That’s what my Mom said when I told her where I was going. “Why the HELL would you go to Cambodia?” Well, it was a pretty simple answer. A friend of mine is the treasurer and board member of a non-profit that operates a school about 60 km NW of Siem Reap. He needed photos to document the school and I am a photographer. That’s all I needed to know. I’d never given much thought to Cambodia, but it was a gig, you know? This October will mark my fourth trip there. The image above was from my second trip…a solo one. I visited the school and when I arrived the kids were lined up to applaud and welcome me. They led me to a plastic chair, shaded by a tarp and I was presented with a beautiful dance from this older student. Almost three hundred kids gathered and watched her dance for me… a remarkable and humbling experience.
Cambodia is filled with remarkable experiences. I stay in Siem Reap at a wonderful little hotel named the Rambutan, about a five minute walk to the night markets and Pub Street. While sitting at the bar one night, I remarked to Sea, the bartender, that I wished for a way to see the part of Cambodia without so many tourists. “My brother has a car!” And so, I discovered my keys to the country: Sea and his brother Sout. We went to temples out in the country that are seldom visited. Many of the ones I saw had no one there but us…remarkable. I rode with Sea on his motorbike so he could take me to a locals’ market out of town…frightening!
We went to temples so I could see what went on in the daily lives of the monks and the locals who prayed there. You hear music around a corner? Go and see who’s making it. This little band was playing just outside a tiny little room where some sort of celebration was happening. Don’t ask… I have no idea!
Sout drove me up an impossibly rough road to hike to a waterfall. Again…very few tourists, though the locals were very fond of it.
The people of Cambodia are so welcoming, it seems, to everyone. The country is desperately poor, corrupt and war-torn, yet they are happy. They struggle with a system that has no safety net for those who fall, yet they make it work. There is a respect for family like I have rarely seen. And that respect is oftentimes extended to guests. One evening, after a long day at Ankor Wat, I asked Sout if I could meet his parents and family, as they live less than a kilometer from the temple complex. When we arrived, they were getting ready to eat and his mother insisted that I eat with them. So I sat on the floor and shared dinner around a single candle illuminating the room…this was generosity!
We take much for granted here. The first time I visited Cambodia, I was walking with friends down the streets and noticed that there was no one around that was my age. I mean, it was VERY noticeable.When I remarked on that, someone reminded me that a whole generation was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Imagine what those years must have been like. To this day, many people are killed each year,working in their fields, by hitting a mine left over from the Viet Nam war era.
And still they are a welcoming culture. So many lessons there to be learned.
And then, there are the children.
Some are able, through generous benefactors, to attend schools that prepare them for a still uncertain future. Some live out their lives as generations have done. But kids are kids!
They are the ones who draw me back again this year. I can’t wait to go wandering with Sout and see whatever he wants me to see. He is proud of his country, his family and his culture. He gives me an insight that I would never get otherwise. So many lessons to learn!
That’s why, “Cambodia”!