Feb 21, 2005

Day 3: Holiday in Cambodia

4 am wakeup, 5 am shuttle to the airport, 7:20 flight on a Bangkok Air ATR72 propellor plane to Siem Reap, Cambodia - the "gateway" to the Angkor temples. BA bills itself as Asia's "boutique airline" and the service, for a one-hour flight, was excellent and boutiquey indeed.

Most visitors to Cambodia (including us) need a 1-month visa, which can be purchased on arrival for $20. After having our mugs webcammed and our passports visa-ed, we were met outside by a friendly taxi driver sent by the guesthouse where we had reserved the next two nights. He was talkative and helpful all the way to the guesthouse, offering us advice on the best time of day to view various temples... but there were also hints that he was interested in a full-day fare. We had already made up our minds to borrow bicycles the first day and pedal the 6km from town to Angkor Wat, then rent a taxi for the second day. We told him as much, and he advised us to make arrangements with the guesthouse management.

Checking in to the guesthouse, we got a softer version of the same sales spiel. The young attendant feebly tried to convince us it was too far to bike, even though half a dozen rentals were lined up behind us. We assured him that our legs worked just fine, and that we'll take a taxi tomorrow, thank you.

(Now seems as good a time as any to explain that the relationships between guesthouse, taxi driver, merchants at the temples - anybody in Siem Reap, really - are probably much stronger and complicated than we innocently suspected on arrival. While our cab from the airport was not property of the guesthouse, our ride into town was "free," apparently contingent on first dibs at giving us a full-day tour around the temples. When the same driver took us to the farther temples on the second day, he suggested we eat breakfast at a certain temple-side shop. We declined - our bellies were full - and his attitude took a quick turn to the chilly.)

Anyway, our room was much nicer than I had expected. High ceiling with fan, toilet and hot shower, mini-fridge with the complimentary bottled water, and even TV and A/C. And little lizards all over the exterior.

Having explored our room, we hopped on the rental bikes and headed north to Angkor. The taxi sales pitch was nothing compared to what we encountered around Angkor Wat, and later Angkor Thom. First, someone was trying to collect 500 Riel (sure, a pittance at about 12 cents) for bicycle parking, even though plenty of free space was available just ahead. And the kids hawking local crafty crap... I'll get back to them in a bit.

Angkor Wat, the first three pics below, speaks for itself. The haze (taxis and motorbikes hauling tourists?) made it impossible to get a clear panoramic shot, but I'm sure it's gorgeous after a good rain. Ongoing restoration also means sections of scaffolding to work around here and there. The detail alone in the various carvings - and that they've largely survived some 800 or 900 years - is amazing. But even more impressive to me is the fact that nearly every inch of interior wallspace in this immense complex is adorned with such craftsmanship.

Before moving on to the larger walled city of Angkor Thom, we pause for some refreshment. The instant we step back out into the heat, a horde of Cambodian children assaulted us with souvenir postcards/textiles/woven goods for sale. I've had experience refusing cute little hard-selling urchins in Mexico, so I just shrug them off. But this is Rie's first such trial, and the kids - their seeming poverty, their fluent English and passable Japanese, and their "don't take no for an answer" approach - get under her skin. In this sense, visiting Cambodia, or at least this corner of the country, can be emotionally/spiritually trying.

We manage to free ourselves from the throng of kids with just what we needed - two hats to keep the sun out of our eyes and off our necks. Back on our bikes to ride another 2km or so to Angkor Thom.

We enter through the South Gate (4th pic above) - one of five gates to the city - and head first to the Bayon (pics 5 and 6), which gives its name to the style of architecture in which the "Khmer smile" is replicated on four sides of a tower. The young monk apprentices in the last pic, incidentally, were bumming smokes off a tourist. About five minutes after I snapped this, they cornered us elsewhere on the Bayon. They seemed to want something from us, but didn't (or couldn't) explain what. So our encounter basically ended like that.

It's clear that many Cambodians are addicted to tourist dollars for their livelihood, but there's a schizophrenia about the relationship to tourism. I felt just as strongly that most of the locals, rightfully, would rather not have us traipsing all over their land. Our afternoon is a repetition of the cycle: look at monument, deal with peddlers, look at monument, deal with...

Next to the Terrace of the Elephants, atop which we're greeted by a young man who very kindly explains some history and esoteria behind the place. Then, predictably, he asks for money. We simply thank him and try to remove ourselves, and he shifts gears to "guilt trip." Unless we give him some money he can't afford to go to school and...
This is starting to wear on even my nerves now.

It's been a long day and we're beginning to tire, so we head back with just one last stop in mind - the mount of Phnom Bakheng and it's popular sunset view of Angkor Wat.

Yes, the view from the top was nice. But the climb up is where we first encounter the people in real need of assistance. Children and elderly alike are begging along the rocky incline, all with one thing in common - stumps where arms or legs should be. A good guess would be they're victims of landmines or UXO (unexploded ordinance), still a widespread threat in Cambodia. If your country is not a signatory to the Ottawa Convention to ban landmines (I'm looking at you, U.S.), or even if it is, stop by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre to learn more about their plight.

And that basically wraps up our action-packed first day in Cambodia, aside from the savoury Khmer dinner at the non-touristy patio restaurant just a minute's walk from the guesthouse.


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