In early 1960, a seven-year-old girl with a bowl-shaped haircut sank into her grandmother’s overstuffed chair. Following ritual, she grabbed a National Geographic Magazine, drawing her bobby socked feet up under the skirt of her Catholic school uniform. Before the girl opened the first page, her grandma placed an afghan across her lap. She was now ready for transport to exotic lands and alluring cultures. The wing chairs and floral wallpaper disappeared as she saw herself entering Angkor Wat, in a far-away place named Cambodia.




I am that child. Flash forward to 2018. Filled with excitement to be seeing the deserted city for the first time, I arrived armed with childhood memories. When I was young, I thought the Khmer Empire complex might be as large as my three-storied elementary school. Later, I reassessed. Maybe it would be huge, like my high school. Nothing prepared me for the actual size–ninety-six square miles of many temples, royal cities, villages, and hydraulically engineered moats that grew two or three crops of rice per year to feed the large population.

As my feet traversed the path traveled by an ancient, mighty culture, I reflected on images in my mind and felt unprepared for the complexity of the portraits and buildings carved from stone. Monkeys played in the brush or sat on motorcycles parked at the entrance.IMG_9610 I closed my eyes and took a moment to transport back in time, imagining the sounds of monks chanting, horns blowing, drums banging and dancers performing rituals.

Angkor Wat is a UNESCO treasure, but not the only jewel discovered in the jungle by French archeologists in 1914. There are over seventy archeological monuments representing different Kings from the 10th-13th centuries. Looking into the woods, I saw remains awaiting excavation.




We visited Banteay Srei, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Each fortress, city, or monastery is distinct from the other.



Libraries for advanced learning




 Banteay Srei (citadel of women), established in 967, wasn’t built by a Khmer king but by Yajnavaraha, a scholar and philanthropist who helped those who suffered from illness, injustice, or poverty. If I could time travel, we might have been friends. The name of this temple relates to numerous, beautiful red stone carvings.





Some of the effigies are of dancing women. Many carved panels tell moral stories or ancient battles. Treasures have been stolen over the years. Phallic stones are missing.




A fellow tourist told me that when he first came here, it wasn’t safe to wander around the site as many land mines remained from the Pol Pot years of terror (1975-1979). Our guide told us that over 2,000 mines were removed. Approaching the temple on foot, I watched a young monk dressed in orange sitting under a tree. He was checking his cell phone for messages. IMG_9477This would have been very different from the life of a monk from long ago living in bare simplicity. His brother from long ago would have endured similar teachings but the need to interact with modern technology seems a long way from balanced karma.

Angkor Wat

When I was younger, I didn’t know that the word wat meant a Buddhist temple or vata from Sanskrit meaning ‘enclosure’. The full name means temple city and is built in a pyramid form to represent the sacred mountain, Meru. The five towers represent the peaks. It’s a visual reminder of the spiritual universe built by King Juryavarman 11 from 1113-1150, and is set inside a 570’ moat on about 500 acres.




There’s so much acreage but even sunrise is filled with hordes of people. These places would have been busy centuries ago as well, but with merchants selling wares and pilgrims carrying expensive gifts for the King or priests. Redemption carries a big price, then and now.

Getting into the complex structure is a challenge. The original steps are very narrow and steep, requiring the climbers to bend forward in submission and humility. Today, equally steep wood stairs at least offer a handhold for the faint of heart.




The temple is a series of rectangular sections with dark corridors leading to bright sunlit courtyards. Light and dark. Ying and Yang. Balance.

The carvings in the long hallways depict battle stories, similar to Helen of Troy, but Cambodian style. Another hall shows 37 heavens and 32 hells with terrible punishment for sinners. There are depictions carved in stone of long ago battles. Rounding another corner, I was impressed with a creation story.




There are small, very dark temples to Buddha spread throughout the sanctuary and it’s believed that Angkor may have been dedicated for the King’s funeral. I didn’t have my usual peaceful feeling, but rather felt fear and decay.




Leaving the darkness, I walked to the outer wall, admiring life-sized voluptuous dancers, cut from unyielding stone with diaphanous movement shown in wispy clothing. Some of the dancer’s breasts were destroyed, shot off by Pol Pot soldiers who occupied the site in the 1970’s.Those men had no regard for their ancient heritage or respect for women.

Angkor Thom




 Angkor Thom means great city, of the late 12th century by the magnanimous King Jayavarman V11. To enter, one must cross a causeway over a moat bordered by 54 stone figures. Demons are on the right and guardians on the left in reverse ideology.




Being left-handed, I appreciate the opposite thought. The city gate remains, and is large enough for elephants to pass through, but a tight squeeze for modern tour buses.

What I enjoyed about this place and this particular king was his love for common people. The carvings on the outer walls are dedicated to his subjects and show everyday life. There are people cooking, selling things and dancers. There are carvings dedicated to a midwife and women in labor that I especially appreciate because I was an L+D nurse. There are images of soldiers marching with spears, others are packed into boats, and one section shows the enemy being eaten by alligators.




Inside the sanctuary are pyramid-shaped buildings connected by narrow walkways. Certainly there are many more people visiting today than would have been allowed in the ancient past.




It’s hard to get photos without many multi-cultural faces jostling into you. Regardless, the immense faces carved in stone are majestic.




Is this a guardian of the past or an image of the king who commissioned this city?

Ta Prohm


Ta Prohm means monastery of the King and was constructed in the late 12th century to early 13th by the very same civic-minded Jayavarman V11 who built Angkor Thom. This was a Buddhist monastery and university built in a flat style rather than the earlier pyramid shape. Once upon a time, 18 high priests, 615 dancers and plenty of wealth flowed into this center and the surrounding village of 80,000 people. It would have been a bustling place for prayer, training, and study.




Archeologists decided this complex should retain the feeling of emergence from the jungle.This is the temple used in the Tomb Raider movies for the sense of discovery and adventure. Trees grow over sections of ancient walls. Stones have fallen down and are toppled about, looking like dice thrown by giants.




Everywhere there is a sense of being the first person to set eyes upon a place of great mystery. Being the most visited archeological site in Cambodia, I suggest going either early or late in the day when it may be possible to get a few photos without crowds.

We sat across the moat, looking at Angkor Wat while we ate (and enjoyed) jerky strips of water buffalo, frog legs, and snake meat washed down with local beer. Being open to immersion in another culture awakens the senses—touch, hearing, smell, taste and sight. The little girl who dreamed of travel and the adult I became united in a heartfelt moment at the golden hour. The sun slipped below the horizon and I realized that I must go back. Cambodia is a land of great history, amazing archeological sites and beautiful people.

Mekong, Monks, and Market

What is the common thread of the Mekong River, monks and markets? Nourishment, the passionate joy of discovery, a shifting of the inner self to allow meditative balance.

The Mother of all rivers is the 2,700 mile long Mekong which begins in China, flows through the Tibetan Plateau and onwards to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the China Sea (*note– SE Asia isn’t happy this sea is named for China!)

The river supports many diverse groups of people. Britannica states that 80% of protein (fish) is harvested from the Mekong River in Cambodia and 1/2 of all crops are irrigated with her waters in Viet Nam. Small hydroelectric dams have been in place since the 1950’s, but current large projects are highly controversial. I cannot imagine flooding of the Buddha cave and other ancient sites and this is only one component of the debate.

Early every morning, orange robed monks walk single file and barefoot down the streets seeking alms of rice. This ancient Buddhist tradition offers residents a way to attain good karma and peace as the sun rises. Monks are a visual reminder to be faithful, to walk with intention, to be mindful of all actions and words. Religion nourishes us from the inside out.

Daily markets are a microcosm of life worldwide. A young mother rests on a bench, feeding her baby before gathering the day’s sustenance for the rest of her family. Women from the countryside harvest fruit, vegetables, and even addictive Betel Nuts. People develop friendships with locales as well as strangers, and these interactions feed their souls.

Some venders cook meals, including grilled rat which is a local delicacy in Asia. (*It tastes like grilled pork)

Other booths carry flowers for spiritual and religious uses. Birds are captured and sold, some to release for good karma and others to grace our dinner table.

One of my favorite markets is the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos. It is certainly set up for tourists, but the items are varied and negotiations brisk. Hand-turned exotic wood bowls, handmade paper made into lanterns, beautiful paper greeting cards with intricate pop-ups (*note to buy in quantity, but keep in mind they are $1US a piece in Vietnam), fabric and embroidered goods.

Please refrain from buying the jewelry made from bomb casings. Do not encourage public collection of these dangerous materials unless they are from a certified and safe removal organization. IMG_0563

Phoenix Rising From The Flames

On my SE Asia trip, I confess to being hesitant to visit places like Pol Pot’s killing fieldsIMG_0652 and the CuChi tunnel outside of Ho Chi Minh city. The “American War” (Vietnamese name) brought up memories of friends killed and protests at home. I didn’t want to revisit anger over my government’s lies. My peers, those with a bright and promising future, signed up because they believed in the honor of that war. How do you justify top brass without the cahones to admit they were wrong? Those men who delivered our young to the slaughter house instead of doing the right thing? Frankly, it’s happening again in Afghanistan. History repeats itself, and we’d be wise to revisit these places of horror.



I felt helpless facing so many ghosts and told our guide, KC, that I didn’t think I could handle the encounter. He encouraged me. “Dawn. You need to come. I’ll make sure you don’t have to see anything that’s too difficult. Please come.”  KC kept an eye on me throughout, and now I must admit that he was right.


This old school became the high security prison and torture center for the Khmer Rouge from April 17,1975-January 7, 1979

Chum Mey is one of only seven adult and five children survivors of the Tuol Sleng high security Prison and torture center during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Mr. Mey doesn’t know why he lived, other than he knew how to fix machines and his captors needed him. He was arrested on Oct 28,1978 and was tortured in ways that I will not speak out loud for fear of evil revisiting the world again. Mr Mey’s entire family was murdered, even his 2 month-old son.



In January, 1979, Vietnamese liberators followed the stench of decaying flesh to free the Cambodian people after half of the population was forced to dig their own graves and were then bludgeoned to death in 388 killing fields.


It was an honor to hear Chum Mey speak, not only about survival but also about forgiveness for his jailers who he felt would have also been killed if they didn’t follow orders. His testimony at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal resulted in the lifetime imprisonment of Duch, the man most responsible for genocide at Tuol Sleng.

CuChi Tunnels




It was a privilege to visit with Mr. Nam, a Viet Cong soldier who lived and fought every day in the tunnels for over fourteen years. He stood before an illuminated map showing military control zones and I held my breath, not certain of what he might say to the Americans sitting before him.



His first sentence was, “I never wanted to be a soldier. I never wanted to kill anyone.” He proceeded to tell us that his village was destroyed by US bombs and that he had to move underground. He met his wife, a nurse who took care of him when he lost his arm, and his children were born in the tunnels. He feels that he was protecting his family as US forces continued to bomb and tried to destroy where they lived. At the end of his talk, he said, “There are no winners here.” I asked him what made him the happiest and what was the saddest from that time. His answer was, “There wasn’t happiness and it made me so sad to see my friends killed.” The most heartwarming moment was when our veterans joined Mr. Nam in a moment of forgiveness.

How to Survive Peace?


sculptures made out of unexploded bombs at the Vientiane, Laos Rehabilitation Center of COPE

Since 1996, COPE has worked in Laos with disabilities caused by UXO (unexploded ordnance or cluster bombs) as well as clubfoot deformities. 260 million tons of payload were secretly dropped over Northern Laos during the Vietnam war from 1964-1973. The airplanes couldn’t land with live bombs on board and the government in Laos asked for US help in trying to control pockets of communism along the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran the long border between Laos and Vietnam. The American public never knew.



Thirty percent of those bombs did not explode and remain today, waiting for one little mistake. There are still 300 accidental detonations resulting in 46 deaths each year. The war ended over 43 years ago. Because cluster bombs destroy a large area, the increase of collateral civillian damage is huge. The live ammunication can be dormant over many generations. There are hundreds of little bomblets in just a single casing.  In 2008, the United States refused to sign a ban  and we continue to use clusters in Afghanastan. (On a side note: In Afghanistan, the bomblets were painted yellow and so were the relief food packages dropped for civilians. Children thought the yellow balls were something to play with.)

Bombs and mines have hurt everyone in Laos. Our guide’s father built a fire near his field to keep warm. The heat was just enough to explode the hidden casing buried below him. There are instances of children finding cluster bombs the size of softballs and in innocence don’t know they are deadly. One toss. A child’s life taken.



These survivors picked up my broken heart and rebuilt it through their stories of heroism, grit, and courage. Their message was clear: Never forgot those who died at the hands of evil. Be vigilant that this never happens again. Forgive those who were manipulated, terrorized or lied to. We are all the same–we want peace and a chance for good health and prosperity for our families.

When do we stand united and simply say “No” to war and conversely, when there is a great evil like Pol Pot and Hitler, when does the globe unite to make sure genocide of an entire race doesn’t happen again? Are we paying attention in Syria and Mynamar?


Match Game in Southeast Asia

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have more in common than differences. All were part of the ancient Khmer dynasty, the rulers of Angkor Wat fame through the 1400’s. The rulers intermarried with Chinese. Today, each country is financially bound to modern China with an influx of foreign money for infrastructure and expansion projects in large cities while little changes in the countryside.


Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam suffered long periods of war (genocide),

leaving the people beaten down and wanting peace at all costs. Unexploded bombs and mines continue to maim and kill. IMG_0564Each country teeters on a political sword with either military dictatorships or communists who effectively crush any emerging opposition. No one has freedom of speech. Voices suggesting change often disappear.IMG_0729

This isn’t your grandma’s form of communism or socialism. Marx is rolling over in his grave with Vietnam, inparticular. What kind of hybrid animal is this? Although the law decrees compulsory primary education, the lack of funding for books and supplies blocks the poor from attending. There are no services to support the elderly or infirm. With distinct social groups, the growing middle class understands greased palm economics.

All of these developing countries have a high population under the age of thirty. In Cambodia, Pol Pot murdered half of the population (1975-1979) and current demographics show 50 percent under the age of twenty-two. None of these kids have experienced the carnage of the past. The new battle cry is “access to better teachers and a quality education.”

Ironically, Vietnam provides a cheap labor force to Thailand and there’s no silly talk about erecting a wall. This young man works “per piece” making more money producing these edible shells than working as a skilled mechanic. Get this–he spoke to me in English! IMG_8817

The future of Southeast Asia is not a match game for the faint of heart. The new generation likes technology, gadgets and material status. Capitalism resonates with their beating hearts. What will happen when the aged military dictators, Khmer Rouge generals, and Vietcong fighters pass away? Won’t be long. Stay tuned.