Learning from Cambodia's Past and Present

Above: Angkor Wat at sunset after a rain.

Stopping for three days in Cambodia, the goal was to see as much as possible of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Siem Reap. These were built in the 1100s for King Suryavarman II and were a huge part of the strong Cambodian civilization. Later, more structures were added for King Suryavarman VI, making quite a village. The intricate, rock-carved structures were forgotten during Cambodia’s tough times, including invasions by Chams (now Vietnam) in the late 1100s, the US War on Vietnam (and surrounding areas including Cambodia) and the Khmer Rouge.

The ruins today make Roman ruins look like a chintzy prize as they tower, looking half their age, into the clouds. Some of the temples and buildings are accessible by steps so narrow that my foot’s sideways placement is still too big. To get to the peaks of many of the monuments, you must use hands and toes to hoist your body monkey-style atop the carved stones.

Above: Ruins of Siam Reap and a monk looking out from the top of a temple at sunrise.

As you can tell by the photos under the “Photos” tab, the children among temple ruins, near bus stops and playing on the streets were some of my favorite parts of Cambodia. Although they are poor and selling trinkets for a few cents, they are lively and sweet and deserve so much more of an opportunity. One eight-year-old boy could speak 5 different languages, yet is selling postcards to foreigners to support his family. It seems a common accessory for every woman is a child, simply perched on her hip or hanging onto her body as she pedals a bicycle.

Above: A girl sells souvenirs among the ruins.

Missing limbs and crippled body parts on children and adults are common in Cambodia because people still step on land mines planted here over 20 years ago by the US and its allies and then by the Khmer Rouge soon after. Over 40,000 Cambodians have suffered from limb amputations due to mines since the end of their war in 1979, making it the worst reminder of their war-filled past.

Although they have been through the worst, the Khmer people are animated, have excellent cooking skills (see the recipes section for Khmer food) and would give their lives for friends or family. Many people are up before the sun rises (I know, because so was I!) and are setting up their sales carts beside the road for their daily job. Also, out of all of the countries visited in Southeast Asia, the Cambodians speak the best English.

Above: A vendor sits outside temple ruins with food shortly after sunrise.

The short trip was a lesson on the after-effects of war, the historical value of once-forgotten artifacts, and finding happiness with the things around you.

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