Falling in Love with Cambodia

Angkor Wat SunriseThis morning started off with something we’d been looking forward to the minute we researched this trip: visiting Angkor Wat. After the beautiful sunset we had witnessed the evening before, we knew seeing the sun rise over Angkor Wat was an absolute must. Niron suggested we leave for Angkor Wat around 4:45 a.m. in order to arrive before the sunrise. After our long trip and the many hours spent stimulating the Khmer economy at the Siem Reap Night Market, this task was a bit harder than expected. We ended up arriving just in time to see the sun cresting over the temple. This magnificence can only be experienced and never accurately described by text or photo.
Afterward, we explored the temples of Angkor. I was astounded by the beauty and majesty of Angkor Wat. I can hardly believe that nearly 3,000 years ago, the Khmer people moved thousands of enormous stone blocks—which weigh several tons each and originate from the mountains—to create the largest religious structure in the world. As we moved through Angkor Wat, intricate carvings lined nearly every inch of the structure. My favorites were the beautifully detailed aspara dancers, representing an ancient form of dance that is characteristic to Cambodia.
Mini Independence_MonumentThe structures themselves weren’t the only notable sights of Angkor, elephants transported travelers between temples. On the road, there was a band of monkeys that haggled visitors for food. Musicians, whose families were harmed by the land mines planted by the Khmer Rouge, played beautiful traditional Khmer music on instruments you will never see in America. Several people were so inspired by the music that they bought drums and flutes to entertain us. At the entrance of each temple, masses of children approached us—some without shoes—pleading us to buy their souvenirs. At least three children would follow each of us, pulling out their different wares and shouting out the prices. It was heartbreaking being unable to buy something from every child, especially knowing that they spend the majority of their days helping to make a living for their families. It reinforced the need for the work that we, and the beautiful people at Hope Hospital, are doing.
A couple of us had the opportunity to visit the Cambodian Cultural Center after visiting the temples. We took Niron’s personal moto, with the warnings against them ringing heavily in my ears. My blood pressure hit new peaks during those ten long minutes. It was definitely an experience I’m glad to have had, but would prefer to avoid in the future. When finally arrived, we found out that Niron had never been inside despite his multiple visits to Siem Reap. We offered to buy his ticket since we had developed such a close bond with him throughout this excursion. The Cultural Center was awesome! It’s how I would imagine an amusement park, Cambodian style. It had miniature displays of important scenes in ancient Cambodian history, such as the construction of Angkor Wat. There was another exhibition that depicted key peoples and time periods throughout Cambodian history, in chronological order. Another phenomenal attraction was a Cambodian-Chinese comedy and acrobatics show. At one point in the show, there were ten performers balanced on one. My favorite attraction was the miniature models of some of Cambodia’s most revered buildings. Needless to say, I mock ‘Godzilla’d’ a couple in humorous photographs.
Acrobatics ShowAfterward, we headed out for Koulen Restaurant – oh my goodness. I would have to say that this was my absolute favorite place to eat thus far. The restaurant is an enormous Cambodian buffet, featuring a wide variety of foods, including freshly made noodle soup and fried bananas. It was wonderful to taste the flavors I’ve been familiar with my entire life, and then some. What came next pulled the night together—an Aspara dance performance. Each dance told a story of love, conflict, or the simple joys of everyday living all using graceful and deliberate movements. I have seen these dances on television, but that night revealed those videos never did the actual performance justice. I could see everyone at our table was enthralled, despite being up for over fourteen hours.
I love being so completely immersed in my culture, learning many things I’d never known. I’ve come to fall even more in love with Cambodia. They are a beautiful people, each Cambodian I’ve met has been kind and generous with a warm heart.