BootsnAll Travel Network

Reaping the Rewards

The Temples of Angkor Wat is a huge and vast complex of temples, varying in degree of age, architectural style, and cultural and religious significance. Slightly misleading is the name, as Angkor Wat is actually just one particular temple, but the name “Angkor” refers to the capital of the ancient Khmer empire, spanning over 600 yearsfrom AD 802 to 1432. There are hundreds of temples included in the complex, as well as some that are hours away from Siem Reap and are not included in the Angkor Wat pass. The big decision is always on how many days to visit the temples, as you have choices of only a one, three or seven day pass. Most people I’ve met go for three days, though I’ve met one woman who did a seven day and loved it, and a few who did a one day and said that was enough for them. Paul and I opted for a three day pass, based solely on time restraints, and though I think I might have been able to do a few more days, we managed to accomplish quite a lot in the time we had.

We hired the tuk tuk drivers who had driven us from the boat, and we set off with Helen and Jason to the more popular temples. Even though Paul had a three day pass, he only had two days in Siem Reap as did Jason, so we really crammed in a lot of temples that first day, which is why I think many people get sick of the temples too easily. Those with a 7 day pass can really relax and take their time exploring, using various means of transport available to them, and seek out temples that are further away from Siem Reap and less visited. But this wasn’t possible for us, so we started about 8am, and set off to the first temple, Bayon, which is included in the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The gates to enter Angkor Thom are simply stunning, a huge bridge lined with big heads, and you pass under a huge stone gate. I could envision passing under this while riding on an elephant as they used to do, and then realized you could actually do this, as elephant rides to the temple cost $10. But our tuk tuk driver sped under the gate, and we approached our first temple, Bayon. My guidebook lists this temple as one of the strangest temples, but I didn’t feel that at all. The huge temple has 5 gates and is surrounded by what is now a dry moat. It’s most famous and popular feature are the 216 huge heads which are said to resemble the king Jayavarman VII, and wherever you are in the temple itself, there is at least one of his faces looking down on you. With many hidden passageways, it was easy to lose yourself in the maze and find a secluded spot away from the many tourists, and take some pictures without someone walking in front of your camera. Turning one corner I saw a monk guiding a tourist around, and tried to follow them down some stairs. Paul saw me, and then saw the monk and joined me in trying to get a photo. This began the “monk in the photo” competition between us, as really any picture you take with a monk makes it just that much better, but with their bright orange robes against the stark gray rocks of the temples, we were now aiming for a National Geographic opportunity. But the monk disappeared through another hallway, and we continued wandering around the temple, getting different vantage shots of the different heads and such. After a while, we found Jason and Helen and headed back out of the temple, not noticing that we had been in the temple almost two hours. Time was passing quickly, and we still had a  lot more temples to see.

Our tuk tuk drivers were at a small restaurant, and told us to head over to the next part of the Angkor Thom temple, called the Terrace of the Elephants. Basically a huge wall extending 350 meters long, it has hundreds of elephants carved into the rock wall, and gates another temple called the Royal Enclosure, though there is not much left of this old temple. While wandering around the terrace, Paul somehow scraped his toe (as he was wearing flip flops) on a rock and was bleeding quite profusely, so he left in the search of a band-aid and the three of us continued in to another temple, Phimeanakas, a pyramid like structure which many now use solely for climbing and getting a view of another nearby temple, Baphoun. The stairs climbing down looked steep and treacherous, so Jason and Helen, who aren’t scaredy cats, went up first to have a look around. A few minutes later they came back and said the view wasn’t that great, so I opted out of the climb, though I would find myself in a similar position later in the day. We continued on through the trees and found a smaller path over an old moat and through an old stone wall to the Preah Palilay temple. While not nearly as famous as some other temples, this one offered wonderful photo ops due to some huge trees that had grown over the central part of the temple, and unlike Ta Prohm with similar trees, this one was not well known and we were by ourselves for photos.

We headed back out of the forest and found Paul, who was now bandaged up from a nice Korean woman who had given him some band-aids for his toe. We continued down the street and came upon another temple, Baphoun, which was currently undergoing restoration, but we were allowed in partway to view the temple and read about the work going on. There are many restoration activities going on in Angkor Wat, as many of the temples have been looted, or have vast amounts of foliage growing over them, or are just plain falling down and dangerous to go near. After reading about Baphoun, we found our tuk tuk drivers and we headed to probably the most well-known temple aside from Angkor Wat, called Ta Prohm, which owes its popularity to the film Tomb Raider.

 Ta Prohm is probably the most photogenic of all the temples in Angkor Wat. The huge rocks and boulders used to build the temple are now a mossy green color, and on every wall and building, there is a huge root or branch or entire tree working its way over and through the many bricks. Ta Prohm has been left to the jungle, and while the photos are beautiful and the trees really do make the atmosphere spectacular for us now, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the temple in 50 or 100 years from now, being completely overgrown and destroyed by these huge trees. Unlike many other temples, people waited patiently at the main building and famous Tomb Raider tree for group after group to get their photos taken, and what could have been a circus was actually a quite polite and understanding few minutes of people trading cameras and trying to get the right shots for complete strangers. I did my part and offered to take a photo for a large Dutch family, whose father hesitated for a moment thinking it wouldn’t be worth the hassle, but then admitted he had no pictures of their whole family together, just the kids with one parent or the other. And like everyone else, we were given plenty of time to get a few good photos for them in front of the famous tree.

Since I had been wandering around on my own, I realized I hadn’t seen the rest of the group in quite some time, and after giving a quick glance around the major sites, headed out of the temple, or at least tried to. I kept getting lost in the many passageways, and everytime I asked someone where the exit was, they pointed one way, which was fine until I got to a fork or a hall with three corridors. I spent about another half hour trying to just get out of the temple, and then realized I didn’t even know if the other had gone out or not. So I waited outside the temple for a bit, and then headed out to the parking lot, and found them at the restaurant our tuk tuk drivers were at. Many tour groups head back to Siem Reap for lunch, but we opted to stay near the temples, saving us both time and money, and we hungrily ate our local Khmer food and cold drinks. We had been luck that morning, as the sky was overcast and it wasn’t that hot out, but now the sun was shining and it was very hot and humid, with no breeze anywhere. Following our late lunch, we left for the main attraction, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is considered to be the largest religious structure in the world. I find it kind of strange that no modern city or state or religion has taken it upon themselves to beat this fact, building a large mosque or church or something. But as it stands, Angkor Wat still reigns. The approach to Angkor Wat gave me some tingly moments, as the vast moat, surrounding walls and the temple rising high above the outer banks is breathtaking. Walking across the huge bridge, I tried to imagine the royal processions crossing this bridge, surrounded by thousands of people lining the street and bridge and boats in the water. The bridge continues under the outer wall, and after clearing the wall, you enter the realm of Angkor Wat, a huge garden fronts the wat, with buildings on either side. The very long path continues towards the temple, and then you finally reach the temple, with a large staircase leading up to the entrance. The entire temple is surrounded by bas-relief carvings, and we decided to walk around the temple before going in. We made our way slowly, taking pictures through the big doorways and windows, and finally entered the temple opposite the side we came in on. Huge, steep stairs led to the temple, and we found the main staircase used by tourists, which provided a handrail to hold on to. Realizing now that I had to get over my unexplainable fear of steep stairs, I walked up using my hands to basically climb up the stairs. Not too bad, but having to come down was constantly in the back of my head. We wandered around the temple for about an hour, looking through the various corridors and carvings. In some ways, I wish we had gone to Angkor Wat first, as I was slightly underwhelmed after seeing Ta Prohm and Bayon. The outside view and the approach to Angkor is what made it inspiring to me, but the temple itself was disappointing. But it was also a hot day and we had seen quite a lot already. For this reason, I think it is possible to get a 7 day pass and really take your time, maybe just go to Angkor one day and truly explore it, without the other temples muddling around in your brain.

As the day neared its end, we headed back out over the moat and bridge, and rested under a large tree with some water and ice cream. We had one more stop, which was the “sunset” temple known as Phnom Bakheng. The most popular of all sunset areas due to its, albeit miniscule, view of Angkor Wat in the distance, Phnom Bakheng was by far the most touristy of all temples. We made the steep climb up the temple, opting out of the $15 elephant ride to the top, and reached the pyramid like temple, again having to climb on hands and feet up steep steps to reach the top. While the temple was nothing spectucular, the view was, but without a telephot lens, Angkor Wat looked like a chicken shed in the distance. There was also a huge storm cloud brewing, and our tuk tuk drivers had told us no one had seen a sunset in a few days at least.  In fact, the sky was completely dark and overcast, and we realized we would not get a sunset photo at all. Paul and I decided to be chickens and make our way down before sunset, as the steps and path would be really slippery if it rained. On our way down, we encountered what I can now calls hoards of tourists, pushing and climbing their way up to try and view sunset. It was crazy, and I’m really glad we decided to head down when we did, as doing that in the pouring rains with hundreds of photo-crazy people would not only have been unfun, but probably dangerous as well. We waited in our tuk tuks in the rain for Helen and Jason, and then made our way back to the guesthouse after a long day. We completed the itinerary of what most one day pass holders do, and we wondered what we were going to see tomorrow. We decided to head out to some far away temples, and our tuk tuk drivers agreed to take us, but dramatically increased the price. We set out for some dinner and drinks after showering, but didn’t stay out very late at all. The nightlife in Siem Reap seemed to be really good, but we were worn out.

The following morning, we set out for our first temple, Kbal Spean, about 50km away from Siem Reap. What we didn’t realize was that, after passing another temple about 30km outside of town, the road become bone rattling, and is so full of potholes and ruts and divets, that it was really a shame that our tuk tuk drivers didn’t recommend we take motos instead. It was actually painful to ride for about an hour on this unpaved road in a tuk tuk, and Paul and I were jostled around, and bounced here and there, and at one point were passed by a huge 4×4 and splashed with tons of red muddy water. Thanks! After leaving Siem Reap two hours earlier, we finally reached our destination, and were promptly bombarded by kids selling scarves and water and bracelets. This is the norm in Cambodia, anywhere you go, but it is truly bothersome when you can’t even get out of your torturous tuk tuk to use the toilet first. It makes me less likely to buy something, than if they just waited one minute to let us get out and stretch our legs. 

We set off for our short half hour walk through the jungle, not really knowing what to expect from the trip. Our tuk tuk drivers mentioned a waterfall, but the book mentioned some carvings in the river bed as well. We hiked up through the humid jungle, and came to a fork in the path, waterfalll to the left, river to the right. So we opted to the right, correctly, and came to a small river set behind some ropes and large boulders. While the river was nice, it didn’t become clear what we were supposed to be looking at until we went higher up. Further upstream, we came across large carvings set in the river bed. There weren’t many tourists here, and exploring further downstream, sighting carvings mysteriously in the rocks, was the first time I felt like Indiana Jones. I could just imagine what the first person who discovered this area felt like in 1969, after being shown the carvings by a local wise man. The carvings weren’t always that evident and you really felt like you were the first person to see them, aside from the rope barrier to protect them from people walking on them. We made our way down the river, and came to the waterfall, a nice way to cool off from the humid jungle walk and the dusty tuk tuk ride.

We headed out of the park, and set off again on our tuk tuks, only to have to make the same rib cracking ride back the same way, to our next temple, Banteay Srei. Considered to be one of the prettiest temples in the complex, this small temple has very detailed carvings,some of which are three-dimensional. The carvings are so elaborate and intricate that they are thought to be done by women, as their hands are smaller. We spent about 20 minutes at the temple, until a torrential downpour urged us out and into the nearby restaurants. It was lunchtime anyway, and we had our fill of temples for the day, so we ate and relaxed until the rain stopped and headed back to Siem Reap. On our way home, we asked our tuk tuk drivers to make a stop at the Land Mine Museum. A small but popular museum, it describes and details the horrors of landmines, their effect not only on Cambodian people but around the world, and the cost and implications for any country who is affected by the landmines. IT also includes a quite impressive display of landmines, UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) dropped by the US, bombs, missiles, rockets, grenades, guns of many sizes and other military gear. I learned quite a lot about not only landmines but the US involvement in Cambodia’s history and wars. One interesting thing, that wasn’t even really talked about at home as far as I can remember, was the Anti-Landmine treaty of 1997. Signed by almost every Western country and ally, including the UK, France and Italy,  it was the main producers of land mines, including the US, who refused to sign this document and continues to produce and sell landmines to impoverished countries. Other countries that didn’t sign it: Libya, Algeria, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Russia and China. This is great company we keep, and one day I’d like to see us do what is right, and not what makes us the most money, and stop dicking around and sign the treaty. You can learn more about this at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines at End of rant.

In what was a depressing turn of events, we made our way back to the tuk tuks, and got to see something that brightened our spirits, just a bit. A group of boys, all landmine victims on crunches or missing an arm or both, playing a game of soccer. And they were happy and having fun, running around, some faster on crouches than me with two legs, and scoring goals. In a quick up and down of emotions, we set off for home, for some rest and reflection. It was Paul’s last night, and we begged off spending it with Jason and Helen and had a very nice dinner at a local Khmer restaurant, and treated ourselves to a bottle of red wine. We went to a very hip and new local bar, which served a dizzying array of martinis and cocktails, I opted for a lychee martini, and sat and talked on what was our last night together. Paul had to leave for Pnomh Penh the next morning, as he was flying out to Hong Kong the next day. After a few cocktails, we both realized we were staying up for the other person, and went home. I saw him off in the early morning, and wished him luck in HK and onward to Japan. Since I had another day on my pass, I set off for another grouping of temples in the opposite direction of Angkor Wat, known as the Rolous group.

Hiring a moto driver for the trip, we set out to the temples, just 13km outside of town. I was starting to get really comfortable riding on the back of the moto, and didn’t even hold on most of the time to the safety bar beneath me. My driver Red was nice, but not too chatty, and we set off through town and then reached the outskirts of Siem Reap. I then realized how small Siem Reap is, really only existing to support the tourist trade and some local villages. The Rolous group consists of three small temples, and Red drove me patiently to each one, Lolei, the smallest of the group which consisted of 4 small structures with Sanskrit engravings. The second, Preah Ko, has some wonderful plasterwork and also contains some Sanskrit, but is currently under construction as well. The last one, Bakong, is the largest and most interesting of the three. It has an active Buddhist monastery alongside, and some wonderful statues of elephants guarding each level of the temple. I was one of only a small handful of tourists there, which explains why all the little schoolkids came up to me and started talking to me. They always ask where you are from and a few other simple questions, and these girls were very cute, giving me a grass blade and tying it in a knot for a ring on my finger. Cute, until they asked me for money for their school. Sighing, I asked if I could go to the school and make the donation, but they said no, I had to give it to them, and when I said no, they glumly scampered off in search of more willing tourists.

After Rolous, I asked Red to take me back to Angkor Thom so I could take a few more pictures, and he agreed for just an extra $2, quite a bargain since it was almost 20km away. I took some pictures of the Angkor Thom entrance and gate and then a few outside wall carvings. But then, it happened. I was Wat-ed out. An expression you hear in many traveling circles, and which can apply to anything a country or area has in adundance, in Southeast Asia it was wats, and I was kind of done with them. Our whirlwind tour the first day was the culprit I think, and it is important to not overdo Angkor Wat on your first day, because it is easy to tire of it and think they all start to look the same. So I went back to town, and decided to help another local community, by getting a massage by a blind masseuse.

Almost every large town or city in Cambodia has a branch of the Seeing Hands Massage parlor, which trains blind Cambodians in traditional massage. It is also the only place that you know you are getting a real massage, and not one with special additions. I found the place and went in, and while it was slightly disconcerting for me at the beginning, the woman at the front greeted me and showed me the changing room. Why they have a changing room I don’t know, since they are blind and can’t see, but whatever. I put on the cotton pajamas, and came out. My masseuse was waiting and heard me enter the room, and told me to lie down on the massage table. For $4, this blind man gave me a pretty decent massage for an hour. THough he did massage my butt, which I found not only weird but also very ticklish, and all I kept thinking was, “I wonder what he thinks I look like? What kind of a person has a butt like this?” So I couldn’t relax completely, but it was still worth the money, and he definately got out the few kinks I had from our tuk tuk ride the day before, and my sore feet from traipsing around the temples. Back at the guesthouse, I ran into Jason and Helen and we had dinner at the same Khmer restaurant Paul and I had eaten at the day before. They were both leaving the next day, but I was staying one more day to see a bit more of Siem Reap and just take it easy. Jason and I considered doing a motorbike ride up north to see some temples close to the Thai border, which was only accessible by moto in the wet season, but the price turned out to be more than either one of us could afford, though the trip sounded quite interesting.

The next day I wandered around Siem Reap for a while, and had a leisurely breakfast in town. After a lot of internet time, I went to the local market to look around. A young street kid approached me, carrying a baby in a scarf on his hip. He asked me if I would buy his baby sister some baby formula, he didn’t want money, just baby formula. Thinking for a minute or so, I had a hard time with this. It is never recommended to give beggars money, but buying them food and such is usually okay. I hadn’t given very much over the past two weeks, and I think I was feeling slightly guilty about this. Many people say that they can’t give to everyone, and use it as an excuse to not give to anyone, so I agreed and followed him into a small store to buy the formula. A huge can, the only one they had, was $8. It was more than I wanted to give, but seeing no way out, I ended up buying it for him. As we walked out, I handed it to him, and then instantly noted my mistake. About 20 other street kids, all holding babies, all dirty and dishelved, all held out their hands and asked for baby formula. They had obviously seen us go into the store, and now stood waiting. I quietly said no and began walking, as one by one they trailed off ready to find someone else to ask. A few stuck by me for a few blocks, walkign directly in front of me to block my path. I reached the main street, and quickly crossed it, not really paying attention to the traffic. All but one gave up, and he followed me the next 4 streets home to my guesthouse, crying and wailing. It was really too much for me to handle. I always want to do the right thing, and I think most people want to help out when they can, and when they actually know what they are giving is helping. But the problem is that you don’t know if you are helping. Which kids are actually hungry? Will the boy I bought the formula for just go and sell it again? PRobably. Is one boy more desperate and poor than another? Probably. How can you tell the difference between a real street kid with no parents, to one whose parents put him on the street to make money? YOu can’t. What made it worse was the local Khmer people watching us, with bemused expressions on their face. I got the feeling they thought it was funny, so either he was a really good con artist this kid, or they didn’t much care about the homeless kids themselves. I’ll never know. Against my better judgement, I gave the kid two dollars, hoping he’d just leave. But he continued to follow alongside me. Now I was desperate, trying to walk as fast as I could down a very rocky and tricky street to my guesthouse, knowing he wouldn’t and couldn’t follow me in. By now I was almost in tears, feeling sorry for him if he was truly hungry, and feelign sorry for myself for not knowing the right thing to do. I entered the gates of my guesthouse, and he stopped, and stood their crying after me. The girl at the front desk came out and started talking to him, and I hurried upstairs, desperate to not start crying in front of all the moto drivers who hang out at the front. She talked to him for a while, and though I was insanely curious to find out what they said to each other or if she gave him anything, I never asked. I didn’t want her to think I was some horrible person, and in some ways I didn’t want to know if it was a scam or if he was truly in need. I just knew I felt like such a hypocrite, walking along with him in my $100 sport sandals and not doing anything to help him. It was a terrible feeling, and while I’ve gotten slightly immune to the kids now, I will never get used to the poverty and homeless kids that are all around. In the US, we never see homeless children, since social services takes them away to a shelter or somewhere. But here, it’s different. The kids are the attraction, and even those with parents are sometimes used to beg as they know it’s harder for tourists to say no to kids. And only the coldest of us don’t feel awful about not being able to do anything about it.

Mentally exhausted, I went up to the restaurant in our guesthouse and had a beer, and watched CNN, yet another depressing report on world events. I went back down to my room for a nap, and then spoke with the front desk about my next destination, Kompong Thom, and booked a bus for the following morning. Having spent two days alone, I was starting to get down and out, it is much easier to deal with the realism of the world with friends around. And for the first time, I didn’t want to go to town for dinner and actually deal with it, so I stayed in my guesthouse and had dinner at the restaurant. As luck would have it, sitting by myself, I had three empty chairs in a full bar, so a couple and another single traveler joined me and ate dinner and drank for a few hours, exchanging stories and travel tips about our next destinations. It revived me a bit, and after saying goodnight, I knew I was ready to set out again, and face whatever wonderful and maybe horrible things that would come my way.

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