Back in Phnom Penh, Jim, the lovely owner of California 2, the hotel I stayed at gave me a recommendation as I was leaving. He described a little temple south of Siem Reap, the opposite direction to the well known temples of Angkor and off the tourist track. Jim said it would probably be deserted and as I am not a fan of crowds, this piqued my interest. Armed with a crudely drawn map and bad pronunciation, I eventually found my way to the little-known Wat Athvea.
Jim was right, it was deserted. I was the only one there, free to wander and photograph to my heart's content. Being alone in such an old, grand complex was a weird feeling. Kind of eerie I guess. It was clearly still used for worship, as there was incense smoking away and a buddha statue draped in orange.
Like the Angkor temples, the carvings in Wat Athvea were similarly intricate, yet a little more modest. But to be honest, my favourite memory of that day isn't to do with the history or the carvings at all.
As I was walking around the grounds of the temple doing my thing, I noticed a boy walking over the grass towards me. I was initially trying to ignore him, as I tend to do often, as I can be a little shy and didn't think I was in the mood for talking, feeling a little maudlin (as I was on my way to the airport and was the second last day of a 5 week trip overseas).
We did end up getting into a conversation, the impression of which has left a very strong imprint in my memory. He was a little younger than me, and studying at the Buddhist school which is next to the temple. He told me all about how he must work very hard every day to pay for his board at the school and the monks are sometimes not very nice to him. I heard about the tragedies in his family, his father and older brother died, so he was the man of the family. His mother and sisters were struggling, money wise, and he was at school learning so he could eventually make a living to support them. It was really humbling to listen to him talk about his life, and how he focussed on all the good parts of his life and felt very lucky, despite everything that he had experienced. For him, it was unfortunately just part of life living in Cambodia, but for me, well I was pretty speechless to be honest. He was happy to just talk to me to practice his English, and it was lucky he was so talkative, as I felt like anything I said would sound awfully selfish, and entitled I guess. I can't even think of the right words to express the way I felt.
Contrast that with my life, when I feel like I'm having a bad day when I can't get a coffee from my usual coffee shop. It puts things in perspective.
Eventually the conversation wound up as I had to get to the airport. He showed me around his school, including the shrine (??) which had a very beautiful and elaborate gold buddha inside. As I left, I regret not getting his contact information, it would have been lovely to be penpals or something, and be able to visit him again one day. Oh well. So I got in my tuktuk and went to the airport. On the way to the airport I got a little teary. I must have got some dust in my eye...
I think that little trip to Wat Athvea was probably the most memorable few hours of my entire five weeks in southeast asia. I felt so touched by that conversation as I really hadn't had the opportunity (or didn't really make the opportunity, to be honest) to spend much time talking to the local people. From now on I will definitely make more of an effort, because I think experiences like this are really what make a trip really special.