The alarm rings loudly in my ears and I jump out of bed startled and disorientated. “Is it really 3:45 am in the morning already?” I think to myself deliriously. As I peer out the window into the darkness, a glint of light flickers, casting an orange glaze along the dusty pavement. The laneway is empty and the night air is warm – remarkably warm. I look at the face of my eight-year-old son Jasper, who, still fast asleep and looking very cosy, has not been awakened by the hotel’s alarm clock. As I watch him sleep peacefully, I think to myself whether the sights of yesterday were too much for his young eyes.
All of a sudden, Jasper wakes. “Is it time to go see the temples Dad?” he asks excitedly. Very soon Jasper and I will be sharing our first Cambodian sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is considered to be one of the eighth wonders in the world, and this is a moment I have been waiting to share with Jasper for a very long time.
(18 hours earlier)
“Wow … this is amazing,” says Jasper as we make our way to our room. The scent of fresh jasmine wafts through the hotel’s passageways. The shadows of a candle’s flame dance across a giant Buddha’s head carved into a stone wall. Lotus flowers bigger than grapefruits sit in stunning arrangements positioned at every turn. Artwork depicting the traditional ways of Cambodian life adorns the walls. Our accommodation is the Shinta Mani Club – a small intimate boutique hotel designed by the acclaimed architect Bill Bensley. Known for its exceptional standards, the Shinta Mani also leads the way in responsible tourism through its not-for-profit component, the Shinta Mani Foundation, and this is one of the reasons we are staying here.
The hotel’s manager has kindly organised for Jasper and me to spend our first day in Siem Reap with the foundation visiting the projects it supports, but before this we are making a visit to an orphanage that a friend of mine helps out.
Our tuktuk pulls up outside a gate with a small but indiscreet sign that reads ‘Together for Cambodia’. The large rusty steel gates open with a piercing screech as the bottom of the gates drag along the concrete. A security guard smiles and signs us in.
Standing in front of us is a small girl. Her name is Gigi. She is three years old and has a smile big enough to light up even the darkest of rooms. Her mother abandoned her when she was two years old. Although she was left to die on the streets, Gigi’s willing spirit managed to catch the eyes of passersby and she luckily found herself a home at the Together for Cambodia orphanage.
Behind Gigi stands a group of kids ranging from 3–17 years old, each and every one with a story to tell. A story that is not pleasant and a story that you would not wish upon any human being. From being left to die in gutters to sexual abuse and trafficking at its most gross form, the stories of these kids are nothing short of brutal and the thought that a human being could descend to such levels is hard to believe. Yet the smile on these kids is palpable. You can feel the generosity of their spirits oozing and within minutes one of the kids grabs Jasper and drags him off to the volleyball court. Soon they are happily playing volleyball, giggling to themselves ecstatically and having a wonderful time. Naturally, with no TV or digital distractions, beach volleyball comes easily to them and there is much fun to be had as they bring Jasper up to speed on how to play.
I spend my time with our host Lidia, an inspirational woman who has devoted herself to the kids. The stories break my heart but the care and conditions the kids receive are uplifting and you cannot help but feel compelled to help out in any way. Jasper and I decide to buy them a big box of apples for dinner – a treat that they rarely receive. As we depart, the kids all crowd around Jasper and, as the cuddles abound, I know we will be back some day. By the time we make it back to the hotel it is late, and before long our weary heads have hit the pillow and we are both deep in sleep.
(Alarm clock rings)
Soon we are weaving our way through the moon-lit streets of Siem Reap in our trusty tuktuk. As we make our way to Angkor Wat in the dark, we soon find ourselves lying on the outer stone walls of the temple. Waiting for the sun to rise, I reflect on the previous day. My head is filled with photographic memories – a collection of moments that seem etched in my mind from my childhood. Watching Jasper run amongst the temple’s walls, ducking in and out of endless passageways and small openings, I am conscious that I am sharing a special moment in the life of my son. I hope these photographs somehow etch their way into Jasper’s mind providing a collection of images that can one day serve as a positive force in his life.
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