SIEM REAP, Cambodia // Thailand has more turquoise islands but Cambodia moves the soul. The people make the trip to Cambodia worth it. The temples of Siem Reap are beautiful // Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm Temple are a thousand years old // but the people's smile and energy shines brighter. Every interaction is inspirational. They all speak English and are eager to practice with you. These are their stories.
Kurhn and Tyty, our hotel receptionists. Kurhn is the youngest of 7 children from a rural farm 45 minutes outside Siem Reap. Only his sister and himself finished through grade 12, and he is the only one in the family to go to university after 2 years of pleading with his Mom to let him go. He is 25 and he gets no financial aide from his parents because they have none to give. They wish for him to work in the fields with his brothers because they feel it is unsafe in the city. He learned English by visiting the monks near his farm. He is 25 and puts himself through marketing school. His dream would be to open his own clothing shop one day catered to locals because they are more reliable clients than tourists. His biggest fear is that with all the corruption he won't be able to find a job after graduation. Companies often hire from within, and who you know matters more than what you know. Kurhn goes home every Sunday to cook dinner for his family. He loves to cook, and his mother was injured in a motorbike accident so does not get around as well anymore. He says the surgery would be simple in America, but in Cambodia many people do not walk away from surgery // that is if they can even afford it. Hospitals are not good here and they require you to pay first. With no money you receive no service. We passed a children's hospital in Siem Reap with a line of parents holding children waiting for it to open. It turns out, it is one of the best in the country. Tyty is his classmate and is an accounting major who hopes to one day secure a bank job. They went above and beyond and became our friends. They greeted us daily with large smiles and taught us the local language. They spoke impeccable English and made us feel at home at our boutique hotel.
Paruth was our pottery instructor. We dropped by her home/studio unannounced and she greeted us like old friends. Of course she was open for us. Of course she would let us make pottery. Here, have some mangos from the trees that line her property as she sets up. This is my daughter, who also spoke perfect English. We learned later she takes English class for an hour each day after school which runs from 7AM - 11AM, but wishes it was longer because she loves to learn. She also informs me as she puts a hand on her hip that all the girls are smarter than the boys, and I say, "Who runs this world // GIRLS! Paruth also spoke flawlessly. She learned English like our tour guide from VOA // Voice of America. In Cambodia the news is not always trustworthy, but VOA and Facebook tell the truth. These are her news feeds. Facebook is her eyes and ears across the country. Who would have thought the social network where people take selfies and post pictures of what they had for dinner would be so important here in Cambodia. We chatted like girlfriends in the locker room of high school. She taught herself pottery and created the school on her own. She has two rooms she takes boarders in and a few other instructors to help when large tour groups come through. She is an entrepreneur and a single mother of two selling her pottery by night and teaching classes by day. She does it all with a smile. A big bright smile that is warm and excited. Paruth's daughter wears a Minnie Mouse shirt and makes bowls as second natured as I tie my shoe. She is curious, asks questions, and puts her hands on mine to help me fix my lopsided cup. Same bright smile as her mothers. She supervises Adam as he gets more mangos from the trees with a large bamboo picker. They collect over 20 and eat half on the spot. Green ones with salt are her favorite. We spend 2 hours with them under the shade of the mango trees and when it comes time to leave I feel like I'm leaving family. She gives us each bracelets with a ceramic bead she has made as a parting gifts. I wear mine still today.
These are the people I love. The memories I cherish. Though you don't really appreciate their laughter and cheer until you understand their past.
We visited the War Museum in Siem Reap. A young man gave us the tour. He lost his father to a land mine and his mother shortly after. Only his grandmother is still alive. She lived through the Khmer Rouge genocide led by Pol Pot from 1975-1979. He killed an estimated 2-3 million people, a little less than half the Cambodian populations at the time. First he forced people out of the cities and into the rice fields. He shipped all of the crops back to China and many people starved to death in the rice fields or died from Malaria. Food was so scarce people started eating cockroaches, tarantulas, termites, anything they could find. Pol Pot systematically began killing people. Anyone who used to hold a leadership position he took them out with their entire families. He killed intellects, professors, and any who might oppose him. If you wore glasses you were killed because you must be an intellectual. If you can read or write you were killed. If you were making art or poetry you were killed. If you were too old or sick to work the fields he killed you. All monks were killed and Buddhist temples destroyed. Khmer Rouge soldiers often handed out small shovels and had you dig your own grave. When you were done they took the shovel and hit you across the neck and pushed you in. He hit children and if they cried he killed them because they were weak. If they didn't cry he gave them a gun and made them part of his army where he forced them to kill their own people. If mothers cried over the loss of a child they were killed. Out of these dark ashes has risen the most peaceful and happy people. They hold no resentment or anger because they know what war brings, and they understand and appreciate the peace they live in. These are the most moving people I have met in my life and others have been moved in the same way.
Angelina Jolie filmed Tomb Raider here when she was 25. In interviews she will tell you she never wanted to be a mother, but after her visit to Cambodia she knew her son was there somewhere. She adopted Maddox 2 years later and that trip jump started her humanitarian career. She is producing a movie here now called, First they Killed my Father, which is an adaptation from a book which shines light on the dark history that happened. She has a Cambodian passport and the people love her here.
Princess Diana also visited and started the Halo organization to help remove land mines. It cost $1 to make a land mine and $1000 to remove one. Many of the land mines are US made. The US also dropped many bombs here. The ones that detonated caused birth defects and the ones that didn't are buried underground waiting for a target to disturb them. They estimate it will take another 10 years to remove all land mines from the country.
I can see why they were inspired to help here. The people are passionate about learning. They appreciate every ounce of food and water they have and the sun in there face. Being here is a truly grounding life experience that tugs at your heart strings and touches the soul.