Angkor Wat is the main temple in a complex of hundreds, built from the 9th to 15th centuries. There’s a formula for viewing these temples: most people purchase a three-day pass for $40 and hire a tuk-tuk driver to cart them around. Most of the temples are built in levels and require climbing up steep and narrow stone steps. (Climbing down from Angkor itself, I freaked out a bit and inched down on all fours. I was thus powerless to do anything when a strong breeze blew my flowy skirt up to my chin and kept it there. Oh, I’m in so many photo albums now.) Other temples, such as the ‘tombraider’ temple (Ta Prohm), are long halls spread out through the jungle with trees growing into the walls and shafts of sunlight filtering in through the crumbling roofs. My favorite temple, Banteay Srei, is a very small temple, consisting of about half a dozen stone pillars covered in intricate stone carvings, detailed statuettes and chiseled scenes. Because of the delicacy of the carvings, Banteay Srei is often called ‘Temple of the Women.’
Nearly every child in Northern Cambodia appears to spend his or her days at Angkor hawking postcards, flutes, photocopied guidebooks and the like. The children’s sales pitches are as impressive as they are relentless. In addition to naming the capitals of every country and each of the fifty states, they can count to 10 in every language, living or dead (including Gaelic, would you believe), reeling them all off in a rapid, synchronized sing-song. They’re also well versed in currencies from around the world – one little girl told April (who’s Canadian) that she happily accepts loonies and toonies. Their patter is delivered in a consistent, whiny monotone and continues no matter how far you run, or how much you scream and cry.
‘Hey lady, bracelet 10 for one dollar.’
‘No, sweetie. Not today.’
‘Buy bracelets, cheap cheap.’
‘No, I don’t wear jewelry.’
‘Buy bracelets, give to your friends.’
‘I have no friends.’
‘Buy bracelets and send them back to me.’
‘No. Go away now.’
‘Buy bracelets lady, I go to school.’
‘Buy bracelets madam, I give you peace and quiet.’
This from a lisping child of five. Their mothers all work at Angkor, runing food stalls outside the temples where tourists can buy bad fried rice at insane prices. The restaurants are identical, all in a row, and creatively named ‘1’ through ’10.’ Each tuk-tuk driver does business with a particular restaurant and is supposed to bring his charges there to eat. While tourists look at the temples, their driver naps in a hammock in his restaurant and when the tourists emerge, the women attack.
‘Lady, your driver sleep in here! Come in here, lady! Lady, you buy something to eat! Buy cold drink! Lady, lady, lady, lady! I KNOW YOUR DRIVER!!!’
And all the while, throngs of chanting, whining, suddenly-last-summer children flock about you, blowing flutes and flapping postcards. It’s enough to drive a person absolutely stark, screaming mad. I do not know how the ancient temples retain their composure.
When you visit Angkor, you’re supposed to experience sunrise and sunset within the park. The drivers (who, like everyone in every industry in Cambodia, stick to a formula that made some money once and absolutely refuse to divert from it in any way) take everyone to Angkor itself for sunrise and to a hilltop temple for sunset. The two events are equally embarrassing – a gagillion tourists point their cameras at the gradually lightening or darkening sky and snap fifty photos of each other’s heads. Sunset was particulary frightening, as it involved a constantly replenishing stream of tourists throwing themselves, salmon-like, up the sheer side of a very high temple and then clambering back down with equal impatience after dark.
Of all the weary travelers at Angkor, I think the monks have it the worst. I imagine a pilgrimage to Angkor might be a truly meaningful experience to them – they surely at least know what the frescoes are meant to depict – but they have to spend the whole time being posed and photographed by various Japanese and Europeans who want to capture them against picturesque ruins, or from behind as the monks climb stairs, or flitting in between pillars. They’re real good sports about it. At least the kids probably leave them alone.
By day three, April and I were templed out. Sure, the temples are ancient and breathtaking and all that, but all of them are…well, temples. By the end of the second day, I wouldn’t have known any different if Chin were driving us up to repeats. So we asked him to take us to some villages instead. Non-tourist villages. We thought three was a nice, round number.
In village number one, we visited a school. Like most schools in Southeast Asia, this one was packed with kids, but seemed to have no teachers. April and I wandered into a classroom and the kids immediately reeled off 1 through 10 and the English alphabet. April and I then led them in some songs. Whereas American children might have questioned who the hell we were and why we thought we could wander in off the street and claim authority over their behavior, these children were charming and enthusiastic and extremely polite. After leaving them, some teachers found us and gave us a tour. The school is for four- and five-year-olds and has very nice facilities, sponsored by an organization called ‘Caring for Cambodia.’
On the flipside, we also visited an orphanage that afternoon that could really use some caring. April volunteered at an orphanage in Thailand for five months, so has a particular interest in them; she struck up a conversation with the director of one who’d been holding the donation box outside a temple, and he’d invited us to visit any time. But apparently any time meant morning, because when we alighted from our tuk-tuk at two, he told us he’d kept the children out of school that morning becuase we were meant to be coming. We felt terrible. The orphanage currently has 15 kids and the facilities are a single pavilion with no walls. Every night, they move the desks into the yard and sleep head to toe on mats on the floor. The director told us excitedly about a facility he is building down the road, where he has obtained a five-year lease for $30/month, which is an improvement over the 4-month lease that is almost up on the current property. He walked us over to show us. The new place is currently a heap of 2x4s and another of bamboo poles, plus the house of the family who owns the property, which will have to be picked up and moved further back to make room for the orphanage. They had to be out of their current building and into the new one in 10 days. The director was optimistic.
After the orphanage, we had to go to Chin’s girlfriend’s restaurant for lunch, because she was pissed at him for something and he couldn’t be easy until he’d talked to her. They’re supposed to get married next year; Cambodians cannot even kiss until they’re married. Chin is trying to save some money for a house for them (currently he sleeps on the lobby floor of a guesthouse in town, with the five other guys who staff the guesthouse), but he’s a tuk-tuk driver and sadly, so is every other young man in Cambodia. There are about 20 tuk-tuks (not to mention motos) to each tourist, and Chin asked us if we had any idea how he could differentiate himself in the fray. We told him to just sit in his tuk-tuk and be quiet, rather than joining the storm of drivers who pounce on tourists as they come off the bus.
‘If you grab us or run off with our bags,’ we explained, ‘We’ll sit in a cafe all day until you leave, and never go with you.’
‘You won’t,’ agreed Chin, ‘But the Japanese will go where we push them.’
He thought a sign might help, but I think he’s just screwed. Basically, you can’t make money as a tuk-tuk driver, but there is no other job. Chin worked for this insanely fancy hotel for awhile and made $40/month.
April and I stayed an extra day in Siem Reap to attend a wedding party with Chin and his friends. In Cambodia, the party is the day after the wedding and each of the guests gives $10 to the couple, thus paying for the party. Because Chin brought two guests to this man’s wedding, the man is now supposed to scare up two guests to bring to Chin’s wedding next year. The party was in the country, so April and I were treated to a 45-minute ride over rutted roads on the back of Chin’s moto. When our group arrived, we walked through the reception line, where we were wei’d and given a chocolate sucker, and then led to our table, which was piled with canned beer. Girls came around and constantly replenished our glasses with ice (they drink beer over ice here – even stout), and guys piled more cans on the table as fast as we could knock them back. Poor kids from the village came around collecting the empty cans. The meal was in courses and was devoured as rapidly as the beer was drunk. Ideally, you are supposed to toast before each drink of beer, which practice means you can scarcely ever get a fork to your mouth, so frequently do you have to stop and toast everybody at the table. After the meal, there was a brief spurt of dancing. The whole thing lasted two hours – no speeches, no socializing. Eat, drink, pay, get the hell out. But not before April and I were led up to be photographed with the wedding party: wearing our disgusting backpacker clothes, we were positioned on each side of the glowing bride, like giant, sweat-drenched bookends.
Wednesday must be the day for weddings, because we ended up going to another one that very evening. This one was a town wedding, which meant it was in a big, fancy restaurant in the city, and Chin and his friends scared up a car for us to arrive in. This party was bigger than the first, but almost exactly the same in all respects. I got a plastic chicken keychain in the reception line, rather than a sucker, and there was Johnnie Walker red label (which the Cambodians call wine, and seem to have no idea how to drink) in addition to canned beer, but the meal was nearly identical and eaten with the same frantic urgency. Directly after the last course was served, all the women (who were dressed to the nines with professionally done hair, and who no one had spoken to at dinner) got up and filed out. Women don’t get to do a damn thing in Cambodia – all the girlfriends of the guys we were with didn’t get to come to either wedding because ‘they have to work.’ When April and I expressed surprise that all the women were leaving so early, the guys all explained that women do not like to drink and smoke and so are very bored at parties and prefer to go straight home and never leave it again.
‘Cambodian women,’ they clarified. ‘Very different.’
Shortly after this conversation, some drunk guy veered up and slurred an introduction into my face. I told him to go away, but the incident so upset Chin and his friends that we all left immediately. We went to a nightclub where six young girls dressed like deranged ballerinas sang whiny Thai songs, and the guys ate platters of venison and drank stout over ice until April and I positively fell asleep at the table.
Cambodia has a bad reputation among backpackers. I expected to hate it, to feel very unsafe and to find the people unfriendly. But it has ended up being my favorite of the countries I’ve visited so far. It’s extremely poor here, and the people are clearly struggling, but I’ve met so many friendly, open people. There’s also a general sarcasm (or maybe a sense of irony) here that I can relate to. Last night, I passed a tuk-tuk driver on a corner. A couple of his friends were sitting in the tuk-tuk helping him solicit passers-by. Suddenly, the entire tuk-tuk just fell over, dumping them all out onto the pavement, right as I passed by.
‘Tuk-tuk, lady?’ offered the driver, only half joking.