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A Family Afar: Exploring the Ruins of Cambodia

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

By Jon Bailey

The 900-year-old ruins of Angkor Wat had been bobbing on our bucket list, ever since we spent a boozy evening watching Angelina Jolie in video-game-turned-movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. When business travel to Southeast Asia gave us a reason to go, we packed the kids up and set off for Cambodia. Being the slightly obsessed travel planner in our family, I heavily researched the local culture, history, and lore. But what we discovered when we got there ended up meaning so much more than anything I could’ve planned for.

In Siem Reap, we stayed in a boutique resort owned by the nonprofit Shinta Mani Foundation, which teaches local schoolkids how to read and write—but perhaps more importantly, it trains them in the hospitality trade, so they can financially support their families. Students work various jobs at the hotel, and a large portion of our nightly room rate went to the foundation. Just beyond the manicured resort grounds, locals live in abject poverty. As we journeyed from the property to a downtown dinner in the back of a tuk-tuk (rickshaw), I noticed the girls taking in the surroundings. They observed quietly, saying nothing.

The next day, a guided bike tour wound us 12 miles along a muddy path through the steaming jungle, stopping at little villages along the way to take breaks from the heat. We passed by homes on stilts, homes without doors or glass windows, homes with chickens walking free inside the house. One sweet little boy, wearing almost nothing as he ran barefoot up the dirt path, waved a giggling hello as we rode through. Every village was the same: people living off the land in extreme conditions, toiling in the fields, offering us big, bright smiles and friendly greetings. Despite their middle school malaise, our girls found themselves happily waving back.

Our tour ended at a remote Buddhist monastery deep in the jungle, bustling with activity from visitors and monks. It struck us immediately that most of the monks were no older than our kids. Our guide informed us that the only way for young boys to get a proper education in Cambodia is to serve a term in monkhood. Many stay the rest of their lives, but most return to their families after several years. With growing awareness, Sophia asked, “But what about the girls?” The guide answered, matter-of-factly, that girls aren’t allowed in monkhood, so they aren’t offered the same experiences.

We also visited Wat Thmey, one of the “killing fields” where 1.7 million Cambodian men, women, and children were executed during the Khmer Rouge regime and buried in mass graves. Piles of skulls were stacked in giant sculptures to honor the dead. The kids were repulsed, fascinated, and deeply affected by stories of the all too recent genocide.

All this was juxtaposed with Angkor Wat, the most gorgeous ruins of an entire civilization completely gone. Towering statues teeter at impossible angles, carved centuries ago and now withstanding thousands of visitors each day. Gigantic Buddha heads the size of Mini Coopers sit stone-faced as banyan trees grow through and around them. Monkeys languish in groups atop the structures, ignoring the tourists. It was breathtaking in a way that not even Lara Croft could have prepared us for.

But what moved us more was a realization our girls came to on their own. While boarding our departing flight, Sophia said that her favorite part of the trip had been visiting the local villages and meeting the kids, and Ava agreed.

We listened in the background, hearts swelling with gratitude that although at first we’d set out only to see a film location firsthand, our girls had come away with a connection to the real people who lived there, and gained valuable perspective about this complicated country, without our lecturing.

Who knew a video game movie could create the opportunity for such an empathetic experience?

Jon Bailey is co-founder of i.d.e.a., a San Diego–based marketing agency. He also writes the travel blog

A Family Afar: Exploring the Ruins of Cambodia

Illustration by Daniel Zalkus

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