From temples to tables

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The dark is lifting faster than I would like as our tuk-tuk rattles its way through the pre-dawn quiet of Siem Reap. It’s a little after 5am, the hour our driver assured us was plenty early enough to reach the temples of Angkor Wat in time to watch the sunrise, but as the sky grows ever less black, I find myself screaming inside with frustration. It’s a race we’re never going to win, and as the burnt umber streaks of light stretch out across the horizon like the limbs of Lakshmi, I realise there’s nothing to do but give in to the fact that we’re simply too late.

The day has dawned as we pull up beside the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat, making the uneven and rain puddle-filled terrace walkway to the temple easily navigable, but disheartening none the less. Even more disheartening is the ten-row deep crowd that have already beaten us to it.

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Room for one more?

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The day has dawned

It’s not the initial experience I had imagined, but there is still something to be said about this dream-come-true-gone-awry that can’t fail to move me. The congregational quiet, the shared revery, iPads and cameras and awe-struck eyes of strangers all straining to capture a moment they will never forget.

We head into the heart of the temple complex, where history hangs in the morning air like a tangible entity; a misty haze comprised of 900 years of stories, transformed into tiny droplets that hang suspended in the already relentless heat. It’s a place where the past tries to linger for as long as the visitors do.

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The corridors of Angkor Wat

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The beautifully intricate sandstone carvings

We continue on, exploring the temples of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Our progress is slow, partly on purpose, partly weighed down by the oppressive heat and humidity that has me dripping in sweat, my feet slipping out of my flip-flops with every step. The physical discomfort makes it hard to take it all in, and I berate myself for not being more grateful. Every time we face another set of stone steps I find myself hesitating… is it worth the climb? I know it is, and as the time-worn stone faces gaze knowingly down upon me, I can’t help but imagine all the people who battled this very same heat for forty years to build the temples I am now half-begrudgingly making my way around.

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More steps? Really?!

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The faces of Angkor Thom; totally worth it

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The rubble of Ta Prohm

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Time-worn and tree-twisted

By the time the sun has reached its highest point we are both eager to return to the refuge of our air-conditioned hotel, and decide to head back. I sit on the bed in the cool of our little room and begin to sift through the hundreds of photos we have just taken, once again feeling the frustration of my physical struggle. For years I have dreamt of this moment, the quintessential Cambodian experience, and the best I could manage was a meagre half-day visit. Did I just waste it?

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My favourite shot from Angkor Thom

A couple of days later we find ourselves taking shelter from the pre-monsoon rains beneath the corrugated tin roof of a little street-side restaurant. Amidst the heavy pounding of the raindrops a young boy is weaving his way down the road. We watch as his hurriedly makes his way from restaurant to restaurant, stopping just long enough to deftly dip his hand into the pile of dirty dishes stacked infront of each establishment, retrieving a few remnants of discarded dinners. A smattering of rice grains, unwanted pieces of gristle. He moves effortlessly; a routine clearly, and heartbreakingly, well practiced. I look at Lee, at the huge pile of rice and stir-fried greens between us on the table, and in one of those humble moments that changes everything, Lee stands from the table and runs after the little boy, inviting him to join us for dinner.

Soaked to the bone, his little body shivers as he sits beside me, shovelling down a huge plate of food so fast I worry he is going the throw up. He speaks no English, and our Khmer is limited to only hello and thank you, but the universal language of a smile and thumbs-up is enough to put him at ease. I want to cry, but what right do I have? He doesn’t need or want my pity, but in this moment, at a tiny plastic table in the rain, I want to give him the whole world; to scoop him up and give him all the blessings my life has been filled with. It tears me up to know that I can’t.

His plate emptied, he points to the kitchen and signals for more food. Amazed that his tiny body has room left for more, we pass him a menu, and he points to the dish he wants; a simple plate of chicken and rice. Once again we watch as his plate is emptied, and I wonder when he last had such a good meal, or when he will have one again. Then, as soon as his last mouthful is swallowed, he stands, places his hands together and bows. “Aw koon”, he says, thank you, and walks away. He doesn’t ask for money, and he doesn’t look back.

It is a moment that single-handedly comprises every experience I ever hoped to garner from my time here, every lesson I ever hoped to learn, proving that not having everything can still be enough, that I don’t have to do it all to make the most of this journey. No temple will remain as clear in my memory as the face of this small, hungry boy. We shared our dinner with him, and in return, he gave me Cambodia. Indomitable, humble, and full of grace.

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Domingo May 26, 2013 at 19:44

Excellent post. Beautifully written.
Domingo recently posted..3 Months before Departure

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Hannah Loaring May 26, 2013 at 19:53

Thank you Domingo, I’m so glad you enjoyed it :)

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Jason May 26, 2013 at 20:45

Another great article Hannah.

Although this is my first time commenting, I have loved reading through your journey on your blog. Keep it up.

The Angkor temples look amazing, I can’t wait to visit them myself.
Jason recently posted..The 5 Worst Excuses to Not Travel (And How To Defeat Them)

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Hannah Loaring May 27, 2013 at 04:14

Thanks Jason, I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and am so happy you have been enjoying the blog!

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Jasmine May 26, 2013 at 20:55

I had the exact same feelings the first time I visited the temples. By midday I just wanted to get out of the heat and at the time it felt like I was cheating myself. Looking back though, it was still one of the most amazing things to have had the opportunity to be there.
You made me cry with that beautifully written anecdote at the end. An absolutely simple yet beautiful moment described so poetically. Your writing gets better with every post.

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 05:12

Thank you so much for your kind words Jasmine. And it’s so nice to hear that we are not the only ones who struggled with the heat! I watched other people bounding around with barely a drop of sweat on them, while I was absolutely drenched! How do they do it?!

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Rob May 26, 2013 at 21:52

A lovely post Hannah. Beautiful.
Rob recently posted..The moment that changed my life

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 02:33

Thank you so much Rob!

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Rika | Cubicle Throwdown May 27, 2013 at 00:30

When traveling I often find myself rushing around and getting antsy to get the “experience” of whatever I’m seeing that day… I understand wanting to get out of the heat and back to the air-con! But I’m glad you realized it, and still tried to appreciate what you were seeing. And such a lovely story about the little boy!
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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 05:07

Thanks Rika, it’s good to know we’re not the only ones!

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Kim May 27, 2013 at 04:43

I spent about 20 minutes at Machu Picchu before I wanted to leave. The journey to get there was better than actually being there, thought watching the clouds lift to reveal it was amazing.

Anyway, Hannah, it is your story of the little boy that speaks to me now. I have had so many of those moments where you want to cry but what right do you have to it? No one wants your pity. I’m so glad you shared dinner with this boy. I’m sure that these small acts of kindness of part of what he relies on to keep him going.
Kim recently posted..About the light

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 05:06

Absolutely. The emotions I struggled with as we shared our dinner with him were just that – my emotions. I had no right to place them on him, and wanted to treat him with respect – as the equal that he is.

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Ashlie May 27, 2013 at 05:36

All the beautiful places, historical temples, world wonders … it seems it’s always the encounters with people that leave the most lasting impressions on me. What a simple yet powerful exchange!
Ashlie recently posted..Send Us Your Questions!

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 05:01

Yes, at the end of the day, those are the real life changing moments; the humble exchanges that, though you might not be able to photograph them, will remain vivid in your memory forever.

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eemusings May 27, 2013 at 06:43

LOVE love love this. Especially what you did for that little boy.

We were at the temples just yesterday, actually. It didn’t go quite as planned, either. Our hostel owner advised that dawn might not be worth it during the rainy/cloudy season, so we skipped it. Still overslept and didn’t make it there till late morning. Wasn’t QUITE as crowded as your pictures though!

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 04:54

Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It must have been nice to explore with less people around – the huge crowd at dawn was certainly frustrating to say the least. There was a huge line of traffic as the tuk-tuks all drove towards the temple!

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Jonathan Welford May 27, 2013 at 09:41

Wow, great piece of writing, I do hope you are cracking on with your novel? It will be an amazing waste not to tap into your talent. Also I am pleased that my furtherbound fix is coming more frequently than once a month. Can I have a commitment from you that you’ll do a minimum of one a week?

Please say yes.

With thanks

Jonathan

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Hannah Loaring May 27, 2013 at 12:44

It’s nice to be in demand! Thanks for your continued support and encouragement Jonathan. I will promise to do my best :)

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Sophia-Rose Ramsden May 27, 2013 at 10:06

Beautiful.

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Hannah Loaring May 27, 2013 at 11:43

Thank you Sophia! Can’t wait to see you soon :)

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TammyOnTheMove May 28, 2013 at 03:34

I found the hundreds of tourists at sunrise very frustrating as well, especially since a lot of them were talking loudly too. Such a moment should be celebrated with silence and appreciation, so I left the sunrise snappers to explore the temples. I am so glad I did as I had the temples all to myself. Sadly there are so many children like the little boy. If they are unlucky they get snatched up by traffickers who make them sell postcards etc to tourists. You will probably notice them on the riverside in PP. As I dont want to support the traffickers I never buy anything from them, but usually offer food too. Those kids usually don’t want food, but they are always really thirsty, so usually appreciate it if you buy them a drink.
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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 04:59

I’ve read about the traffickers, and have already seen the scores of children selling books, bracelets and postcards along the riverside here in Phnom Penh. I wouldn’t buy from them either, but that’s a really good tip about buying them a drink. I’ll be sure to carry extra bottles of water around with us.

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Justin May 28, 2013 at 05:48

Hi Hannah,

I just started to read your blog last week and I really enjoy it.

I’m going to Cambodia next week for the fourth time and reading your blog has just got me really excited to go back :).

Thanks!

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 06:51

Thanks Justin, I’m so happy you found me! I hope you have a wonderful time in Cambodia – you might also like to read my previous post about giving blood in Siem Reap at the Angkor Hospital for Children – they are in urgent need of donations so if you are able to tie this in with your visit I know they would be incredibly grateful.

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Arielle May 28, 2013 at 06:24

The last two sentences: brilliant. You write in such a beautiful and flowing manner I could never attempt to duplicate. Absolutely beautiful.

And the experience with the little boy is heart wrenching and perfectly captured. What a memory to keep!
Arielle recently posted..Through the Locks Without a Bra

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 06:52

Wow, thank you so much Arielle, I really appreciate your kind and encouraging words. Meeting that little boy was such an incredible and humbling experience, so I am so happy I was able to do it justice on the blog :)

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Patricia GW via Facebook May 28, 2013 at 06:44

Really moving, Hannah. You and Lee have such big hearts.

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 08:12

Thank you Tricia, I hope your new life in Japan is going well!

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Danica May 28, 2013 at 08:54

I get so excited every time I see a new post. Once again, it made so happy and sad to read your experiences. Big hugs all round x

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 08:59

Thank you honey, big hugs right back at ya. Miss you madly, as always xxx

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Nancy Patterson via Facebook May 28, 2013 at 13:40

Beautifully written. I thank you for the perspective, and for sharing your journey.

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 16:13

Thank you so much Nancy :)

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Kristi Uphill via Facebook May 28, 2013 at 13:49

Wow so moving !!!!! Xxxx

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 16:11

Thank you Kristi, I’m so glad you enjoyed it :)

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Rhonda May 28, 2013 at 16:22

So beautifully written Hannah. We, too, experienced several similar incidents all over Cambodia and found we were rarely hungry, as eating dinner in front of starving, orphaned street children became too much to bear and most of our meals were shared with them. It changes you forever.
We were lucky enough to spend 3 half days at the temples of Angkor, venturing further afield to the outer temples than many do and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Having said that, just a glimpse of that amazing moment in time is sure to stay with you forever.
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Hannah Loaring May 30, 2013 at 13:24

Thank you so much Rhonda. It is so hard to witness the struggles of the countless street children here, and we don’t like to give them money, but often share food and buy them water. It truly does change you forever.

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Carmel May 28, 2013 at 16:40

What a blessing sharing a meal can be. I think those are the moments that really stick with us in our travels and in life, really.
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Hannah Loaring May 29, 2013 at 02:32

Yes, the sharing of food is something so simple, and yet so tangible, bringing people together and breaking down boundaries. I love how moments that seem so humble and fleeting can become the markers that forever shape your life.

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Franny’s Footsteps via Facebook May 28, 2013 at 16:41

You guys did what many people only think about doing, but never act on.

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Hannah Loaring May 28, 2013 at 17:36

I guess it can be a nerve-wracking thing to approach a stranger in this way, especially a child, so I can understand why people would perhaps be hesitant, but it was the most rewarding and humbling experience imaginable. I hope our story might encourage more people to do the same :)

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Brian May 28, 2013 at 17:15

As always, beautifully written.

The longer Kim and I are on the road, the more I realize that people, not destinations, are what make traveling so worthwhile. The destinations are just the means by which you meet new people. Having dinner with this boy will stay with you in a way that the memories of Angor Wat, or any other temple, simply can not.
Brian recently posted..One Year of Travel!

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Hannah Loaring May 30, 2013 at 13:16

Thank you so much Brian. As the saying goes, it really is the journey, not the destination. All the tiny little unexpected moments, the small things between the big things. Those are the real gifts of this adventure, and are the real treasures I will keep with me always :)

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Patti May 29, 2013 at 01:44

I think giving the little rain-soaked boy a meal, is a memory that will stay with you forever. I love the photos of the trees trunks strewn in and out of the temple, it’s an amazing thing what mother nature will do when left alone!
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Hannah Loaring May 29, 2013 at 02:38

It really is something I know I’ll never forget, he was such a sweet little soul. And yes, aren’t those trees incredible? They make an already beautiful place even more breathtaking. Ta Prohm was definitely my favourite temple because of this :)

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) May 29, 2013 at 02:46

I think one of the things that traveling like this and chasing our dreams teaches us is that perfection is not as fixed as we might think and it’s up to us to define (or redefine) it based on our own evolution. The Hannah who first dreamed of visiting Angkor Wat is very different from the woman you are now, and I think it shows remarkable growth that you were able to accept and appreciate your time there for what it was in reality!

One of my favorite quotes come from this crazy chef, Marco Pierre White, who says that “perfection is a lot of little things done well.” I think that traveling has been teaching me that this is indeed the case as I find it is the small moments, the little ones, where the spark of perfection gleams brightest.
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Hannah Loaring May 29, 2013 at 12:11

Thank you Steph, what a great quote, and a great way to summarise things. I really do have to learn to let go of my restrictive expectations and just enjoy the experience as it unravels, in whatever way that may be :)

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Candace May 29, 2013 at 14:44

Hannah, I can’t thank you enough for such a moving post – and for one I could not relate to anymore than I already do!! I felt the same as you at Angkor Wat (and I too spent just half a day there ;) – but I think it really is hard to connect with big sights like a temple, cathedral, or even, dare I say, a pyramid.

As incredible as the history of Angkor Wat is, at the end of the day, it essentially is still just a building…there’s no interaction, engagement or experience taking place there, you know? But the moment of exchange you had with that little boy? Now that is an encounter that will move you in a way a building can’t.

When I look back at the post I wrote about small moments in India, it’s funny to see there’s actually a line about how we don’t love India for the Taj Mahal anymore than we love Cambodia for Angkor Wat. I wrote that well before you and I had actually been to Cambodia, but now I think we both can relate to it!

Thank you for sharing such a raw, beautiful moment with us, Hannah. xxx
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Hannah Loaring May 30, 2013 at 13:12

You are so right Candace, and I certainly don’t love India for the Taj Mahal, so I don’t know why I had such high expectations of how I should react to seeing Angkor Wat. I guess in that moment it just felt like I was ungrateful or something, you know? It sounds so silly now… Cambodia is so much more than its history, and I fall further in love with the country every day.

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Lesley Machray May 30, 2013 at 10:37

My favorite post so far, truly beautiful Hannah and Lee! brought a tear to my eye x

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Hannah Loaring May 30, 2013 at 13:12

Thank you Lesley, I’m so glad you enjoyed it :)

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Montecristo Travels (Sonja) May 31, 2013 at 19:57

Ah crap … read this at work and now I’m crying … Note to self…DO NOT do this at work! (even if on break).

Lovely post my dear. Just … lovely.
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Hannah Loaring June 2, 2013 at 10:54

Oh no! Sorry to do that to you, but I’m also glad I was able to make an impact. It has been so hard for us as we try to find a balance between too much and not enough. We don’t like to give kids money, as most of them are trafficked and don’t see a penny of it, but at least if we can give them food we know we have helped them in some small way. It’s heartbreaking because we always want to do so much more, but have to draw a line.

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Marisol June 2, 2013 at 06:02

Hi Hannah, this is just so profound and beautiful. My husband and i were in Cambodia few months ago. We loved all the sights and temples but what moved us the most were the people experience. I wish I could have written my experience as beautifully as you did. In my next life time maybe, for now I’ll just pictures.
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Hannah Loaring June 2, 2013 at 10:57

Marisol, thank you so much for your kind words. Cambodia really is a country that is deeply personified by its people, and we fall further in love with it every day. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – and I always enjoy your beautiful photography.

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Coco June 14, 2013 at 17:47

Another beautiful post – it almost made me cry! You really do write so well. I also want to tell you how amazingly healthy and fresh you look in all of your photos – I think that is the sort of look that only travelling can give you. All the best. :) x
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flipnomad August 15, 2013 at 13:06

beautiful post and i’m quite at a loss for words…

sometimes we forget how lucky we are even though we can travel, have a few bucks in our pockets, have families and friends, have a decent place to call home, eat two or three times a day etc, until we meet those people who almost have nothing…

really heartbreaking… and i’m with you when you said he doesn’t deserve a pity, but rather a helping hand.
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Hannah August 17, 2013 at 09:11

Yes, it was a very powerful experience, perhaps the most memorable of our entire time on the road so far. He was such a humble little boy, with such a gracious spirit, and my heart just melted while he sat there and ate with us. We have had a few similar experiences since, but that will be a moment that stays with me forever.

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Morgan September 19, 2013 at 22:26

This is such a sweet story. Brings tears to my eyes!
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Hannah September 22, 2013 at 12:26

Thank you Morgan, I’m so glad you enjoyed it :)

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Brian & Allan October 27, 2013 at 13:48

What a wonderful heart warming story. I hope our experience is as powerful as yours :o)

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Hannah October 29, 2013 at 10:46

Cambodia is such a magical country, so I’m sure you will have lots of powerful experiences there. I look forward to reading all about them!

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