Sometimes at dinner we reminisce about some of the amazing places we’ve visited around the world. Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica and other beach destinations are the obvious favorites. But recently Triton asked the our two teenage girls to list their most memorable foreign destination. When they did, it surprised and heartened us. Sophia and Ava agreed that our family trip to Cambodia sticks out in their minds as much as any place we’ve been.

When we asked why, they did us proud. Both girls agreed the trip had many interesting sights to discover, but it was the people – the other kids – that affected them deeply. “Their lives are so different from ours – so hard in comparison. Yet they smiled so much and were genuinely pleased to welcome us.”

It touched us. But it also underlined something important for us, the adult chaperones: our kids are wise beyond their years and understand more than they are often given credit for. They’re astute travelers who learn valuable lessons from their travel experiences that last a lifetime.

family poses with Angkor Wat in the distance

Can’t tell from this photo, but it was soooo hot that day at Angkor Wat.

Family Trip to Cambodia

Originally, we had planned our family trip to Cambodia so the girls could see firsthand the fantastic Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat. Our family had become obsessed with the film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and the girls wanted to channel their inner Angelina Jolie. They had visions of scrambling over the temple ruins, swinging on ropes and finding lost treasures. And yes, we did find treasures.

family descends into Temple ruins in Cambodia

Not sure which Temple this is in Siem Reap, but descending into darkness was sure spooky.

Cambodia’s Tumultuous History

But we had also talked frankly at home before the journey about the history of Cambodia. We reiterated for the girls how, even though the country had won its independence from France in the early 1950’s, it remained war-torn for decades. Then there was the abomination of the Khmer Rouge who killed over one-third of the country’s population. Cambodians endured political riots was recent as the early 21st century.

skulls on display at the killing fields near Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our girls were horrified to learn of the infamous Cambodian Killing Fields, where monuments like this one now stand.

When we talked about our Cambodian memories the other night though, it was the people our girls remembered. In particular, the high spirits of the kids in Cambodia really made them think.

street vendors in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Street vendors are everywhere in Cambodia, trying to earn money to support their families.

Shinta Mani Resort & Foundation

The resort we stayed in at Siem Reap was called Shinta Mani Resort, and is owned by a nonprofit (the Shinta Mani Foundation). The Foundation teaches local school kids how to read and write. But the girls also remembered the kids barely older than themselves that worked at he resort. You see, the Foundation trains the children in the hospitality trade, so they can become wage earners and financially support their families. The girls were really interested in this training concept, particularly because of the terrible poverty we saw just outside the manicured grounds of our resort.

pool and guest rooms at Shinta Mani Resort, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The pool at Shinta Mani Resort was pretty spectacular.

Sophia and Ava totally got it as preteens. One even remarked that America could learn a lesson about educating and training young people. After all, we’ve got plenty of poverty here too. Hmmm – elect that girl to political office stat!

View and grounds inside the Shinta Mani Resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our room had this amazing view of the Shinta Mani Resort from our balcony.

Villages in the Jungle

The next day we wanted to see more of the rural countryside, deep in the Cambodian jungles. On a steaming hot day, we pedaled through a guided 12-mile jungle bike tour on muddy paths. Along the way, we stopped in small villages and passed homes with no doors or glass windows – or sometimes even walls. Some houses had chickens walking freely inside.

riding bikes through the jungle in Cambodia

Our bike ride on muddy trails through the jungle threw dirt globbers on our backs, but who cares?

The girls got emotional again, remembering a sweet small boy, wearing very little, running barefoot up the dirt path to greet us. He was all smiles –  giggling and waving hello as we rode by. Looking back on that little boy, Sophia reflected on how happy he was – “and he had nothing”, she said. We had a great conversation afterwards about how having a lot of stuff doesn’t equate to happiness. Life lessons.

jungle trail through Cambodian jungle village with chickens

Our bike ride took us through Cambodian jungle villages where locals live in abject poverty.

Gender Inequity at the Monastery

Ava was particularly bothered when we visited a buddhist monastery at the end of our bike ride. Amid all the beauty, peace and love at the temple, she noticed there were almost no girls. All the young monks were boys, some younger than our girls own ages.

Young monks in training at Cambodian monastery with American girls

These young monks in training were fascinated to meet Ava and Sophia.

She asked our guide where all the girl monks were, and he told us a sad story. In this area of Cambodia, families have no money for private school. Because the monasteries include education as part of their training process for monkhood, they send their boys here. Girls cannot be monks, so they cannot attend the monastery schools. Therefore, girls do not have access to what boys are given the opportunity to learn. Both of our girls were really upset that girls get discriminated against, because they aren’t given the same chances as boys.

monks walking across plaza at Buddhist monastery in Cambodia

Monks making their way to pray in the temple at this Buddhist Monastery in Cambodia

A Comparison to Home

“We come back home,” said one of them, “and hear people complaining about how bad it is in America. Sure, it’s not perfect. But we’ve seen places they have it so much worse. Yet the people there are welcoming us in, while they go on about their lives with their family.”

On the long plane ride home, we had plenty of time to reflect on our family trip to Cambodia. It seems the most powerful part of the journey to Cambodia was not the monuments where the Hollywood movies were made. It was meeting the people, including the kids their age and younger in the remote jungle villages.

floating village family on Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia

The floating villages of Lake Tonle Sap near Siem Reap, where families like this one live far differently than us.

Triton and I smiled, knowing that we are a family that is “different” in the eyes of even people in our own community. We feel a responsibility to show our girls as much of this diverse world as we can. Our kid’s long-term memories of our travels make them better, more empathetic people. And we’re more resolved than ever to allow them to experience for themselves that people everywhere really are the same. The vast majority of human beings just want to live decent lives. They deserve the same kindness and respect we’d give a family member or neighbor at home.

roadside storefronts in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Make-do storefronts line the roads near Angkor Wat, waiting for tourists to shop their wares.

Sophia and Ava get that this is the key to being conscious, caring travelers – Citizens of the World. We carry that baggage proudly.