Cambodia is Much More than Temples

Now I could easily make this a blog post filled with photos of temples. I have hundreds of incredible images. What impacted me the most about Siem Reap, undoubtedly was the people.

 

First and foremost the most amazing person we met was our tour guide Mooni. He organized five days of sightseeing, and incredible experiences for us. He made this the best family trip we have experienced. Mooni shared with us the impact that the genocide Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge communists had on his family between 1975 and 1979, and beyond. Walking long distances in fear of their lives, eating whatever they could to survive: crickets, ants, snakes, and much more, his sister almost sitting on a land mine, the horror of waiting to be admitted into a refugee camp, and the struggles being reintroduced back into Cambodia. Our driver Mr Oun, although not able to speak much English, he brought so much joy to us with his big Buddha smile and warm, friendly presence.

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Our first insight to life in Cambodia was the floating village known as Chong Kneas. Mooni arranged our own small boat which took us through the crowded waterways. I had read that this trip was a scam, and that no one should do it. What I experienced was the opposite. It was an insight to a way of life for people, who have lived this way for years. Our eyes were opened. I must admit, I felt uncomfortable, as if I was a spectator looking in on someone’s personal and intimate life, for that reason I did not take many photos of people. Reactions of the people told me otherwise. Children waved, they smiled as they went about their business jumping in the water, or helping their parents with netting, cooking, fishing.

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We then enjoyed a relaxing trip through the mangrove trees. There was an eerie beauty. Once Amanda realized that this was not the crocodile farm, and that there were no crocodiles she relaxed and enjoyed as well.

 

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Biking through the countryside was another highlight. Huge thanks to the wonderful Lors from Indochine Exploration for a very special day. Riding our bikes on the rocky, uneven road was an adventure. We were greeted by village children running out of their small homes on stilts with big grins and hellos. Everyone we passed along the way had a huge welcoming smile. One lady in particular, who was very old had stopped beside her bicycle that was laden with wood. She had the hugest, most beautiful, warm and friendly smile I’ve seen, rotted teeth and all. There was no need for a picture, that breathtaking image is embedded in my heart.

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A day wouldn’t be complete without Mooni finding an insect to show us, this time a huge grasshopper. As usual, Amanda was as far away as possible.

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Our next stop was kayaking a barray, where we saw water buffalo roaming, and sweet children playing and bathing in the water.

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We then walked through forest to arrive at some old temple ruins where Mr Oun, Mooni and Lors set up a delightful picnic lunch.

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Our sweet smiling Buddha, Mr Oun

 

Our second last day in Cambodia was one that touched all of us deeply, and we all agreed at dinner that night that it was the most impactful day of our trip. We were headed to Beng Mealeal temple, with the intention of stopping at villages on the way. Our wonderful community in Kuala Lumpur had donated many items, and we had a suitcase full of books, pencils, toys, clothes, shoes, toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap to give away.

 

Mr Oun took us along the route rarely used by tourists. Along the way I had mentioned to Mooni that Miss T would like to try fishing. He was going to go home that night and make her a bamboo rod so she could try it the next day. As grateful as we were at his suggestion, we didn’t want him to go to any more effort. Next thing we know, we saw two ladies walking on the side of the road with fishing poles. We pulled up alongside them and Mooni asked if they knew where we could try fishing. With magnificent smiles, they told Mooni where we could go.

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What touched us so deeply was their smiles, their warmth, and friendliness. We decided to go back to them. Mr Oun pulled over and we got out of the van. The older lady kept saying to Mooni how beautiful our girls were. She even stated that she wanted to be Miss T’s mother-in-law. At 12 years of age, that was her first indirect marriage proposal. They mustn’t interact with tourists much, because they asked us how we got our skin so white. We were in laughter. After we took a group photo, and then showed them, the older lady laughed, and for some reason gave Amanda a little slap on the bottom.

 

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We ended up joining these ladies and walked to a small fishing hole in the rice fields. As we walked along some village children joined us.

 

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Under the scorching sun Miss A and Miss T fished with the ladies and the children.

 

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Five small fish were caught, enough to make one meal of fish soup.

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We gathered some gifts from the suitcase for the children, and for the ladies. They had gifted us so much in such a short time. Their gratitude was infectious.

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As we drove away, the children had their new clothes on, their Mom with a baby in hand, waved – I could feel her tremendous gratitude, tears stung my eyes.

 

Our next stop was the Beng Mealea temple. As we were about to head towards the temple I saw a large pig. Mooni and Miss T ventured over.

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Behind it I could see some children playing in the dirty water, a little boy naked, a little girl chasing him with laughter. I asked Mooni if he could find out about this family. He walked into their hut. The single lady was looking after many children, most were the children of relatives or friends who needed to journey far for work. Their conditions were some of the worst I’ve seen. Our next stop of giving would be right here.

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The older boy in blue had tears in his eyes

 

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Miss T’s smile says it all

 

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He would not let go of his scrapbook, don’t worry sweetheart I’m not going to take it away.

 

Our final stop for the day was The Cambodia Landmine Museum. This small museum details the horror caused by landmines in history and today. It was difficult seeing the pictures of so many people severely injured and killed from landmines.

 

While we were in the museum Mooni was asking about some local villagers. There were two families who were struggling. The other villagers were doing what they could to support them, providing them with some food. This would be our final act of giving for the day.

 

We were greeted by a sweet little girl serving her ailing grandmother (drip and all), with a thin soup. The grandmother waved her children in, and they all sat around her. Gratitude filled her eyes as we gifted the children with clothes, toys for the little ones, books, coloring pencils, and some hygiene items.

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We ventured over to the neighboring house. Two women sitting on the steps with little ones touched us all. Another older lady looked on with pure joy, as she smiled her teeth were black. One of the older girls was overjoyed when she was gifted Miss T’s purple glitter shoes. They were so polite, so grateful.

 

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More children appeared and we were able to give away everything we brought along.

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As we were leaving we were touched to see one of the girls show us her first entry into her scrapbook, and one of the little ones playing with his new toy.

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These beautiful people have nothing, or maybe they have everything.
Few have shoes on their feet, many struggle to find something to eat.
Maybe, just maybe, a family member will earn US$1 a day.
Teeth are rotted, bellies swollen, sickness threatens.
Yet here they are,
smiling,
grateful,
joyful,
loving,
kind,
welcoming.
They lift each other up
when another struggles.
Children play in the dirt,
go fishing,
play jacks with stones,
use a worn flip flop as a soccer ball.

What I’ve seen in this last week, has touched me deeply and will remain etched in my heart.

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