Taking a Break from April 13-18, 2018

April 12, 2018

Taking a break from blogging

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Image result for The Cambodian countryside


I am taking a break from April 13-18. I shall be away from Phnom Penh to see the beautiful countryside and meet the folks who are the backbone of the Cambodian economy.

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I wish my Cambodian readers, friends and associates  a Happy and Peaceful Chhol Chhenam Khmer which falls on April 14, 2018.  –Din Merican

ASEAN at 50: Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia

April 18, 2017

ASEAN at 50: Challenges and Opportunities for Cambodia

by Kimkong Heng


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In August 2017, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be 50 years old. ASEAN was established on August 8, 1967 in Bangkok by the five founding member countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. The major aims for the birth of ASEAN were to encourage economic cooperation, promote regional peace and stability, and create platforms for mutual assistance and collaboration in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and administrative areas. The concepts of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs, and the peaceful settlement of interstate disputes are, among others, the fundamental principles to which ASEAN tries to adhere.

Throughout these 50 years, ASEAN has both faced challenges and at the same time enjoyed prosperity as it weathered many storms in its own region, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and the global arena. Cambodia, which will celebrate her eighteen years in ASEAN late this April, has had to confront the challenges and seize the available opportunities this regional group has had to offer. To informally commemorate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN and to toast Cambodia’s 18th birthday in ASEAN, this article will examine the potential challenges and opportunities Cambodia, a small state and the youngest ASEAN member, has experienced and will likely experience in the immediate and distant future.

Fifteen years ago, a Cambodian scholar predicted that Cambodia would face three categories of challenges while it was trying to secure its place in the regional association. In the short-term, during its preparation for ASEAN membership, Cambodia would face many obstacles including its lack of human and financial resources, poor legal framework, and weak institutional organization. In the medium- to long-term, Cambodia would have to address economic, diplomatic, and financial challenges, as well as tackle challenges related to national prestige, borders, sovereignty, legal and institutional framework reform, and lack of strategic thinking.

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Cambodia at Sunrise–Calm, Serene and Captivating

Over a decade later, many ASEAN observers and commentators also saw challenges which lay ahead for Cambodia as she prepared to join the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Sowath Rana and Alexandre Ardichvili, for example, listed six main human resource development (HRD) challenges Cambodia would face as it joined the AEC in 2015, including the education and employment mismatch, higher education challenges, technical and vocational education and training challenges, HRD challenges in the private sector, limited awareness and engagement in ASEAN and AEC processes, and technology infrastructure challenges.

Amongst all the challenges, however, this article argues that the strategic challenge — mediating ASEAN and China over the South China Sea issue — is Cambodia’s greatest challenge at present. Cambodia has been criticised twice for her decision to ally herself with China and block ASEAN from issuing joint communiqués which criticize China for her assertiveness and expansionist policy in the South China Sea. With the South China Sea dispute still on the horizon, Cambodia is likely to face this strategic challenge again because this small state cannot afford to lose China for ASEAN or vice versa.

Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners.

Although Cambodia is not one of the claimant states involved in the South China Sea conflict, her membership in ASEAN puts her in a difficult position to help settle the disagreement between her ASEAN counterparts and her closet ally, China. Thus, it is a big challenge for Cambodia to strike a good balance in her endeavors to help mediate between the conflicting parties. As China is described and seen as Cambodia’s most trustworthy friend and largest provider of aid, loans, and grants, the possibility of seeing Cambodia jump on China’s bandwagon could not be higher.

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GDP Real Growth in Excess of 7.5 per cent p.a over the last 2 decades

Furthermore, to expect Cambodia to act against her own national interests in order to preserve ASEAN’s centrality is highly unlikely to happen, even though ASEAN remains the cornerstone of Cambodia’s foreign policy. In this regard, the next chapter of Cambodia’s foreign policy will definitely play out in favor of China despite peer pressure from the ASEAN states.

Opportunities for Cambodia

Despite these many challenges, there are enormous opportunities for Cambodia as an ASEAN member. From economic to social advantages, and from diplomatic to strategic benefits, Cambodia has enjoyed and will continue to enjoy tremendous opportunities as the country strives to keep up with its more developed ASEAN friends and exert its influence on the region.

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Angkor Wat in Siem Reap–Steadfast, Dependable and True Symbol of an Emerging Cambodia

Economically, Cambodia has greatly benefited from ASEAN as it joined the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2004. It has also attracted foreign direct investment from ASEAN member states, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. While Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to strengthen cooperation in bilateral trade and investment, the two-way trade volume between Vietnam and Cambodia, according to Khmer Times, reached USD 3.37 billion in 2015 and USD 2.38 billion in 2016. These figures, however, were below the 2015 target of USD 5 billion both countries have pledged.

In terms of social prospects, Cambodia’s ASEAN membership has helped to increase opportunities for Cambodians through the mobility scheme for skilled labor, improved access to cheaper and a wider range of imported goods and services, and improved education and health services in the Kingdom. More importantly, by joining the ASEAN and later the AEC, people-to-people connectivity between Cambodia and the other ASEAN members has increased.

As for the diplomatic gains, Cambodia has taken advantage of her ASEAN membership to salvage her once non-existent relations with ASEAN member states and ASEAN Dialogue Partners, particularly Australia, China, Japan, and the United States. Until more recently, Cambodia’s foreign policy has significantly been strengthened and Cambodia has put in a great deal of effort to upgrade its diplomatic relations with its nearest neighbors, ASEAN members, and regional and global powers.

Noticeably, Cambodia-Russia bilateral relations have recently been restored and strengthened, with exchanges of high-level visits and greater mutual support and cooperation between the two countries. Likewise, Cambodia-China bilateral relations have reached a new historic high, with Xi Jinping’s first presidential visit to Cambodia last year, immediately following Cambodia’s refusal to partake in an ASEAN joint communiqué critical of China’s claims and policies in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.

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Phnom Penh –The Pulse of The Kingdom of Cambodia

Strategically, Cambodia’s geopolitical location and ASEAN status, together with current political developments in the region, have granted this small state a special privilege to assert its influence and exercise its power in the regional group and the wider Asia-Pacific region. If Cambodia were not an ASEAN member, she would have found it hard to capture Chinese attention and enjoy China’s financial aid — with its controversial no-strings-attached policy — arising from Cambodia’s intervention in the territorial dispute over the South China Sea.

Thus, in spite of the great challenges, Cambodia seems to be able to grasp considerable opportunities along its zigzag ASEAN path. In this respect, it might not be wise to weigh the challenges against the opportunities for Cambodia because it has been a mixed blessing for the country. It would be best, nevertheless, for Cambodia to continue to engage with countries in the region and regional initiatives like the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN, or else it will run the risk of becoming too dependent on China.

Kimkong Heng is an Assistant Dean, School of Graduate Studies and a doctoral candidate in International Relations, Techo Sen School of Government and International Relations, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

April 1, 2016

Religious Practices and Political Life in Cambodia Today

by Sok Keang


Cambodia  is a Southeast Asian country that borders Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Her official name is “Kingdom of Cambodia”. The name of the country was changed very often in the last three decades depending on the changes of the forms of government. Cambodia was a monarchy from ancient times until 1970, when she became a republic . It was only in 1993 that Cambodia could reestablish the Kingdom again by following the constitutional parliamentary system. Along with this, Cambodia is also known as a Buddhist country . In the 1960’s about 95% of the total population are Buddhists. The facts show that the Cambodian political culture has its roots in the combination of Buddhist culture, monarchism, and republicanism.

Regarding the topic of the Conference, which focuses on the relation between religions and cultures in Southeast Asia, I would like to share in this conference the relation between Theravada Buddhism  and the political culture of Cambodia by examining how the people behave, believe, expect, and value the political system and political issues. Furthermore, I will also examine how the process of transformation from the authoritarian to the liberal-democratic regime influences the Cambodian political integration in 1993.

Religious Practices in Cambodia

According to the 1993 Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “Buddhism shall be the State Religion” (see article 43). Due to this article, most people identify themselves with the saying: “To be a Khmer  is to be a Buddhist”. However, in practice they believe not only in Buddhism, but also in Brahmanism (Vedas)  and Animism (Nakta)  under the name of Theravada Buddhism. This is a traditional heritage from the 13th century A.D.  when Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion in Cambodia. Some people have the image of Buddha as Preah Indra (God). They expect to receive happiness, peace, prosperity, and power from Him. A contrary view of this version is the belief that Buddha is a Great Master (philosopher) and Buddhism is a philosophy of life. Therefore, Buddhism in Cambodia could appear in the forms of “Philosophy”, “Religion”, and “Native Belief” (animism).

As a philosophy, Buddhism plays a secular role in order to lead all humankind to live in equality, justice, peace, and freedom. According to the Buddhist tradition, the pagoda was not only the sacred place but also a school of education. In the past, most Cambodian people got their education in the Buddhist temples. The more you were educated, the more you became a Buddhist. Without knowledge, one might stay away from Buddhism.

As a religion, Buddhism plays the role of Brahmanism instead of the Buddhist philosophy. Here, people believe in the superpower of Buddha as a Creator. Even though they know that the theory of Karma and Rebirth take the role of God and the individual should try to liberate himself by following the ethics of Buddha, still they pray for help from Heaven. It is really different from what Buddha taught. Anyway, this is just the way of practicing Buddhism in Cambodia.

Concerning the belief in Nakta, people see the role of Nakta as an ancestral local spiritual governor (administrator) who has power to judge for social justice, to bring peace, security, prosperity, health, and happiness to society as well as to the succeeding generations in a specific or limited territory.

As you see here, the Buddhist monks serve the society at both secular (moral conduct)  and spiritual (religious practice)  levels. However, Christianity and Islam were considered as foreign religions. Therefore, it was rather difficult for the Cambodian people to appreciate the Christian and Muslim philosophy. Nevertheless, the young people of Cambodia today are very much open to ideologies of the non-Buddhist background, especially Christian philosophy. This fact shows that the practice of Buddhism in Cambodia is going to decrease compared to Christianity and Islam. So, what is the relation between Buddhism and the political culture?

Relation between Buddhism and Political Culture in Cambodia

According to the present political perspective, the root of the Cambodian political culture today is based on the combination of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism . It is a result of observing the long process of making peace and integrating the nation in Cambodia during the civil wars for almost three decades (1970-97). This fact shows that when the government denies any one of these three political elements of Buddhism, monarchism, and republicanism (aristocracy or democracy), the country would face a civil war and collapse. For example, the Pol Pot regime (1975-79) collapsed because it denied the role and value of the King, the elite people, and all kinds of religious practices, especially Buddhism.

However, in reality there is a group of people who support monarchism because they believe in the power of Heaven to choose the leader instead of believing in their role, duty, and freedom to choose a leader and participate in politics. As a result they became instruments of politics. This group might fight against other groups such as the aristocrats (elites) and the democrats (majority) wherein people actively participate freely and equally in the world of politics. This is a very important part in the study of the current Cambodian political culture.

On the other side, the Khmer language  also causes in part the political problem. The Cambodian people believe that “the death of the language is the death of the culture and the nation.” The Khmer language  determines the moral conduct, the social order, and the way of thinking of the people. So, protecting the language is very important to them. For example, in 1943 the French18  tried to change the Khmer alphabet to the Roman alphabet, but this was defeated because the Cambodian people, especially the Buddhist monks, objected.

However, there is no longer a need to limit oneself to the Khmer language in view of the process of globalization and the free market economy. These new ideologies have influenced the young generation to open up, by saying: “If you know how to speak English, then you will survive wherever you are”.

We can also discuss the problems facing most of Cambodian society today, such as the issues on property, the relation between freedom and equality, and the conflict between democracy and communism.

The issue of property. According to the Buddhist teachings, the worth of a person is not based on one’s economic background or social class. No matter how rich one is or how smart he or she is, if one does not know how to behave oneself in society, then he or she is nothing to the people  even if he or she is a powerful politician. Actually, the people expect to have a good leader who is smart and rich but not corrupt. The people believe that the rich uncorrupted person must either be reborn as rich or s/he was rich in moral values from his/her past moral life; so that if s/he is born poor, s/he can obtain wealth in the present life. And this type of person, which is characterized as morally good, should serve as the leader.

In relation to the land conflict, the significance of Buddhist philosophy appears in Cambodian society through the question: “Does the Earth belong to the person or does the person belong to the Earth?” Some are inclined even to ask the question: “Can a man take all his property with him when he dies?”

Freedom and equality. Most people wish to have freedom and equality in their own society, especially in a democratic country. But somehow they cannot have both equality and freedom because either “one is free but unequal” or “equal but unfree”. According to the Buddhist teaching, social equality is important . For those who believe in Buddhism as a philosophy, he would agree with the theory of social equality. This type of person wishes to live in a society without discrimination, without the caste system. The Buddhists might support socialism, communism, liberalism, or democracy. For example, in true communism the people can be equal in material services and benefits, but unfree in the sense of being controlled by an authoritarian leadership. On the other hand, in true democracy the people are free in their choices but cannot be equal in material possessions and benefits.

But for those who believe in Buddhism as a religion, they would follow Brahmanism in the Buddhist sense. This type of people believe in the saying: men are unequal by birth or they believe in the caste system. They support monarchism which can be constitutional or absolute. The monarchy expects a society with a hierarchy: the king is the head and the people are the subjects. This means that the people are unequal in view of the hierarchical structure and at the same time unfree in the sense that they are subjects. However, the Cambodian Buddhists as subjects can be free in the sense of being not alienated from the monarchy if they acknowledge and accept the fact they are subjects within the structure of the hierarchy. Presently, Cambodia practices constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy. The Cambodians believe that without social structure or hierarchy, man would live in anarchism. In Cambodian society, the people expect to have freedom and equality with respect to social structure, position, and duty. One would have freedom if he or she can maintain the balance between title, role, duty, and responsibility.

Democracy versus Communism. Some political leaders believe that Buddhism is the root of democracy while others consider Buddhism as the root of communism. They explain that when democracy reaches the level of the absolute majority (the common will or 100%), democracy will be transformed into communism because democracy could exist only when there are differences between the majority and the minority. Ideally, democracy and communism are almost the same in the sense that they have similar aspirations in terms of equality, freedom, social justice, brotherhood, and the like. They differ only substantially in terms of property ownership and political leadership. The Cambodian Buddhist believes in a political culture that accepts both private and public property. We expect to have private property with regard to basic needs. But we expect to have public property with regard to the national ideology.


Since the role of Buddhism in Cambodia appears in the forms of philosophy, religion, and animism, the value of the political culture is also different. The majority are the group that believes in Buddhism as a religion and the minority are the group that considers Buddhism as a philosophy. The Middle Path of Buddhism guides both politicians and the people: the politicians, to be moderate in their political life, and the people, to participate in politics through correct balance or the Middle Path. This is the philosophy of the “Head-Wing,” which accepts both sides: the left and the right with the center or the Middle Path as dominant.

We might get confused in theory when we analyze the political system and political issues of the Kingdom of Cambodia. According to the classical theory, democracy was against monarchy and in modern times the republic is also considered the antithesis of the monarchy. In the case of Cambodia, however, there is a constitutional (parliamentary) monarchy whereby democracy exists “under the roof” of the monarchy. The only way to solve the political conflict in Cambodia is to integrate all aspects of society so they become one unitary formation.

Philosophy Department
Royal University of Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Cambodia: the Path to Something Profound

May 17, 2015

In Cambodia, Along the Path to Something Profound


I tiptoed across the wood planks of a wobbly orange boat heading from the riverside town Kampot to the Gulf of Thailand. I burned my bare feet on the shiny outdoor tiles surrounding a Buddhist stupa at Udong, the old capital of Cambodia. Across the country, at the 11th-century ruins of Phnom Banan, I spelunked through deep, damp caverns steeped in legends of magic and superstition. All the way, I followed a Frenchman named Henri. For 16 years and more than 20 trips, he has led me through the heart of this beautiful but knotty country.

If only we had met — or even lived in the same century. Henri Mouhot, an explorer and naturalist, was born in 1826 in eastern France. He had a passion for learning and travel, beginning with Russia, where he spent time as a young man. But his name is most associated with the Angkor ruins, which he made famous in Europe after first encountering those remnants of the Khmer empire in 1860.

17FOOTSTEPS2-superJumboAs a diarist, Mouhot (pronounced moo-HOE) could be cantankerous (“the present state of Cambodia is deplorable and its future menacing”) and condescending (“this miserable people”), but he also revered nature (“I have never been more happy”) and loved exploring (“in truth, this life is happiness to me”). His diaries from Siam (now Thailand), Cambodia, Laos (where he is buried) and Annam (now central Vietnam), between 1858 and 1861, endure as some of the most prescient, insightful literature on the region.

More than 150 years ago, the French explorer Henri Mouhot was one of the first Europeans to see the ancient Khmer ruins that today form the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia.

Our odyssey together began in 1998, the year I spent in Phnom Penh, the capital, working at a newspaper; I’ve returned to Cambodia nearly every year since. I first read Mouhot for background, and quickly found parallels to the country I was experiencing. The diaries contain a black-and-white drawing based on one of his sketches of a thatch hut on wooden stilts with a longboat on shore. The image could have been sketched today. And that cantankerous comment? Sadly, it could easily apply to more recent phases of the country’s history.

The tourist scene at Angkor Wat is another story. Yet when I most recently approached it — on the back of a motorcycle, amid hundreds of other visitors — I felt the same awe he described from another age: “At first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” The same questions propel me through the country year after year.

Map of CambodiaMy latest trip, last April, took me south, to Kampot (or Komput, as Mouhot spelled it). When Mouhot visited, this was Cambodia’s bustling port town. “Six or seven ships loading at one time,” he wrote. “Chinese and European vessels may be constantly seen going up and down the stream.”

Today, the main port has moved west to Sihanoukville; gone are Kampot’s ships. Gone, too, is the public debauchery Mouhot depicted: “Almost every vice seemed prevalent at Kompot — pride, insolence, cheating, cowardice, servility, excessive idleness.” It now boasts a reputation of beauty and calm and is a favorite among both locals and tourists who like a slower pace of life.

Mouhot arrived 150 years too early to stay at the lovely Mea Culpa, where, in rooms costing just $25, French doors open onto a patio with river views. He didn’t clutch a cup of coffee while watching the daily parade of fishing boats heading to sea, as I did. And he didn’t spend a morning with a boatman named Math Ly.

We set out on his flame-colored longboat at 7:30 a.m. The river was mostly empty, fishermen having already gone to sea. Only a long line of skiffs sat tethered to shore. As we headed south, rows of metal shacks gave way to mangroves in a faint, salty breeze. The river widened, and the horizon opened to distant islands dotting the gulf. Water and sky were both the hazy teal of sand-etched sea glass.

Mouhot spent time in this cacophonous town, where traders sold all manner of goods. “The dealers in fish and vegetables, and the Chinese restaurateurs, dispute the street with pigs, hungry dogs, and children of all ages.” The Kampot market today still feels clamorous and claustrophobic — a maze of low-ceilinged stalls seemingly selling everything: mangoes, rice, cabbage, watermelon, pickles, shrimp, fermented fish, flowering chives, laundry soaps and toothbrushes. But though there are children, dogs are scarce, and any pigs you encounter will be of the fried variety.

The King, in Kampot at the time of Mouhot’s visit, advised him to escape the clamor: “Go to Udong; go about.” Udong (or Oudong, as it is also spelled) was then the capital, about 100 miles north, beyond modern-day Phnom Penh. “An eight-days’ journey travelling with oxen or buffaloes,” Mouhot wrote. “With elephants you can accomplish it in half the time.”

Phnom PenhPhnom Penh Today

My journey out of Kampot, by air-conditioned bus, took me first to Phnom Penh (or Penom-Peuh, as Mouhot spelled it), less than four hours on a paved highway (no elephants). Today’s capital of 2.2 million people, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, was known to Mouhot as “the Great Bazaar.”

Phnom Penh is the seat of modern-day power. Though travelers aren’t accorded the royal audience Mouhot had, tourists can glimpse the high life with a visit to the Royal Palace. In contrast to the city around it, the compound has well-tamed gardens and an open-air gallery painted with Buddhist and Hindu legends depicting tigers, monkeys, sailors, warriors and intricate tales of honor and loss. The king’s quarters are roped off, but visitors can peek inside the Throne Hall and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its floor of solid silver tiles.

From Phnom Penh, it’s an hour’s drive to Udong through congestion, then a green belt of rice farms. Mouhot wrote of cottages with fruit gardens and country houses for the aristocracy “who come here in the evening for the sake of breathing a purer air than they can find in the city.” Except Phnom Penh was just a market town, and “the city” was Udong, a spirited place of mandarins, chiefs and noisy courts of justice. “How do you like my city?” a second king asked Mouhot. (Cambodia had a first and second king at the time.)

A tourist takes photos inside the Bayon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park. Credit Jerry Redfern for The New York Times

“Sire, it is splendid, and presents an appearance such as I have never seen elsewhere.”

Little of that remains. The royals left in 1866 when the king chose Phnom Penh as a new capital. Udong suffered through decades of subsequent war, though today the remnants are slowly being rebuilt. Pilgrims now brave a constant heat to climb steps to a series of hilltop temples and shrines.

Children clung to my legs, attempting to sell me bracelets or cool me with hand-held fans. Elderly and disabled beggars lined the steps, each with a plate onto which more fortunate visitors drop 100 riel notes (less than 3 cents).

At a giant golden Buddha with ruby lips and a golden sash, children occupied the entryway, guarding visitors’ shoes for tips. This temple, once in shambles, has a new roof. A child monk sat among burning incense, taking offerings and dispensing blessings. I stood in an open window, soaking in a welcome breeze and gazing upon the paddies below. A few incongruous factories are scattered among the fields, but mostly it’s a green landscape that stretches to the broad waters of the Tonle Sap River.

That river is the artery of Cambodia. It is, as Mouhot wrote, the “grand and beautiful” gateway to the lake of the same name, which swells in the rains and drains each dry season. It connects the lake to the Mekong, switching directions as those waters rise and fall. “The river becomes wider and wider until at last it is four or five miles in breadth; and then you enter the immense sheet of water,” Mouhot wrote.

I rented a wood cruise boat and burbled up the river, hoping for a picturesque sunset. But Phnom Penh’s ever-expanding skyline only dimmed in a thickening haze, atypical of the dazzling reds and pinks that often cascade across the river as the sun falls.

Mouhot found his light at Angkor Wat (Ongcor), “the most beautiful and best preserved of all the remains,” in Siem Reap. It is still the world’s largest religious structure, encompassing 401 acres — so commanding that a traveler forgets “all the fatigues of the journey.”

Visitors climb out of one of the caves beneath Phnom Banan. Credit Jerry Redfern for The New York Times

Late in the day, I sought solitude. Most crowds flock to the top of Phnom Bakheng, an ancient hilltop temple, for a sunset view over Angkor Wat, but I headed instead to Ta Prohm, the overgrown temple famous for the tenacious trees that smother its stone. It was nearly closing time, and almost no one was there. There is no sunset to be viewed in these tree-wrapped grounds, as twilight is heard more than seen. The light fades, and the ruins erupt in a riot of birdsong — mynas, parrots and a hornbill with swooshing wings.

The Angkorian ruins extend far beyond Siem Reap. In the 12th century, under King Suryavarman II, the empire reached its apex, stretching into modern-day Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. A few sites endure, in various states of dilapidation and looting, between Siem Reap and the Thai border.

Phnom Banan (Banone), a mountaintop temple, is about 13 miles from the city Battambang, a pleasant jaunt through the countryside. It’s a near-vertical climb up laterite steps to the ruins above undulating hills. In Mouhot’s day, the temple still had eight towers connected by galleries of “fine workmanship, and great taste and skill in construction.” Now, only portions of towers remain.

What I wanted most to see was down the steps, at the mountain’s base. A sandy path led to a “magic cave,” as tourists call it today, a deep cavern of stalactites in the limestone rock. “The water dropping from these is considered sacred” by pilgrims who say it can impart “knowledge of the past, present, and future,” Mouhot wrote.

The cave is cool and dark, the soothing yin to the scorching yang outside. Inside is a maze of psychedelic rock formations. One looks like an elephant. A guide named Phuoc Ran took me to an inner room where a Buddha statue sat amid candles. Nearby, water squeezed through ceiling cracks and plopped over smooth, rounded rocks, caught by buckets and cups.

Statue of King SihanoukThe Statue of King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh

Take the water, he said, and “you will know the past, present and future.” I instead listened to Phuoc Ran, who was born in Saigon but fled to the Thai border during wartime. He told me he knows about New Mexico, where I live, because the American soldiers he met during the war watched movies full of Southwestern cowboys.

Mouhot, Phuoc Ran, me — we keep treading ground here because we keep finding stories to tell. That’s how we learn about past, present and future.

Mouhot understood the capacity for travel to enhance insight; he devoted his life to these gifts. Before he died — brutally, from malaria — in Laos at 35, he wrote to his sister-in-law about his passions. “Seeing so much that is beautiful, grand, and new,” he wrote. “From these I draw my contentment.”