When I was nine years old (2014), my family went to Siem Reap, Cambodia. While we were there, my Mom got a chance to reconnect with her native homeland, we visited different temples and orphanages, and celebrated my sister’s birthday and New Year’s.
Siem Reap is the cultural epicenter of Cambodia. Two of the primary attractions are the Angkor Wat and the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider temple, Ta Prohm. Although visiting temples was one of our objectives, the other reason we went is for my Mom to visit the homeland she had left over thirty years ago.
My Mom and her parents escaped Cambodia as refugees to the United States when she was just three years old. She was born in 1979, the last year in which the Khmer Rouge regime committed Cambodian genocide. During this reign of terror (1974-79), it has been estimated that 2 million people died. My Mom and her parents were lucky enough to escape and survive the ordeal. My Mom does not have any memory of her time there as a child, but she felt immense compassion and empathy for her people. We spent a lot of our time visiting orphanages so that we could donate supplies, clothing, and food. The children we met were very nice, grateful, happy, and surprisingly, spoke English quite well. This is because many of the orphanages have many English-speaking volunteers from all over the world from various organizations. Although the orphanages did not appear to be well constructed or sanitary, we knew that it was still a very big improvement for all the children living there. There are many Cambodians, to this day, who live in rural areas, that live on less than one dollar a day. They are always at risk of diseases related to contaminated food and water.
Of the many temples we visited, the ones I found most remarkable were the Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world measuring 402 acres. Its walls are 65 meters tall and it has a 200 meter-wide moat which is 4 meters deep and stretches 5 kilometers. It is approximately 900 years old. It is Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction, and because its main entrance faces West, watching the sunset draws the largest crowds. Even though Cambodia is a Buddhist country, the Angkor Wat was first a Hindu temple. It was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. Seeing it in person was a jaw-dropping experience. It is hard to put into the words how I felt seeing all the statues and reliefs, but it felt very quiet, serene, and sometimes eerie. To the left of the main entrance and the moat, little shops were set up with paintings and different memorabilia of the Angkor Wat. My family bought two paintings of the Angkor Wat. One of them is currently hanging in my room and the other is on top of the fire place in our home.
The Bayon temple was built in the late 12th or the early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. The most noticeable thing about the Bayon temple are the 216 faces, all of which appear to be smiling, on the spires of the temple. Just like the Angkor Wat, the Bayon temple has sculptures and carvings spread throughout the temple. The Bayon temple was modified after King Jayavarman VII’s death by Hindi and Theravada Buddhist kings.
On the second day of our trip, my family and I decided to see more of Siem Reap by ATV. I really wanted to drive by myself, but our guide told us I wasn’t of age and had to be 12 or 13 years old before I could drive solo. I rode in back with my Mom while my sister rode with my Dad. We explored the more rural parts of Siem Reap on unpaved roads. We saw water buffalos, vast rice paddies, and different wild life. I had a great time. The ride was smooth and at one point, the guide let me drive a little by myself in a flat patch of land. On one of the evenings, we enjoyed a cultural dinner where we watched Cambodian women dance and ate traditional Khmer food the hotel catered.
On New Year’s Eve, many people in the hotel were gathered in the pool area to watch fireworks, participate in games, light lanterns in the pool, and enjoy a very large banquet. My sister, whose birthday is on New Year’s Eve, was serenaded by the hotel staff and guests at our table. There were three games that evening. The first consisted of people juggling two balloons at once. Whoever could keep the balloons in the air the longest would win a prize. My sister and I participated in the event. Unfortunately, she and I had no strategy and lost. One of our tablemates won and received a bottle of wine. The second game had people drink a full pitcher of beer. Obviously, neither I nor my sister competed in that. Another of our tablemates won. His prize was more beer. The last game had everyone on the stage waiting for balloons to come pouring down from a big box suspended in the air. Three of the balloons contained prizes inside. Some how, I found one of the balloons with the grand prize in it. I was over the moon because I won my family a cultural dinner for two and two oil massages at the hotel spa. My prize was well worth over $300! After that, fireworks were shot into the air and the count down till New Years began. When it struck midnight, everybody cheered and enjoyed the special moment. My family and I will never forget that night.
I have so many great memories of my time in Cambodia and I don’t think I could ever recreate the feeling I had when I was there. It meant so much to all of us. It was truly a magical experience.
(New Year’s Eve 2014, Siem Reap, Cambodia)