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Joy in the Midst of Tragedy

The Children that Marked our 36 Hours in Siem Reap

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The sweetness and unfettered joy in the "Hello!"s we received from the children we encountered as we biked through the countryside of Siem Reap belied the horror of the genocide that wiped out 25 percent of this country's population less than 50 years ago. Our 18 waking hours in Cambodia were a fever dream as we crammed as many sights/ sites, knowledge, understanding, meals, "quality" family time and miles as we possibly could.

But if I had to choose a theme that resonated the most with me in our short time in Cambodia-- it was the kids.

Photo Credit: Elise Batsel

The glee in which these kids welcomed our peloton of western bikers was remarkable-- even without knowing that they were born of survivors of one of the most tragic cases of genocide the world has ever seen. Allow me to set the scene: after a morning of seeing awe-inspiring feats of architecture from the 12th century Ta Prohm temple (built for the mother of Emperor Jayavarman VII), we left the city center of Siem Reap and biked through beautiful countryside overlooking acres of rice paddies, fields of grazing water buffalo and VERY skinny cows, and seemingly random clusters of homes where children would pour forth greeting us with enthusiastic HELLOs in hopes of practicing their English. It was dear and uplifting and heartening to see such joy in these young, beautiful faces, especially when knowing the trauma that their grandparents and great grandparents lived through (and their own parents by virtue of proximity and inherited trauma) during the reign of the Khmer Rouge and even the aftermath of Vietnamese control, when extreme communism, continued starvation and abject poverty were the norm.

Siem Reap Countryside
Photo Credit: Elise Batsel

Angkor Wat and its surrounding complex and temples were amazing and fascinating and deserve their own post... (I mean how did people in the 12th century have the wherewithal to build such perfectly symmetrical, sophisticated, beautiful and highly engineered buildings, motes, walls, etc.? Was it a giant? Was it aliens?) One of the most impactful things I took away from our visit to these (quite intact) ruins was our guide Borin's stories of playing hide and seek within the Angkor Watt complex as a child, a happy memory in the fabric of a tragic history.

Borin's Childhood Playground, Angkor Wat

And in spite of the splendor of Angkor Wat, I couldn't help being stuck in Cambodia's present- and how its recent past must influence it.

Seeing one of the Killing Fields memorials and hearing Borin talk about his and his family's own experience growing up in the wake of such terror-- these were the things that resonated the very most. Borin told us of his parent's own arranged marriage forced by the Khmer Rouge (who, according to Borin, forced the same on half of the population in order to breed more people for their "team"); the 20,000 mass graves that litter the country where, in some places, upwards of 60,000 bodies are buried-- a physical representation of the mind-boggling loss of life this country suffered-- a quarter of its population-- this bears repeating!

(Wat Themey Killing Fields Memorial)

We heard about the kids that were enlisted to be the eyes and ears of the Khmer Rouge-- kids the same age of the sweet, innocent children greeting us in English as we merrily biked through their country. Innocent children who were following directions and unknowingly sentencing innocents to death-- if that's not generational trauma, I don't know what is.

I biked alongside my 16-year-old daughter (who, to be perfectly honest was growing weary of our extended family time) discussing these darling children who she seemed equally delighted by. And before she biked off in search of the new friend she made on our trip, she said-- in the spirit of what I can only call gratitude(?)-- "I love you so much, Mommy."

These kids affected all of us.

More photos from the Angkor Wat Complex: Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom


A water blessing from a monk:


Posted by GardenLeave 20:05 Archived in Cambodia Tagged siem_reap angkor_wat kids angkor_thom ta_prohm khmer_rouge backroads water_blessing

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