Never did we imagine a year when ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples and a southeast Asian New Year celebration would threaten to crowd out our family's Easter celebration. But 2017 has been a year filled with surprises.
Khmer New Year is the king of all holidays in Cambodia. The official celebration lasts for three days but unofficially starts well before then. School gets out for two weeks. Children play games unique to this season, and traditional Khmer dances can be seen at many public gathering places. The capital city becomes a ghost town, as the locals head to the provinces for large family gatherings. We did not want to be left out of the fun, so we brought a family gathering of our own (thanks to Thais' parents, who hopped a rather large pond to be here). Our traveling party of seven made its way to Siem Reap, the Times Square for Cambodia's Khmer New Year celebration.
Siem Reap is a quaint and lovely tourist town of 230,000 people. It is famous for its proximity to the ancient temples of the Angkor empire, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, and dozens of others. More than a million tourists descend upon this area to celebrate Khmer New Year, with the temples serving as the main draw.
We quickly learned about the coolest of all traditions -- blasting random strangers with water cannons in the streets. (This is a practice that we simply must adopt in the U.S. -- perhaps for a sweltering Summer holiday of our own, like July 4. Regardless, let's do this.) Whether riding a tuk tuk or walking down the street, we were a target. We got very wet. On occasion, the water was accompanied by talcum powder, making a nice gooey, pasty mess. The boys decided to take up the fight for our family. They were quickly soaked head to toe, and they absolutely loved it. A good time was had by all.
The next discovery was the Siem Reap foot pedicure, using fish to exfoliate your feet. To call this a unique experience is a vast understatement. It tickles, and it's pretty strange. But it ranks high on the list of best ways to spend two bucks.
The temples absolutely lived up to their billing. The Angkor Empire dominated this part of the world from the 9th-15th centuries. During its peak (11th-13th centuries), the capital city of Angkor (just north of modern-day Siem Reap) was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world. The temples are their crowning achievements, reflecting the advanced architectural technique, wealth, and power of the Angkor Empire. Most temples in this area were originally built as Hindu temples, and then transitioned to Buddhist temples as Theravada Buddhism became the primary religion in the area. Symbolism from both religions can be found throughout many of these ancient temples.
The hardest part of our trip was celebrating Easter without our community around us. We researched where to worship and celebrate Easter in Siem Reap. There were only 3-4 options. Christian churches can be found somewhat easily in the capital city of Phnom Pehn, where many expats live and work. But beyond Phnom Penh, the statistics on religious preference start to take on greater significance. Cambodia is 90-95% Buddhist, and Christians comprise fewer than 1/2 of 1% of the country. Finding a place to celebrate Easter turned out to be a tremendous challenge. We settled on a small church with services at 4:00 pm, and we planned accordingly. Unfortunately, when we got dressed and tried to find transportation, we were told that there would be no way to get there in the midst of peak Khmer New Year traffic.
This was the first time in my 49 years that I have not been in church on an Easter Sunday. Since we skipped church (despite best efforts), I'll share my 2017 Easter story.
At IJM we begin our work day with a time of "stillness" -- a half-hour of prayer, reading, journaling, and preparation for the day's work. One of the things I have done during this time is to read through the Book of Isaiah. Why Isaiah? Because Isaiah 1:17 is an IJM favorite: "Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." That verse appears in our conference room at the office, and it can be found on IJM t-shirts, bookmarks, and other paraphernalia. "Seek justice." It's why we're here. On my first day in the office, I decided to read Isaiah 1 in full, just to get the full context. I've been reading one Isaiah chapter each work day since we arrived. It has been uncanny how many times my reading in Isaiah has directly lined up with my work. You might call it a coincidence. But there have been too many. And I don't believe in coincidences when it comes to God and working at IJM.
This week, well aware that I would be out of the office, I read ahead in Isaiah. I was again struck by another uncanny "coincidence." Good Friday would have been my 53rd work day at IJM. Here is what I found for Good Friday, in Isaiah 53:
I can't really improve on that, so I'll just say this. Amen, and thanks be to God!
I hope all of you had a wonderful Easter, and a Happy Khmer New Year. Thank you for following along with us on our journey this year.