Sunday, October 14, 2012

Siem Reap, Cambodia

When I was 19 years old, I stumbled across a list of "100 places you should see before you die." Among the Eiffel Tower and Niagara Falls was a place I had never heard of before: Angkor Wat and the Angkor Archeological Park. The pictures were haunting and exotic and I spent the next half-hour avoiding my Physical Science 100 homework by learning more about these beautiful temples in the jungles of central Cambodia. Eventually the nagging presence of my PS book called me back to the present, but as I memorized the effects of different light wave lengths (something long since forgotten...) I resolved that someday, somehow, I would see the Angkor Temples even though I still wasn't entirely sure where exactly Cambodia was on a map.

Six years later, I moved to Singapore which I quickly learned was an hour and a half flight away from Cambodia. I was thrilled, but the conditions were such that an eight-month pregnant woman's visit there was definitely not advisable. Then there was the horrible outbreak of a mysterious child-killing disease there this summer, and we decided to push Cambodia down the family travel to-do list indefinitely. But that Fabio is not one to watch a long-held dream of his wife's go unfulfilled, so when my Mom was going to be visiting the same month there was an amazing travel deal to Siem Reap he concluded the stars had aligned. We booked a quick trip and I left my little angel overnight for the first time since I got back from the hospital.

And I finally got to see those mysterious temples that had fascinated my freshman soul. But not just see, since Cambodia isn't really worried about things like "liability" and "safety" and "preservation of historical treasures" yet. We climbed, touched, and explored unsupervised to our little hearts' content. Oh, and I took a lot of pictures. A lot.

First, we visited Angkor Wat: the huge (1.5 km by 1.3 km mote), iconic temple that I saw that fateful night of wasting time in my dorm. It was way, way better than I ever imagined.

Then we went to Ta Prohm, which is a bit more dilapidated and completely overgrown with huge trees and jungle flora.

Then Bayon, which was our favorite favourite favorite. (No matter how I spell that word now I think it's wrong... thank you, living in conflicting British Colonies.) Anyway. Our bias towards this temple was only slightly influenced by the little monkeys that jumped on our car at the gate, so our driver stopped and let us feed them.

They were just so cute!

And Bantay Srei, made of pink sandstone and incredibly intricate detail.

But we were surprised to find that the most amazing thing about our trip was not the temples at all... but the Cambodians themselves (they call themselves Khmer).

Cambodia has one of the most tragic, horrific modern histories I know of, with their own government slaughtering and starving almost a third of their population so recently that most Khmer adults remember it. They hoard their rice and use U.S. dollars, living in fear that the nightmare they somehow survived will rekindle at any moment.

I won't go into the deeply upsetting details today, but just know that if there was ever a society that would be justified to be hardened, bitter, jaded, or unfriendly, it would be this one. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth.


We ended every night we were there with a half-hour foot reflexology for 
$3 from this lady and her friend. She could not believe how big Fabio's feet were. 
They both just kept laughing, especially when she tried to soak his feet 
and they didn't even fit in the little tub she had.

This is how they cut the grass at the temples to keep the grounds nice... with a sickle.
I'm going to laminate this picture and put it on our lawn mower when we have a yard.

Jumping from trees into the flooded rice paddies after working in them all day.

Again and again we were struck by their industry, their optimism, their focus on family, their kindness and friendliness in general. Maybe it's because they were stripped of everything and forced to start over, maybe they just have a culture of optimism, or maybe they have just learned all life's lessons the hard way... probably a combination of all of those and more things that I just can't begin to understand. Whatever the cause, we were touched. And humbled. And we wanted to be a little bit better from meeting them.

Oh, and their children are beautiful, just adorable and beautiful. I was in love.

We took half a day for a "quad" (ATV) tour through the countryside, and we had a blast... Especially when we were caught in a huge, torrential rain storm and got soaking wet and covered in mud when we had to drive through mud and water up to our waists through rice paddy trails to get back because the roads we came on were flooded. I have no idea how our ATV's made it, and I can't imagine what the "flooded" roads were like if we were avoiding the flooded areas. Everywhere we went, when the kids heard our engines they would come running from whatever they were doing to wave and give us high-fives. So sweet and cute!

It is just a beautiful country, and I'm so happy we got to enjoy it together.

We somehow found the very well-hidden Siem Reap congregation of our church.
It was really, really sweet to worship with our Khmer brothers and sisters.

Oh yeah, and that baby I was so worried about leaving? He didn't even notice we were gone. Thanks, Mom, for helping him have so much fun he didn't even care when we walked through the door until we gave him the bright wooden elephant puzzle we brought back for him.

The trip was so, so, so much more than my freshman mind could have ever imagined or hoped for. I wish I could put it into words, but I just can't. The moral of the story? Sometimes wasting time instead of studying light waves turns out to be time well spent.

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