowing that our intense relationship has most definitely not yet reached its end.


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  1. This is heartbreaking and beautiful. I also sometimes wonder if my own beliefs aren’t born of privilege and having the time to think about dreams and abundance and personal fulfillment, because I don’t have to dedicate more than two seconds of my day to thoughts of how I will eat and where I will sleep. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I really appreciate the way you travel so mindfully.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 21, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      Thank you Shannon :) Always nice to hear from you. I thought these questions would particularly resonate with my fellow yogis. x I do try to remember though that guilt is a waste and it’s my job to focus on my own dharmic path and by following that I will ultimately help the most people.

    • CambodianLady Says: September 15, 2014 at 3:22 am

      My parents didn’t remember the exact date I was born because their memories were full of the story during the Khmer Rouge regime. I have never celebrated my birthday, never, ever coz I don’t know when I was born. The Khmer Rouge killed three of my mother’s sons, her parents, and her siblings.

      • Camille Willemain Says: September 15, 2014 at 9:34 am

        I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. It was such a devastating time in history and it’s heartbreaking to see the residual effects of it today. Sending you love <3

    • By far the best post on Cambodia! Love your blog.

    • Hi Camille,
      Great post! I had the pleasure of visiting Siem Reap last year and loved it!.. But by far my best memory was the attitude of the Cambodians .. They were just the best and it didn’t surprise me after I read an article about the ‘Top ten friendliest cities in the World’ and low and behold there was Siem Reap!
      As for the past history and the agony and pain of what went on there, I just shudder to think of those atrocities and my heart goes out to every last one of them,as for the government and associated cronies lets hope they have some social conscience and do the right thing by the people who have suffered through those times and are still suffering today .
      Again Camille, great post and I’ll be forwarding the article on to family and friends to make them realise how lucky we are in our World.

      • Camille Willemain Says: April 3, 2015 at 1:11 am

        Thank you Bruce. I agree, they are some of the most wonderful people I’ve met anywhere. I think about Cambodia all of the time <3

  2. I’ve been following you only in the last month or so, so forgive me if you’ve addressed this question already. But do you ever feel like you might want to stay for awhile and help instead of simply just blogging about the injustice and disillusionment everywhere? People that are truly passionate about injustice stop in their tracks to make a difference in the world. You seem to say it best yourself: “I went back to sunbathing.” How unfortunate. I am suspecting we might see soon see some philanthropy-type posts going forward, so you don’t appear so ego-centric. Until then, continue “finding yourself” while others try to find food, water, dignity as human beings, etc. it’s not your job to solve the world’s problems, but considering what you have experienced, it makes me wonder how you can find authenticity by just being a passive fun-loving observer of the world??

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 21, 2014 at 8:27 pm


      Yes I do plan to share a post in the future about philanthropy and volunteer work in Cambodia. However as anyone who has traveled here will tell you, if you’re not well informed you can easily do more harm than good even with the best of intentions. This is why I made it my mission to first understand what is even going on. I’ve done this through reading memoirs, journals, doing lots of online research, asking expats and locals questions, and listening to many stories.

      I invite you to consider why you might feel inclined to judge my journey and my purpose in my travels. I invite you to question what those judgements say about you.

      If you understood this blog at all you would know that I am so much more than a “passive fun loving observer of the world”. Perhaps you perceive yourself in that light and feel a level of first world guilt that you are now projecting onto me. Meanwhile I plan to continue observing, striving to understand, offering my kindness, and writing about it.

      • “However as anyone who has traveled here will tell you, if you’re not well informed you can easily do more harm than good even with the best of intentions.” – Completely spot on, Camille!! There are so many people who come to Cambodia to ‘help’ and do more harm than good. I applaud you for not using your emotions to jump the gun an launch into a ‘save Cambodia’ volunteer stint. It is important, if you decide to come back, to ensure what you are doing is sustainable and empowering for the beneficiaries. I really liked this blog, and have shared it. You are right, it is a heartbreaking country!

      • Hi Camille,

        I love your response to that disrespectful and ignorant post…

        “I invite you to consider why you might feel inclined to judge my journey and my purpose in my travels. I invite you to question what those judgements say about you.”

        No one could have said it better. You rock!

        • Camille Willemain Says: January 1, 2015 at 11:36 pm

          Thanks Allan :)

          • So I just arrived in Siem Reap and you can pretty much sense the after-effects of a genocide that occurred here not too long ago.

            The lesson however, is that this is the inevitable result of Democracy.

            Pol Pot didn’t single-handedly murder millions, his soldiers comprised of the time-imemorial majority population of this Kingdom… dirt poor uneducated peasantry covered in manure.

            The genocide was thus a victory, the triumph of Majority Rule, a testament to why Democracy should be forced upon everyone.

    • Hi Michael,

      I too am a Cambodian and have been through hell and back. I have done unimaginable things in life where survival is so critical. After 30 some years, I thought the Cambodian government the least has learned of its atrocity from the Khmer Rouge experience, by focusing on rehabilitating the country, but they are continuing the course of destruction. It has always been about geo-politics.

  3. Cambodia was my first Asian country and it was a big shock for me. On my very first day I was whisked away to both the Killing Fields and that shooting range. That was really uncomfortable and I had no choice in the matter as the tuk tuk driver had a deal with the shooting range.

    As far as Michael’s concern, I’ didn’t know the first place to start to help in Cambodia. SO many “volunteer” orgs are actually scams like the orphanages you mentioned in the post. The personal connections you’ve made in Cambodia and the things you’ve learned have to count for something! Letting that woman share her story probably meant a lot to her. I think sometimes the best thing you can do is learn what you can and help inform others because I’m pretty sure that the average America has no idea about the travesties that have happened in Cambodia.

    Anyway, I appreciated this post!

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 21, 2014 at 8:47 pm

      Hi Karisa,

      I can imagine Cambodia must be a tough place to start. I started in Vietnam which also had it’s challenges. I now understand why everyone says to start in Thailand. Interesting that they just brought you to the shooting range, they really tried to push it on us. What was your experience there?

      Yes you’re totally right that many of the volunteer places do more harm than good. I’ve had a post in the works for a while now with lots of reputable organizations to volunteer at, patronage, or donate money to. Most Khmers I speak with are shocked by how much I know about their country. Understandably most tourists just don’t have the time to really research and learn. This is why I want to share my insights on this blog.

      Thanks for your support :)

  4. Thank you for a thoughtful and provocative post. I do understand that the comment about returning to sunbathing was a comment on your privilege. It takes some of us many years and painful exeriences to get close to that insight, so I applaud your honesty. Awareness of our privilege is different from guilt, and I think that it will keep you open to many more amazing experiences like you had with the woman who talked to you about her losses. Sad as it was, I loved this post, and I’m glad you talked about the ugly tourist traps like the orphanages and the shooting field. If knowlege is power, than sharing it is even greater. You can’t help without understanding first. Maybe as more tourists understand what they are contributing to, they can object to these atrocities.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Well if Michael is right then I should stop blogging about India entirely because I’m surrounded by poverty on a daily basis as well. “just stay a while and help” … if only it were that simple?

    I found your blog about a month ago as well and this post makes me glad I did. It was so honest & touched on feelings I have all the time. I also believe in karma, and letting the universe help, everything happens for a reason… and can see how only people with privilege come to those beliefs- but do know that isn’t always the case. In my experience in India for the last almost 2 years the very poorest people I talk with have extreme faith, some think they have done something in a past life wrong, others think that this is a challenge because their next life is going to full of riches.. so they go through their days begging, working like mules, or sitting on a street just watching life go by… and they have peace

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 22, 2014 at 6:50 pm

      Rachel thanks so much for your comment. I too have been following your blog for about a month and it’s inspiring me to travel in India on my own :)

      Interesting how some people in India perceive their poverty. I think surrendering to what is and appreciating the lesson in everything is integral to finding happiness, but I also wonder if this mentality in certain cultures is what keeps people from achieving more? Do you ever feel that their belief that poverty is their path in this lifetime is actually what holds them back from a life with greater abundance? This is something I go back and forth on often… finding the balance between surrender and persistence.

  6. Great post. We just left Cambodia and had similar experiences sharing tears with locals. The people were amazing and we loved every minute of our time. We too left with lots of questions and at the same time hope for the people.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 22, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      Hi Simone, thanks for your comment. Where did you go? Yes I agree they are some of the most wonderful people in the world and so very bright and talented. I hope that as education improves the new generations begin to create real social change.

  7. Hi there.. I’ve just found your blog and found this post very moving. Cambodia haunts my dreams still, even though it’s been several years since we were there, for all of the reasons you list. There is a possibility of so much hope, and yet you can see that greed and corruption is still endangering the people, simply in a less violent way.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 22, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      Thank you Rhonda. I completely understand. I’m interested to see how the situation progresses in Cambodia, and once I have the means, I hope to establish some education centers there myself.

  8. Yes, there is always first world guilt (I will appease you and coin it as you did)…and I will always question why I was born into my circumstances and others were born into abject conditions. But this guilt fuels me to try to make a difference to the point that, yes, I “stopped, stayed awhile, and helped.” It’s not a novel concept for those that travel around as you have and do. It might be novel for someone sitting in a cubicle in the states. But for someone with your nomadic lifestyle, this is not a far stretch from the possible…but I understand that “sunbathing” on the Thai beaches were calling your name more. As for a credible person or organization to help in Cambodia, there are plenty of those with a little bit of research. One is a man named Sok in Siem Reap who used to be on the streets himself and now runs am orphanage there. I have another contact in Phnom Penh, but her name escapes me at the moment. She is a girl from MS who visited Cambodia but was moved to the point of “staying awhile and helping.” She now runs a 501c3 there. You can feel free to critique my post, but I don’t back down from my comments above. People’s feathers need to be ruffled sometimes for action to occur / personal growth. Look forward to seeing your philanthropic posts going forward. More of that is needed in the world versus descriptions of reggae bars, clean-eating posts, and description of each paradiso beach visited where you are upset about the tourists that take, take, take. Somehow you have never lumped yourself in with them (why is that, I wonder…) so it will be good to see you “dig in and get your hands dirty a bit more” – especially now after going back and reading more of your previous blog entries. I encourage you to find your authenticity in all you share – or else you are much like the rest of the world that reads and sees but never really does much to help improve anyone’s plight. “To those who have been given much, much is expected.”

    • I think you are focusing far to much on that “sunbathing” line, Michael.

      I also don’t think you get how important simply educating people about what’s happening in other parts of the world is. Not everyone is able to travel like Camille. And a lot who ARE able only go to Cambodia to snap their sunrise photo at Angkor Wat and proclaim that they love the country. Very few, I would guess, actually stop to truly get to know individuals and their stories like Camille has.

      I also traveled to Cambodia recently and had very similar internal issues. I’m writing a post right now on little things you can do in Cambodia to “help,” but to be honest they aren’t earth-shattering tips. Why? Because the country is so corrupted and broken that even the best of intentions can go awry. I would be leery to volunteer in Cambodia for fear that I would actually do more harm than good.

      Do I think Cambodia is worth helping? Of course I do. But, historically speaking, the country has been quite averse to help that doesn’t also line the pockets of officials. The UN couldn’t affect any lasting change; the thousands of NGOs operating in the country have not yet helped the people get rid of a government they no longer (and really never did) support.

      The thing I KNOW I can do is to write about Cambodia. To make sure other people know about what is happening there. Because, until the wider world is made aware, the actions of just a few aren’t going to help in the long run.

      • Camille Willemain Says: April 28, 2014 at 3:18 am

        Thanks for the support Amanda, really looking forward to seeing your post. You make an excellent point, even the UN struggled to bring about change!! I’m reading about this now in Cambodia’s Curse which you may also be interested in reading.

        My unique gift is not teaching English to children, I’m not TEFL certified and I’ve never been a great teacher. Plenty of people are very skilled at this and with lots and lots of research can find a viable place to do this in Cambodia… though I’ve heard many stories of corrupt institutions. However my unique gift is my writing and my ability to share what I see with the world. We always touch and help the most people when we follow our own path.

        Thanks for getting it, thanks for getting me 😉 <3

      • Amanda and Camille, please read the book “Kisses for Katie” and you will see that to which I am referring. Her internal belief system does not take on the notion of “well, I can’t change the SYSTEM.” Instead, we have to all start believing that ONE PERSON counts. ONE FAMILY. A FEW PEOPLE. We have to believe that. No, our single solitary ordinary selves cannot change systems….lifetimes….centuries of deceit and corruption, but you can help change the plight of INDIVIDUALS. Do not individuals count? For instance, poverty and corruption will always take place in Africa, but I choose to change the plight of 6 children’s lives FOREVER. I also have 3 Asian families I assist. So yes, I DO “get” more than you presently “get”, because you are still under the Western notion of “Oh, the problem is too big and too far removed for little ole me to help change anything and if I did give, who even knows if my aid will get to the intended recipients?” It is good that people share and increase awareness. But awareness means little to nothing without action. I hope YOU start to get it, Amanda. When you do, you will find your life enriched, I can assure you. Again, please read “Kisses for Katie.” I think a lightbulb will go off when you do.

        • Camille Willemain Says: April 28, 2014 at 7:10 pm

          Michael you’ve completely misunderstood what both Amanda and I have said. Yes absolutely one person can make a difference, but a lot of people hoping to make a difference actually perpetuate the problems in Cambodia. I’ve read consistently that unless you can actually dedicate a month to volunteering it’s detrimental to begin at all. Most reputable organizations require at least this length of commitment and for many travelers, that’s more time than they have. I’ve spoken with many locals to try to understand what is actually going on, and how I might actually be able to help rather than blindly signing up with some organization just to make myself feel like I’m giving back. I promote many locally owned businesses and NGOs in Cambodia through my blog, hoping to help them further empower the people in the country. And as for this woman who told me her story, I offered to give her bodywork that specifically addresses trauma. She unfortunately was not open to that, but one day when I have the resources I plan to start an organization that helps people in Cambodia with their PTSD, a SERIOUS issue in the country. It’s not your place to judge how another person lives his or her life; I suggest you focus instead on YOUR path and who YOU want to be. I’ll continue to do the same for myself.

          P.S. If you don’t like me and what I have to say, you don’t have to read my blog.

          • Michael Says: May 1, 2014 at 5:57 am

            Camille dear, you open yourself up to scrutiny when you create a public blog. I will comment as I see fit on a public forum. YOU can choose not to respond; that is certainly your prerogative. Same for your readers. I do not misunderstand anything. I have BEEN to (and aided) Cambodia, amongst other countries; I have provided names of valid places that need help, if you recall. I know the problems of which you speak. I know that there ARE ways to help and I have helped. Don’t for one second think I don’t understand how Cambodia (and many other countries) work. I have visited more than I count in my lifetime. I am not judging. I am shedding my light just as you are shedding yours….on a public forum, might I remind you. You have to be able to take the good and bad together, as you, too, are a big girl now. Same for your readership. Wish you the best and glad my posts seem to be spurring some things within you. You can say mine have not influenced anything in your writing, but we will definitely see a more “do something about it” Camille in future posts – and however it comes about, that is good. We need more doers in this world. You have the time to give with your nomadic lifestyle, so why not? Slow down, stay awhile (at least a month, as you said above) and reach within yourself; search for and do those things that will change lives for the better. I have faith you will figure it out and start to make a real difference.

          • Michael Says: May 1, 2014 at 6:02 am

            One more thing….”it’s more time than they have”. I am not speaking of people that come over for 10-14 days here to tour Cambodia. I am speaking of the travelers like yourself who are on extended stay through SE Asia. Many don’t have a heart for volunteering. I realize that. But all throughout your blog, you are claiming you do. You talk about injustice there. So my point is that if you are in search for your authentic self…and you are truly showing us that through your blog….then back those words up with action. Stop, stay awhile, and help – because you can. You HAVE the time. You have just as many hours to stop and do this as others who have gone before you. If your heart is behind your words here on this blog, you will find a way. This is about YOU right now because this is your blog. No one else’s. On the flip side, if all this is just words on a page, then don’t stop. Keep on trucking to the next SE Asian adventure around the corner. Another reggae bar and batch of sand awaits you after all.

  9. I completely agree with Michael “To those who have been given much, much is expected.”, and apparently he expects much from you! I am not sure why he bothers to read your blog, since he apparently does not understand it and it obviously frustrates him. I would suggest ignoring his last comments and let him worry about keeping his own side of the street clean, not yours. Thanks for allowing me to share!

  10. I have no words. I just wanted you to know you touched someone today. Beautiful.

  11. Camille, I completely get where you’re coming from in seeing the poverty and corruption and not knowing exactly what to do. We have been to Malawi, Africa twice for extended periods and both times we tried to help with the orphanages and individuals that we came to call our friends. I think it’s easy for someone like Michael to stand on the sidelines and judge, but until you’re there, you really can’t know. We helped where we could, got taken advantage of many times, and in the end, did some good. Seeing that food I bought in the markets and personally delivered to the children at the orphanage is a good feeling. There is nothing stopping that orphanage from turning around the next day and reselling it though, which I know happens frequently. One has to go on blind faith sometimes.
    What I really wanted to say about your blog though was that you have a gift. A true gift. You are an amazing story teller, your pictures paint such a visual experience that the reader feels they are right there with you. I’m so glad that you didn’t let the comments from a few jerks a few months ago make you re-evaluate what you are doing. There are always going to be people out there on their couches spewing their comments behind the safety of the internet. Don’t let them ever stop you. I applaud you for your journey. I know first hand that it’s not easy travelling to these poverty stricken places and even more so, solo. Your journals have touched me and I know they have touched thousands of people around the world as well. Many people will never, ever get to see the world and you are able to transport them in a way you probably don’t truly realize. Be proud, do what you can (as I can see that you would naturally) and don’t let the negative people in the world slow you down. At least you are out there doing something. And you will probably never know the true impact you have on someone by simply letting them pour their heart out to you about how their family was wiped out, but at least you are out there giving it your best. Sometimes it’s just a small thing.
    Stay safe and love life.

  12. Beautiful Camille. Very well written and your photos are breathtaking.

  13. LillyBug Says: April 23, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Camille . . . . . you are an angel.

  14. Camille,
    This is beautiful and full of soul, as usual. I would like to add that you are in fact, doing something for Cambodia. Your work is to write, and as a writer you open others to awareness. It is entirely possible that one of your readers may be moved to prioritize Cambodia or explore it more deeply than perhaps intended. Writing is a job, it is activism and it is powerful. You never know whose consciousness your words may land upon.

  15. LillyBug Says: April 25, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Camille, what do you do with people like “Michael” who have probably never “tripped” off their couch? Push carts for a living and sleep in Mommy’s basement.

    Hmmm . . . .

    • Again, can you / do you actually read the posts? I certainly don’t sit on my couch from the sidelines. I practice what I preach…always….or how would I have any merit to hold such a discussion? People want to peg me as a lazy critical person because it fits their agenda as they come to your defense. It makes it easier for them to justify their own sitting back and observing the world from afar. I have ventured to every single continent at this point. I write this commentary based on what I have experienced…not just pen on paper.

  16. Beautifully written. After ten years working to save lives, I have come to a realization how foolish it was trying to help when it was never asked. My heart is bleeding.

  17. Hi Camille,

    Thank you for this beautiful text which comes from the heart and which shows a lot of important questions about this country I am in love with too. Living and working in Cambodia I can only see every day what you faced during your trip here.

    However Cambodia is such a hard country to understand. Full of paradoxes. On all aspects. Nothing is black, nothing is white. Everything has to be balanced. Remember where this country started from after the war. From bellow the ground.
    I met Khmer people who made there way all through to become some of the most respected families in the country. We cannot blame them for being rich and not being able to help the entire country. I met Khmer people who are sending their children in the streets to make money because it is easier than taking a real job, even when they have a choice.

    I also would like you to be comforted on facts that lots of expats and tourists are not here for alcohol and sex. But I cannot deny we see a lot of them, especially among the backpacking scene. But I would also like to tell you that prostitution is a state issue, started by Khmer people way before tourism and enhanced with the unfortunate arrival of (way too much) western pigs.

    As per the NGO’s even if lots of them are doing really good, you would be surprised/horrified to discover than some of them can go so beyond the limits to get a name on the international scene, to get a reputation and eventually to get money … for the CEO, not the population.

    Cambodia is every day messing up with my mind. I have reached beyond love/heartbroken phase. I am on the love/hate statement. I can be so impressed and proud by people and so disappointed and angry by others. As individuals we cannot do much about it. But talking is a good start. Thank you for that.

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 28, 2014 at 3:12 am

      Thank you so much for your comment. What a compliment coming from someone who lives in Cambodia. I would love to pick your brain on living in Cambodia, it sounds like you have so much insight to offer. Thank you again for sharing, and yes I hope that the more we talk about it, especially with locals, the greater ability we may have to inspire change.

    • I’m not directing this comment towards you but I chose to respond to your post because my comments are related to what you said in your post. I just want people to understand that most of these disgusting child prostitution rings that cater to the paedophiles, that I seen on YouTube are run by Vietnamese people who live in Cambodia. I’m not going to be ignorant and say that there aren’t Cambodian people doing the same thing, because I’m sure there is but from the videos that I’ve seen uploaded on YouTube about child prostitution in Cambodia so far are Vietnamese runned brothels. The reason I posted this comment is because there are going to be people who see some of these videos, titled ‘Child prostitution in Cambodia’ on YouTube and assume that it’s runned by Cambodian people. Just wanted to clear that up for people.

  18. Saw your post and had to comment. Such stunning pictures, you really brought me back to my own time there, I love Cambodia and I think you have really captured its true, understated beauty.

  19. Hi Camille and everyone in here,
    I just want to write a short note to let you all known that, as a Cambodian, I am so grateful and so touch by your actions. From the bottom of my heart, I’d like to thank you for your sincere efforts to help our people and our country. Your contribution mean a lot to us! Again thank you all and may God and Buddha bless you in return with love and happiness!
    Your sincerely, Sethy

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 1, 2014 at 9:17 pm

      Wow, Sethy, I’m so touched by your comment. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be back in Cambodia. Please let me know any information you have on places I should visit, people I should speak with, and particularly NGOs I can suggest my readers support. May you be blessed with love and happiness as well :)

      • Hi Camille,
        Thank you. Please give me a call when you arrive to Cambodia. I will try to inform and help you with my best ability and honesty regarding our country’s story, history, people, and news that can be relevant to your research and study. I can be reach at 855 (0)89 6868 87. God bless !

  20. Sursdey Camille!

    I am so touched by your post regarding my own country! I feel the same way as you feel. I am paying tax every months to this government yet I couldn’t figure out how my paid will help my country. Healthcare system is still poor yet the rice one has been treated like god!
    Let me tell you! I hate to drive across my hometown health center and glance my eyes on it! My mom had been treated like a beggar when she was unconscious and really in need of emergency help! One nurse told me to pay the entrance fee first before they opened the door for us! As result my lovely and devoted mom died on 23-Nov-2006! I wrote this with tears dropping on my computer’s keyboard! I hate this government and its people as I could not describe. I am hoping I could help my people before I die! I really want to see a fair and better healthcare system in my country! Now I am starting to give back little by little with my own possibility. I hope one day I could meet you and share what I have been thinking so far….
    I am currently working for a private company with acceptable wage to support myself and my family. Thank to my mother that I can escape from starving! She’s my everything. I bet she is resting in heaven now. Her goodness is staying still in my heart…I cried every time I hear her favorite song play on radio :D. Funny right? I am a bit emotional when talking about her.
    That’s all I would like to share you. Please god bless you with all best of luck! Nice to see your post.


    • Camille Willemain Says: May 2, 2014 at 7:29 am

      Kanha thank you so much for your heartfelt message. I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, I can only imagine the loss you must feel. I believe that you absolutely have the power and the ability to change the fate of your country! I plan to return to Phnom Penh in a couple of weeks, what part of the country do you live in?

      • I am living in Phnom Penh right now. I rent a room here. You can contact me if you are coming to Cambodia by +85578441744. You can stay in my room if you may, but no air-con (just so you know :D).

  21. Hi
    I don’t know where to start. Your blog has made me open my eyes to something I was blocking out for many years. I have been so over come with bitterness and anger towards Camobdoia that I forgot about its beauty.
    I worked in a small local hospital for over two years not as front line but as a nurse trainer/staff development. I feel for Kanha above as I saw this corruption too much, even during roll play with the staff they would request invisible money (bribe) before commencing CPR on the Doll. On top of that there was also the fact I was a Woman and volunteer.
    Volunteering in the West is seen as a selfless act however in my Khmai experience it was believed if you worked for free you must not be good enough to deserve a wage And being a money/corruption led ideals country I could not have been further down the food chain.
    Everyday was a struggle, a fight.
    Since I finished my placement I have found it hard to talk about my experience without my temper rising.
    The point is I had forgotten about the good in Cambodia, I had been so focused on the negative I had forgotten the beautiful family I lived with, the friends I had made.
    Camille ‘you stopped a while and helped’ by putting time into a blog that is filled with everything you need to know about Cambodia. I could stand on my high hourse all day and rant away about what a terrible experience I had but yours is the right message.
    And it’s this bolg I will be referencing.

    Michale you say you speak from experience and I respect that. There are alot of blogs out there esp from Volunteer-tourism money making business like Globel vison etc. that could do with well articulated people like yourself putting them in their place.

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 16, 2014 at 4:01 am


      I’m so touched by your response to this post. Yes, Cambodia is a complicated place, a frustrating place, but it’s also a beautiful place. A place with laughter and warm smiles and an energy that I want to be constantly enveloped in. I hope you’re able to find peace after your experience.

      <3 Camille

  22. I absolutely loved this post and could not agree with it more. When I was in Cambodia a few months ago I felt exactly the same way. I was continually blown away by the kindness, cheerfulness and genuine nature of the people who have, so recently, gone through so much trauma. I was actually just talking to my motorbike driver in Vietnam about this and how I have been contibually blown away by how happt and positI’ve people are here (and in Cambodia) considering they’ve went through such hardships in the not so recent past. In contrast I feel that people in the US are always looking to tge glass half empty and finding a reason to be unhappy.

    I read one of the comments above critiquing you for not “stopping to do something” and I’d have to praise you for handeling that well. Although at the time all I’ve done is speak (and blog) about my experiences in the country thats not to say I’ve simply moved on and forgotten so I’m assuming its the same for you.

    I also worry about the development that will invade Cambodia, I worry that the people will lose some of their sincerity and turn bitter to the “white tourist” as thats how I feel some people in thailand have become.

    Sorry for the novel of a comment but I totally can relate to these feelings. Now I’m gonna go peruse the rest of your SE Asia posts :)


  23. I was in Cambodia a year ago and reflecting on it now, I am still as heartbroken as I was. That country has seen more hardship than any should.

    • Camille Willemain Says: June 1, 2014 at 8:30 am

      I agree. Though many people I speak with seem to be hopeful about some of the changes. What was your experience there?

  24. […] I came back to Cambodia, my love the same as before, but saw the darker side of the […]

  25. […] in Southeast Asia showed me that the world is in serious trouble and we need to do much more than switch from regular Clorox to “green” Clorox to turn it […]

  26. Such a well written post! And a lively dialog that brings up many critical issues. At the root of the issue, it is important to remember that developing countries do not need “white knights” to come in and rescue them. All too often, it is western nations that destabilize the country in the first place; cambodia being a perfect example of this. Many of the problems existing in cambodia today are the result of well-meaning western organizations with misguided policies such as unicef and the WHO. I wont get into all of the details on your blog but readers should be very cautious to take michael’s advice. If international, well-financed organizations can’t get it right, I would challenge anyone on a long holiday who believes their efforts could have no ill effect. Most often, these efforts are successful only is alleviating a little western guilt. As for writing being a useless effort, information is power and anyone who belittles the spread of information, does not fully understand the power of language.

  27. Cambodia used to be a famous country but because of some selfish people,Cambodia become a low country and almost no one know about Cambodia.The new generation of Cambodia try so hard to raise this country up but seem so hard.Nowadays the next generation of Cambodia are hope for Cambodia to be loved by the other countries.Cambodian people never want to start war but some near country try to make the war just to get Cambodia’s inheritances like Preah Vihea Temple.Cambodian people are very nice so hope the all of you will think of Cambodian in positive and love Cambodia.Cambodian people are welcome for your trip to Cambodia.

    Thanks you for understanding.

  28. I use the opening quote from Joel Brinkley’s book often when discussing my love for Cambodia…and often I make reference to the ying and the yang, the light and the dark. Your post struck a chord, making me weep as I frequently do when thinking about Cambodia. Thanks for the post!

    • Camille Willemain Says: October 8, 2014 at 12:05 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing :) Cambodia is a deeply moving place that I still think about often, I’m honored that you connected with this piece.

  29. Forrest McGuire Says: November 14, 2014 at 5:24 am

    I’m currently in Sihanoukville sitting in my apartment and reading your story. I couldn’t agree more with the stories you portray from the locals and the struggles they face daily, yet they are still so happy.
    I’m a scuba diver working on my divemaster certification and on my first dive on Koh Rong Sanloem fisherman above us were throwing dynamite off of their boats to kill the fish and net them. But inadvertently they are destroying the entire reef system that’s been growing there for hundreds of years. The army is supposed to stop them but instead take bribes and allow them to fish and hunt in this destructive way. And on my way to work I get stopped by cops every other day on my motorbike for no reason other than to bribe them a few dollars.

    This country has a lot to catch up on since being held back by the genocide, but the daily western expoloitation and government corruption is going to hinder their progress significantly.

    Glad to read of another American who has gotten to mend relationships with locals and break through the tourist wall.

    • Camille Willemain Says: November 14, 2014 at 2:35 pm

      Wow that is just awful, I didn’t realize dynamite fishing was still going on. It’s so sad to see what’s going on over there :( I hope for everyone that a change happens soon.

  30. Camille, I just wanted to say I love your blog and this post was great. Some of the comments above… well, you handled them well. I think what you do on here is great, so well written and full of heart. Not everyone is an activist or out to save the world. Most people don’t even leave the place they live, content with their limited knowledge. Just by traveling and observing you are educating yourself beyond most. I’m glad you are sharing it in such a beautiful way on here. :)

  31. Hi Camille,

    I just want to express my sincere appreciation to you for sharing such a beautiful yet emotional reflection of the reality of my country. As Cambodians, we take pride in our glorious history. Seeing Angkor Wat stands tall got me thinking of the stark contrast of the proud past and the current uncertain future of my country. Your writing sure spread awareness and it surely contribute to the work we all are doing to help rebuild this country.

    Thank you once again!

    • Camille Willemain Says: December 11, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      Wow, thank you so much for your comment. Cambodia is the country that has touched my heart the deepest of anywhere in the world and I hope to go back and learn even more from the incredible people there and share their story. Thank you for taking the time to read <3

    • well said poun pross. orr kun nass.

  32. […] most people. The ones that I wrote in between sobbing sessions after being heartbroken in Bali or confronted by poverty in Cambodia or deceived in Costa Rica. And they don’t come without consequence. They’re often the posts […]

  33. The entirety of human history consists of famines, dictators, and total war genocide.

    The Khmer Rouge was comparitively Sesame Street.

    Consider all the people who ever died anywhere as merely receiving the Coup de Grace.

  34. ^ Comparitively Sesame Street to say, the good ol’ Bronze-Age “Kill all first born males”, or “Kill all inhabitants of the city”.

    Seems like good progress that our atrocities are getting less and less gruesome, but being a professional statistical analysist tells me a market correction is in order, and we’ll go back soon to witnessesing the days of Moses.

  35. Interesting article – I love how you have incorporated it with pictures. I have spent a lot of time in Cambodia volunteering at an NGO over the years. My husband in fact is Cambodian – he escaped the Khmer rouge as a young child and we both go back regularly to see family etc.

    Cambodia is a heartbreaking place. That $40 entry to talk of to get into the temples – it goes straight into the Vietnamese pockets. They have leased the temples for 100 years from the Cambodians. The shooting ranges – they are in fact illegal and many of the guns are thought to have been used in the Khmer rouge. I have been into one as a naive traveller the first time I visited Cambodia – thankfully I chose not to partake because something felt very strange. At the time i was offered a gun menu and one of the options was to let off a rocket launcher at a cow…

    One of the most frustrating and heartbreaking things I find about Cambodia is the general lack of seeing the bigger picture. I think this is due to what these poor people have been through and the lack of education. For example, I helped set up a lady with a stall to provide her with an income to sustain herself. By the following week she had sold everything for $200 – less than what it was worth – and was back in the same situation, no income, no food for her children having blown the money. Had she chosen not to have done that she would have made $200 easily and more. Although this is not true of all Khmers – it is a common occurrence.

    As for the lady in your story retelling the Khmer Rouge stories – many Khmers still do not do that – frightened as to who might be listening. My own Khmer in-laws discuss the Khmer Rouge all the time but the minute we hit Cambodian soil they will never talk of anything – terrified that they will be taken away. This terror still lives on with the Cambodian people – it is hidden behind their smiles.

    • Camille Willemain Says: February 22, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing your stories and experiences. It’s devastating the level of corruption that still goes on, but ultimately it will continue until the people decide that they’re ready to move beyond their fear. It is inspiring, however, to see some really amazing things that some organizations are doing including Phare and Banteay Srey. Are you familiar with these organizations?

      • sorry to hear about your regretting visiting my homeland hope one day our country will learn from the bad experience and get better services.

    • are you sure you’re Cambodia? I am cambodia its surprised me to hear this word from my own people “Cambodia is a heartbreaking place” if so I am sorry for you and your husby.

  36. I’ve been working in Cambodia for an NGO since 2007. There’s plenty you can do if you get a bit enmeshed in the culture.

    Your recce visit was the right way to begin. If I’d jumped straight into orphanage work the week I arrived I would have ended up supporting crooks, as nearly all orphanages are fake.

    I write up English language documentation for Cambodian (not foreign) NGOs, raising money for them. (Few Cambodians have great English.) But my real joy comes from spending some of my time (& salary) on various god-children I’ve picked up along the way: some in remote villages, some in Phnom Penh. Someone who shows up with a bicycle or some school books every year or two doesn’t replace a father – but it’s a long way better than nothing.

    Being human, Cambodians have an innate sense that a society is meant to function much better than theirs does; and that governments are not meant to be mere kleptocracies. Knowing someone from such a place is a real treat for them.

  37. Hi Camille,

    I just read your Cambodian piece tonight, after having been to Siem Reap a few weeks ago. It’s a great piece, bringing up so many questions. I wen without knowing much about the country, and my experience was the same in terms of the warmth of the people, and having my heart expand with compassion for all they’ve been through and are going through. A friend back home in the states & I helped a young Cambodian man to be able to buy a tuktuk & start his own business, and it’s a heartwarming story, but I had questions about whether it was the right thing to do, to interfere like that. You can read the post if you’d like ( – it’s the post about Mr. Yen). It’s too late to do anything differently now in this case, but I’m curious with your in-depth research on the country if you think we did the right thing…

    • Camille Willemain Says: April 19, 2015 at 4:08 am

      Hi Lynn, thanks so much. I read your story about why you left to travel, and it’s beautiful and inspiring. As far as whether you made the right choice with the tuk tuk, it’s hard to say. It sounds like your intentions and the intentions of your friend were pure of heart, and I believe that intentions alone mean a great deal. He sounds like a very sweet man and extremely hardworking, like many Cambodians. The basic ideas I have on how to empower people were pretty much shattered in Cambodia, because the laws of manifestation and others don’t actually seem to apply. The more I delve into understanding the more confused I become. My advice is to bless the decision you made, and trust that the universe always takes care of things in the way that it is meant to.

  38. […] then, I’ve backpacked on my own through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Morocco, become a certified […]

  39. […] – Camille | This American Girl […]

  40. great story interesting, in behalf of Cambodia people I would like to say so sorry to hear your bad experience in our country we hope one day we can serve you better then what you have been regret.

    • robinson. buckler@…… restored my relationship, my boyfriend came back to me, i took him back and I am now settled with my him ..

  41. You said it all about Cambodia. You’re absolutely right about the current government on how little sympathy they have towards their own people. I wish the international community would take more notice and put more pressure on the government to comply with or stop doing business in the country all together. This is one of the best post I came across on Google thus far. Thanks for sharing.