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We climb into the back of a tuk-tuk, half awake and stumbling in the darkness before setting off through the blanket of ever-increasing humidity towards Angkor. The sky is a black velvet midnight even though dawn is just an hour away. As we rumble along the wide, tree-lined road into the park of ancient cities, the screech of geckos and symphony of cicadas are drowned out by the protesting rattle of our moto. I close my eyes- a reprieve from the endless storm of dirt and dust rising from the old and decrepit road- and a warm wind wraps me in its soft embrace, bringing with it the intoxicating scent of Cambodia in the morning: sweet lotus blossoms, jasmine, incense.

The tuk-tuk rounds the last bend in the road as the sky begins to gradually fade, revealing the dark, imposing profile of Angkor Wat. The sun rises slowly, and as the sky gradually melts from black to shimmering translucent silver, the Wat is transformed into a magical kingdom of muted, stormy beach colours.

We climb to the top spire and wander through lonely monochromatic corridors of rain-beaten and stained sandstone columns before settling into an archway facing East. The inner courtyard is bathed in the warm lazy half-light of early morning, revealing the velvety blanket of green moss, with its vibrant golden-yellow undertones creeping up the ancient wall. Cambodia is a kingdom that demands an emotional response; it holds the best and the worst of humanity within a country smaller than Oklahoma. Its sheer beauty, once revealed, cannot fail to capture the heart forever.
Four days later and we’re back in Phnom Penh, driving through a chaotic mess. The side streets are nearly flooded and the crumbled colonial buildings lining the outskirts of the capital have deteriorated to the point of losing any shadow of charm. Sharp contrasts reveal themselves as we move through the capital: perfectly manicured lawns; grand boulevards; naked muddy children; mangy scab-covered dogs. The lamp poles lining the main government street display the flag of Myanmar along with the red and blue Khmer banner. How nice. The junta is coming to visit. Vagaries of South Asian politics are never far from mind in Cambodia.

As our moto approaches the S-21 prison museum, I can see the outside walls of what was once a high school. The white wash exterior is dirty and crumbling, the walls are topped with a makeshift cap of stacked and woven barbed wire. My stomach turns, even though I am yet unaware of the fact that only seven of the 20,000 people imprisoned in S-21 survived the ravages of the Khmer Rouge. Seven. The grounds and building look like high schools at home: plain and unimposing architecture; a slightly unkempt courtyard with benches; shuttered windows painted in terracotta; uneven bars to hang from – or to be hung from.

There are four buildings with terracotta and ochre checked flooring throughout. Ochre, once the same color as the beautiful UN-occupied colonial buildings lining the river-front, is now hidden under dirt and the spattering of dried blood. In stark contrast, I look out through the bars to see a beautiful silhouette of palm trees against the brilliant Cambodian sky. Inside, room after room is lined with black and white portraits of forgotten prisoners. A head shot of a toddler with a single ringlet hanging over her confused eyes stares at me from the wall of thousands. Next to me, an Australian girl with blue streaks in her long black hair is crying.

We leave the prison grounds and pile onto a little 100cc bike, three of us bumping along a dusty pockmarked road to the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial. A stupa filled with over 800 skulls that were exhumed from the mass graves greets us at the entrance to the Killing Fields, as does the unbridled laughter of children playing so innocently unaware in adjacent fields. As I walk along the dusty paths lining this pitted field of graves, I look down and see fragments of bone, torn clothing and teeth lying haphazardly on the ground.

In Cambodia, you can drive for two hours and arrive in a different reality. From the majestic remnants of an ancient kingdom to a recent past of torture and starvation, Cambodia struggles to balance volumes of history on the heads of the next generation. The war in neighboring Vietnam and the 4-year reign of the genocidal Khmer Rogue have had devastating and lasting effects. The resulting poverty and drug addiction continue to leave their scars. Yet, from its stunning landscape with magnificent sunrises to the haunting remnants of its tragic history, the magic that is Cambodia will not fail to capture your heart forever, as it surely did mine.