A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant
Author: Richard Yershon
As you clamber through the stone ruins of Beng Mealea temple 70 kms north of Siem Reap the more adventurous part of your brain goes into overdrive. Defying the dust-filled humidity you negotiate the uncompromising stone blocks that interfere with your path as you enter this magnificent temple. Inspired somewhat by a boyish desire to be Indiana Jones you overcome these mammoth obstacles and are thrust into the central sanctuary where you start to examine the beautiful Hindu carvings. You plan your exit point through the giant tree roots that smother this glorious 12th century creation. Ignoring the sweat accumulating on your upper lip you circulate this monstrous temple awaiting the next surprise. Beng Mealea may not be the grandest Angkor temple, but set in lush jungle and in relative isolation, it is arguably the most compelling.
It is easy to have an overactive imagination in a place of such diverse beauty, however Cambodia is a country that offers you a reality check in every direction. Its history reads like an epic tragedy, Beng Mealea itself was until very recently a region where land mines were plentiful.
It is the people of Cambodia, all of whom have suffered one way or another, that are bringing this majestic land out of a depression that was completely out of their control. This is no more apparent than opposite the dirt road that marks the entranceway to Beng Mealea temple. Here, a modern day inspiration is taking place, courtesy of a delightful young man called Vannak.
Slight and smartly presented with a boyish smile Vannak hardly made the most promising of first impressions. We had barely stepped foot out of our tuk tuk when he approached asking to accompany us in order to improve his grasp of the English language. Slightly perturbed by an experience with an overly avaricious monk two days previous we conversed unenthusiastically whilst strolling, sand underfoot, down the tree-lined road towards the temple. His persistence was admirable albeit slightly irritating, but to be approached in such a manner is hardly uncommon in this part of the world. As pleasantly as we could, we declined his offer of a personal tour and promised to pass by his school providing we had the time upon our return.
Predictably Vannak was there waiting for us as we emerged from the temple. Overwhelmed at such a marvelous experience we were more receptive to his second approach. His confidence increasing with every word exchanged we were successfully ushered towards his school. It was here that we started to appreciate how impressive our new friend was.
Orphaned at a young age, Vannak has dedicated his life in building a secure environment for, and providing an education to those suffering the same, or similar a fate as he had. His face was one of passion, pride and an unnerving focus as he showed us around the classroom, kitchen, and vegetable garden whilst talking of plans to develop more of the surrounding land. There is currently no affiliation with an NGO; the funds to develop the project are born out of Vannak’s desire to share his vision with the people who pass by his beautiful largely unknown creation. It is their generosity that helps to make his dreams become reality.
What makes this unexpected encounter even more memorable are the children themselves. Ranging in age from 3 to 15, it was obvious upon meeting them that they were of very diverse personalities. In the classroom two beautiful young girls hold hands and sing a broken rendition of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. A third girl shyly hid behind a slightly older boy protecting her as he completed his school work. In the garden the same cheery vocalists listened as ‘Papa’, an affectionate term the children give Vannak, discussed the various vegetables he was growing that would feed his children. Their smiles, songs and shyness are as one would expect to see in any children of a similar age. Would these defining examples of childhood be possible if Vannak hadn’t provided this opportunity? Probably not!
As we left, the children followed wanting to shake your hand one last time. As a consequence, one looked back hopeful of another gleaming smile that would conclude an utterly memorable day.
Their lives are certainly not one of privilege, quite the opposite, but the work of one man and his dream to provide a better life for these children leaves you with something even more enduring than the magical temple only a few minutes away.
As our tuk tuk pulls away leaving a slight red mist behind us, you can’t help but feel your faith in humanity has been restored by an unsung hero, the magic man of Beng Mealea.