This past weekend I traveled to Cambodia and I had an amazing time. I traveled with a group of three other SMU students. We flew in Phnom Penh (capital of Cambodia) on Friday and we left Monday afternoon (taking advantage of my 3-day school schedule!).
On the first day we arrived in Phnom Penh, our flight was delayed so we didn’t arrive in the city until 6pm. As soon as we got there we took a private taxi to go up north to Siem Reap where the great temples of Angkor Wat are. The trip took about 6 hours including a stop for dinner. It was a long ride so by the time we go to Siem Reap, we checked into our guesthouse and just went to sleep.
The next morning we woke up and set out to explore Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a magnificent Hindu/Buddhist temple complex. It’s dedicated as a UNESCCO World Heritage Site to further protect and conserve the ruins. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century under the Khmer Kingdom. There are many different temples but Angkor Wat is the entrance to the entire park. It was the biggest and grandest temple.
We spent two days exploring the temples and there was still more to see! I could of easily spent another day exploring as the temples were so peaceful. Also, since it’s currently low season (rainy season) for traveling in Southeast Asia, there were fewer tourists around which made it even better. Luckily for us, the weather was in our favor; the most it rained was an hour during one day.
The best part about Angkor Wat was that nothing felt contrived. Although some parts of the temples were obviously restored, nothing about the temples felt perfect which made it even more beautiful. For example, there many statues that had their heads cut off because there was a period when riots happened and people stole Buddha heads to sell off to foreign countries. This didn’t make the temples any less beautiful, it fact it made it even more authentic.
Although the temples were beautiful, I was more surprised by the poverty I saw in the surrounding area of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, and villages not too far away from the city. Outside the temples, there were many food and souvenir vendors and every time we got off our tuk-tuk (motorcycle bike with rickshaw attached) to visit a temple, hordes of children would surround us and ask us to buy bracelets and postcards for a 1$. These children were very young too. All of them were barefoot and their clothes looked like they haven’t been washed in months. They were extremely clever as they tried to persuade you to buy their items by saying things like “Buy 1 post card get 9 free!”. Another young girl asked my friend to buy some bracelets for his girlfriend and when he responded that he didn’t have a girlfriend, she said, “You know why? Because you no buy these bracelets!”.
It was sad seeing this because it makes you wonder whether these kids go to school or if they don’t have time because they have to help support their families by selling souvenirs to tourists. After coming back from Cambodia, I researched more about it and found out that despite the tourism that Angkor Wat brings in, 36.6% of the population lives below the poverty line (less than 45 cents per day). Many Cambodian children go to primary school (80%) but less go to lower secondary school (25%) and even less go to upper secondary school (9%).
I witnessed even more poverty when I traveled back to Phnom Penh on Sunday afternoon. We drove pass beautiful green rice paddies and along these rice paddies were houses where the farmers and their families lived. The houses are better described as simple shacks as the whole thing consisted of only one room. Even though we were only driving by, I could tell that there was no kitchen or electricity in the shacks. Bedding was just a blanket on the ground or a hammock outside. Kids ran around barefoot and naked but they all appeared to be very happy and carefree.
I didn’t realize that Cambodia is still so underdeveloped (which sounds very ignorant of me), but I’m glad at least now I’m aware. I wish I could of done more to help but we had such a short amount of time there.
I’ve realized that the most important part about traveling is not seeing new things or famous sights, it’s about learning and letting these experiences shape you.