There is nothing like visiting areas of the world that are a little off the beaten track to give you perspective on your life. I had that experience, and many life lessons, on the road to the temple of Koh Ker in northern Cambodia.
I was excited to visit the temple, which is about 100 km northeast of Siem Reap, to visit a place where few tourists visit. My tour was making a special stop there, and it was evident that many locals don’t see tour buses in those parts by the number of children and adults stopping, pointing, waving and smiling at our bus as we made our way north.
Before I go any further, I have to tell you that Cambodian children are incredibly beautiful, with easy and open smiles. They tugged at my heartstrings at every stop.
The other thing that made my heart hurt was the incredible poverty that many of them were living in. On the road to Koh Ker, you see many signs indicating the area has been cleared of land mines (I saw one sign that was as recent as 2009).
Because of that, many families are starting over in these areas, and live in basic shacks, open to the elements, with no running water, electricity or toilets. If that sight doesn’t make you thankful for the simple pleasures in life that you take for granted, nothing will.
When we arrived at Koh Ker, I was amazed at how different it looked from the other Cambodian temples I had visited. It is more pyramid-like and reminds me of Mayan pyramids. Usually, you can walk up the very steep steps to the top, but the steps were closed when I visited. Apparently, tourists had taken a bad tumble down the wooden steps and many rungs are now missing from where they fell. I was really ok with staying at the bottom when I heard that! The site is free (once you pay to enter the park area about an hour south) and my group was free to wander all alone throughout the complex. That was a great experience after the crowds of Angkor Wat!
After visiting Koh Ker, my group sat down at a local eating/market area for lunch. Our tour guide had arranged boxed lunches for us, and it was filled with a sandwich, breadsticks, a baguette, cookies and three kinds of fruit. It was way too much food for anyone to eat for lunch.
As I nibbled on my sandwich, a lovely woman and her daughter were helping out. I wanted to buy a shirt from them for their hospitality, and they were great fun assisting me in picking out just the right shirt with elephant embroidery (for a whopping $5). As I watched them, and noticed other families nearby, I began to have a very unsettling feeling. This amount of food was suddenly obscene to me. How could I be stuffing my face with all of this for one meal, when so many of those around me would likely ration that amount for days, or maybe rarely get the opportunity to enjoy this type of food. I immediately gave my cookies to the little girl for all of her help. She shyly and genuinely said thank you and skipped away. I could hear her excitement behind the curtain as she showed her mother.
After that, I talked to all of the women on my tour, and convinced them all to give away what they could not eat. It was an easy sell, as we were all feeling the imbalance of the situation. Over the next 15 minutes, everyone gave away their food, and the atmosphere was a bit surprising to me. There was no begging (as I think I would do, if I was that poor), only genuine gratitude (but the appropriate amount, after all, it is just a little bit of food).
The most wonderful thing I witnessed was how one family all ran to their mother to instantly give her their food, and how one little boy broke the breadstick he received in two and gave the other half to his little brother. When you are hungry, you share with those you love.
How lucky and blessed I am for everything I have in Canada. And, how lucky and blessed these people are to feel such love for each other.