Since fleeing Cambodia as a toddler with his family more than 20 years ago, Darren Soth has seen nothing of his native country other than the occasional postcards and videos sent by much-loved relatives to his US home.
The view just got better.
Soth and eight members of his extended family are on a month-long tour of Cambodia—timed to celebrate Khmer New Year—to see the land and relatives who for so many years were little more than a blur of memory and photographs.
His first stop after arriving March 25 was a remote Prey Veng province village, some two hours from the bustling capital of Phnom Penh, where his grandmother waited for him.
“She was crying. I was crying, too. She’s 90 now. If I didn’t come now, who knows when I would see her again?” said Soth, who works for a telephone company in the US state of Massachusetts.
The Khmer New Year is by far the nation’s most popular family holiday, a time for relatives to gather for long nights of singing and games at family compounds festooned with flowers and colored lights.
It has also become a popular time for reacquainting relatives torn apart in the dark reign of the Khmer Rouge, a time when gaps were created that lasted for decades as the country fell into years of dangerous political turmoil that only recently was quelled.
The Ministry of Tourism calculates that just under 16,000 visitors landed at Pochentong Airport in April of 1998; just two years later, that number had nearly doubled to 29,270.
No one knows exactly how many of those visitors are Cambodians who once lived here, but anecdotal evidence suggests many former refugees are coming home to visit.
In Soth’s adopted home of Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts, it seemed like everyone was preparing for flights to Cambodia this month, he said.
“You couldn’t get a plane ticket,” said Sam Sok, Soth’s brother-in-law, also from Lowell.
The surge of emotional homecomings are in part due to the Cambodian government’s concerted campaign to bring people home, not to stay, but to help with the expensive rebuilding of crumbling schools and battered pagodas that were left to decay during years of war.
“When we visit each country, that’s what we have been saying to them, talking about coming home to invest,” said Veng Sereyvuth, the minister of tourism. “We are trying to calculate the money spent by these people.”
The tourism boom this time of year is already well-known to hotel operators like Sentot Sutrisnadi of the Sharaton Cambodia Hotel near Wat Phnom. Though the hotel is fully booked through the end of the New Year celebrations, he planned to make 10 rooms available on Thursday for late arrivals, like the Cambodian-American who checked in Tuesday and said more of his family were on their way.
Local tour agencies cater to the returning Cambodians, who often want to blend visits to relatives in the provinces with more traditional tourist stops like Angkor Wat and the beaches of Sihanoukville.
“They want to visit Angkor Wat or to visit friends and relations as well; to meet their mother, their brother or other relatives because this is a good time to get together,” said Lina Thav, the tour manager at Angkor Civilization Travel & Tours in Phnom Penh.
Most of the hotel and tourist agencies offer the lower local price to Cambodians who live overseas, rather than the higher prices charged to foreign tourists, even if the Cambodians have lived abroad for most of their lives, said Lina Thav.
Part tourist, part native son, Soth has made this trip accompanied by his wife, Stacey, also a former refugee, with the intention of sharing Cambodia with their 3-year-old daughter, Sam.
“I think the most important thing is so that she can remember her heritage,” said Stacey, adding that her daughter now loves to feed chickens. She also wants her first elephant ride.
For Darren Soth, his first views of Phnom Penh in more than 25 years were not what he expected.
“Traffic! It’s not a two-way street. It’s more like a seven-way street,” he said.
Though political stability has made it safer here, coming to Cambodia for the first time still presented a string of potential dangers, from illness to robbery.
“I was worried sick about the environment over here,” said Soth. “We have a lot of medication with us.” As for seeing the city, he said: “It’s a good idea to travel in groups. I haven’t been out late at all.”
Like many returning Cambodians, their trip is more than a typical holiday. For the past several months, Soth and his brother-in-law Sam Sok have sent money to the Prey Veng province village where his grandmother lives to help rebuild the village temple.
“It was just something that we decided to do,” Sam Sok said.
Their money paid for partial renovations on the road leading to the temple, repairs to the entrance and several walls, and exterior and interior cosmetic work. The building still needs $10,000 to $15,000 worth of repainting and renovations, they estimate.
More worthy causes awaited them when they arrived in the village. A teacher at the school, who they learned was a relative, told them he needed books, pens and pencils for his ill-equipped classrooms. Soth and Sok returned a few days later with supplies for 500 students.
“It’s something we wanted to do to help the kids, to try to help the country as much as we can, to improve the country over here,” Sok said.
“There’s so much poverty over here. There’s not much education,” Soth added.
They finished off their charitable works in the village with a party last week for everyone, complete with a hired band and buffet. A crew from TVK came along and Soth and Sok ended up on national television, dancing with their relatives.
The charity work comes easily for the two, who say they feel they have made a better life for themselves in the US.
“Everything is so unorganized over here because they just finished the war. In another 10 years, things will be a lot better,” Soth said.
While Soth says he has no plans to move here, Sok, who has returned four times since 1996, said he’s already made up his mind:
“I love it here. I miss my hometown. My goal is to come back and live here. It’s only a matter of time,” he said.