In a family like mine, even vacation is prime time for learning opportunities, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, is full of chances to learn about culture and history.
About half of the family had been to Cambodia previously, but it was the first trip for five of us.
On our very first day, we were obviously eager to explore the Angkor Wat temple complex. We spent most of the day wandering in and around Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
During our wanderings, we realized that we were somewhat lacking in knowledge about what all of the carved murals and statues were actually intended to represent. Because of this, we were very glad that we were able to visit the Angkor National Museum later in the week. At first, the $12 ticket price at the museum made us a little bit skeptical as to whether it would be worth it, but I was so glad that we went. The museum did a great job of explaining what Hindu and Buddhist statues are found in the area, along with how to recognize depictions of different deities in the ancient art. I now feel pretty confident in my ability to tell a Vishnu from an Indra from a Brahma. We also learned about the origin of the Apsara (in modern times, the Apsara Dance is practically required viewing if you are a typical tourist in Cambodia, although we didn't see it), and we can recognize a Naga when we see one. It was also interesting to read about the history surrounding the revered King Jayavarman VII and his wives and his influence on Cambodian history and religion. (You can tell the quality of the museum when it came to really teaching memorable facts when I tell you that I spelled King Jayavarman VII without even having to Google it!).
We also visited Siem Reap's Killing Fields Memorial at Wat Thmey, a sober memorial of the much more recent history of Cambodia. There is a building full of the bones of just some of those executed during the Khmer Rouge regime. It was heartbreaking to read the information presented at this memorial, and to see the photos presented from those years in Cambodian history, but at the same time, I'm glad to see a country being honest about its darkest days.
For further resources regarding Cambodian history and culture, we turned to our family library of books and movies. Various members of the family, depending on their interests, read To Destroy You is No Loss or Children of the River or watched The Killing Fields. The youngest few found our book on Silkworms, and read that with interest after visiting a silk farm during our trip.
It's difficult to know how to handle going on a vacation in a country still trying to recover from tragedy so devastating. It's heartening to see the fair trade shops popping up in Old Market alongside the dozens of shops selling identical, mass-produced cheap factory products. When visiting a temple, we walked past a primary school and I saw a small sign on the outside declaring, "The way to a brighter future is the education of children"-- a statement that I agree with, but one that is only partially being fulfilled in Cambodia due to the fact that many children are not in school, instead working to help meet their family's basic needs.
One week isn't enough to learn all about Cambodia's history, culture, and present situation in the world. We barely made a few meager scratches in the surface, but others are more experienced and wiser than we and are impacting Cambodia for the better on a long-term basis. I'm grateful to hear of individuals and companies working to make a difference in their country, companies like Artisans D'Angkor and Sao Mao with their jewelry made out of recycled brass bullets.
We may just have said goodbye with one or two of our number contemplating the possibility of returning someday to work in Cambodia's education sector.