I didn’t know what to expect when arriving in Cambodia. It was already nighttime as evident by the swarm of mosquitos, crickets and other bugs awaiting outside the arrival door at the baggage claim. A few jumped right down my shirt as I exited. I was taken back and a little nervous as I am whenever arriving in a new country. It is a new language, a new culture and this time a real third world country.
Kelly arrived the next morning and greeted me at breakfast. We began to plan our day of sightseeing. Our first day here we would visit the much-anticipated Angkor Wat temples. This is the sole reason millions of people come to visit Cambodia each year. They are numerous grand temples that were built-in the 12th century and then abandoned for many years only to be rediscovered in the 1800’s. It was then that they were again opened to the public. It has only been in the last 20 years since the end of a destructive regime and war that people have come back and filled the streets of Angkor Wat with tourists.
We hopped on our tuk tuk equipped with our own personal driver (costing us a mere $15 for the whole day) and began the beautiful drive through the forest on dirt and gravel roads all while our open aired ride allowed for us to feel a warm breeze cooling the otherwise hot day. The temples were beautifully nestled deep in the forest giving way for the trees to overgrow for hundreds of years in and around each stone. Monks strolled in orange robes taking in the splendor and adding a pop of color to the otherwise dull palette of browns and grays in the temple landscape.
Small children greeted us at every turn. They were as small as 4, 5 and 6 trying desperately to sell us baubles and bracelets and postcards. They would even stand in line and sing for us in the hopes of one American dollar.
It seemed that everything here was a dollar. They love the American dollar. I’ve read that in Cambodia, many families live off of less than $4 a day. So when we pass through and hand them one, it could quite literally feed their whole family. I wanted to give each and every one of them a dollar and I tried. Kelly thought I was a fool and a sucker, but my heart went out to them. With as much as we Americans spend and consume and waste, what is a dollar to us? It could mean everything to them. I enjoyed every minute I had with the kids. The time I spent talking to them and looking into their sweet faces was worth far more than a hundred pennies. I gladly paid them for the sheer presence of brightening my day and handed over a simple one dollar bill.
The next day we took a tour out by Chong Khneas on the Tonle Sap lake. It is a remote area with a floating village and a floating school where many of the kids are orphans. We had our own longboat to take us around the lake to see how these people live. Again, we were met with loads of children and their parents begging for dollars. This time I came prepared. In the morning before heading out to the lake, we stopped at the bank. I exchanged $40 for 40 crisp American one dollar bills. We also stopped at the local school supply store and loaded up on books, pencils, rulers and pencil sharpeners to donate to the floating school. But I wanted to bring something else besides school supplies. Something directly for the kids. Something they could play with. Something I could pass out to them one by one…..and there they were. A pack of 100 balloons for, you guessed it, $1. Perfect!
I passed out the balloons to each of the kids. It gave me the chance to look into each and every one of their faces. They crowded around me waiting their turn to receive a balloon patiently. When they would get a little too excited, the school attendant would come by with a stick and smack them with it in an attempt to keep them in line. It about broke my heart. I hated being the culprit of their reprimand. I wanted to yell at the man and tell him to stop, take all of the kids by the hand and walk them out of there.
We left the school and continued our journey down the river. On the way back we had to pass the school again. This was where I received the biggest reward of the day. As we floated by, we could get a clear view inside the window of the classroom. As I looked in through the chain linked fence separating the classroom from the outside, I could see the kids blowing up the balloons. I could see them teasing each other with them. This filled my heart. It was the best part of the day for me.
Interacting with the kids in Siem Reap affected me more than any other place I have visited so far. I believe it was because, earlier in the week while at the Phuket airport, I picked up a book called Samaly Mam. It is a true story of a woman born and raised in Cambodia. She was orphaned as a toddler in the mid 70’s during the Pol Pot regime (there was a genocide going on of the Cambodian people during that time) and was taken in by a man who savagely beat her and held her as his slave at around the age of 8. He then sold her to pay off debts and she was repeatedly raped and beaten by the men he sold her to. She was sold to a man who would be her husband at 14 and again beaten and raped on a daily basis. After her husband didn’t return one day, she was then sold to a brothel where she was tortured, beaten and raped everyday. She tried to escape only to find the police were as savage as everyone else. They too beat and raped her repeatedly. She lived a hard life and has somehow found her way out of it. She has now built the Somaly Mam Foundation that rescues little girls from brothels. Little girls as young as 5, 6 and 7 that are sold for their virginity. She has, to date, rescued over 6,000 little girls. I have since nicknamed her “The Smiling Mom”.
Cambodia is a different world. They have seen war and torture and death and poverty in ways we, Americans, will never know. We will never know what it is like to be hungry the way they do, what it is like to be beaten and raped and sold the way the young girls are there. The book set a tone for me. I read it just as I was arriving and during the visit. These things still go on there today. Their torturous history is recent history. The 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. There are still little girls being sold everyday into brothels.
I believe it was because of the book that Cambodia has found a very special place in my heart. I wish I had millions of dollars to spend so I could go back and rescue and support every single one of those little girls that are experiencing a living hell today. The little girls being sold for their virginity and being tortured daily. They have things done to them, you and I as Americans, could never even imagine.