You don’t get forever to travel with your children. First they’re too young, portable but not yet fully sentient. Then they’re too old—too old to want to go anywhere with you, anyway. The time between the confines of the Snugli and the teenage sneer can be a mere blink before there’s nothing left but addled memory and digital photos that don’t even live deep enough in the real world to get dog-eared. Disney virtualities and here-today-gone- tomorrow Club Meds have their limits. The traveling family needs to consider a destination with some permanence to it. Somewhere like, say, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which was the world’s largest religious building when it was built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the twelfth century and remains the world’s largest religious building today.
Yes, it’s halfway around the world, it can be expensive to get to, and it’s in the middle of a small, beleaguered Southeast Asian country that only 25 years ago was home to the infamous killing fields where Pol Pot and his maniac Khmer Rouge regime attempted to turn history back to the Year Zero, murdering 20 percent of the nation’s population in the process. The countryside is still dotted with shallow mass graves, and flush toilets can be difficult to find.
But none of this constitutes a good reason not to take the family to Angkor. If not quite Switzerland, Cambodia has a political situation as pacific as any time since the pre–Vietnam War days, when canny Prince Sihanouk passed the time playing jazz saxophone and badminton. Besides, there is simply nothing like Angkor. The first view of the massive central temple, its grand cone-shaped towers etched against the sky, is a sight that will not be forgotten. And when you travel with your kids, that is exactly what you’re after: something to hang on to.
This was the general idea as my wife and I pulled into Angkor along with our three children, Billy, then 9, Rosie, 12, and Rae, 16. Cambodia was an early stop in a three-month circumnavigation of the globe, a semi-epic journey during which we turned up in Thailand, Nepal, large tracts of India, Jordan, Egypt, and Jerusalem. Noting that our children were spending an inordinate amount of time immersing themselves in the TV-borne minutiae of tinny modern life, my wife and I saw ourselves as latter-day Moseses resolved to lead our trio of goth/ska-punk/hip-hop-bound junior consumers from pop bondage. We wanted them to see the World, to partake of the Real, the unspun and the uncropped, the magnificent and the malign, squat toilets or not.
In this regard, few places suffice like the temples of Angkor, of which the famous Wat is only one of dozens of awe-inspiring edifices stretched across an immense plain north of Tonle Sap, the sacred lake of the Khmer people. With several new hotels dotting the postwar landscape, Angkor gets its fair share of tourists these days, both backpackers and package-deal types, but the sheer vastness of the temples always affords the traveler a sense of being alone with the mysteries. Here one confronts the true Big Picture, the limits of the human capacity to create both unimagined beauty and terror. Walking through the seemingly endless corridors, with the twenty-foot-high sandstone walls filled with remarkable bas-reliefs of scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, one is struck by a grand sense of opposing forces—Gods versus Gods, Man versus God, Good versus Evil.
In the eastern gallery (the place is more than a mile around) we beheld a 50-foot tableau titled The Churning Ocean of Milk. Our guide, Mr. Long, said this carving explained “a story of redemption of the stinking world, a try to make the world new again . . . You see here 92 demons and 88 gods; all have hands on the giant serpent. Very long serpent. They pull on it, like a great tug-of-war rope. Back, forth. Back, forth. This stirs up the sea of milk, brings up the fresh milk. Otherwise, the milk turns sour . . . It is a battle which always goes on. Never stops, forever and ever. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes bad. We hope always for the good result.”
Coming from Mr. Long, this meant something. Our kids listened with shocked horror as Mr. Long told how the Khmer Rouge had killed both his parents, how he’d spent much of his childhood in refugee camps. Yet he had survived, and managed to have children of his own.
It was what Mr. Long called “a life of extremes” because however terrible things had once been, now they were “very beautiful.” In this way, Mr. Long said, he was like Angkor itself. In the waning days of the 1975 war, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge troops assaulted a contingent of Lon Nol’s American-supported government soldiers who had taken refuge inside the colossal temple. The siege went on for days. The KR shot at the 1,000-year-old walls with tanks and lobbed mortars into the ancient courtyards. Just as it endured the silent centuries when it was overgrown by remorseless jungle, Angkor survived Pol Pot. Now most of the bullet holes have been filled in, but some remain, as witness to those apocalyptic times. This was the main thing Mr. Long wanted the children to know, that there was no such thing as Year Zero, that there was always a past and a future, which is an excellent reason to have a family to begin with.