A place of worship, a home, an orphanage, a workplace. Where the Khmers used to live their lives… And some Cambodians still do, up to this day.
I was expecting temples, stunning sandstone architecture, some kind of catharsis walking along a site from the 12th century… Definitely was not ready for what I received from the visit. Emotional rollercoster, when the REAL Cambodia slaps you on the face. It is not the touristy Pub street anymore with the oh so pale and Westernized Europeans…
First of all, it is not a temple. Well if you count something a temple that stretches to 500 acres… It is basically a whole town! We spent there a day, and still barely saw half of it – if at all. The heat and humidity was difficult to bear though, after a couple of hours it was difficult to listen to what our guide was saying.
I won’t be so practical this time, as Angkor grew close to my heart. If you are in Siem Reap, you do not need directions to find it anyway. It’s everywhere. The marketing of Angkor exceeds Hungary’s marketing as a whole. They have angkor cigarettes, angkor beer…
One important tip though, wake up early and be there by 5:30am when they open the gates. Later, the humidity becomes almost unbearable.
In the morning the owner of the guesthouse got his son to drive us around Angkor Wat. I felt quite bad as we spent hours wandering around the temples while he was waiting for us in the Sun, in about 40 degrees. But I guess he was used to the heat anyway.
We finally got to the the moat and left our driver there. That is when we bumped into the Cambodian teacher who took us around, sharing all the religious myths and stories behind the countless pictures and figures on the temple walls – all this for 10 Dollars.
A problem with the library was: there were no remaining texts, scripts or ‘books’ whatsoever. The reason being, they made the mistake of attempting to preserve their writings on animal skin… Which was not hickory enough, unfortunately.
The monks, orphans and elderly (as the social system is basically non-existent) lived on donations received from Siem Reap locals.
Until this point, we were just admiring the temples and listening to the stories… Gently touching the walls as it was hard to believe we are allowed to walk among those ruins. You could honestly feel history around you – but then I realized it is not only history that is present there. You don’t have to go back hundreds of years to experience living conditions and lifestyle that are shockingly far from what you experience every single day in the Western world.
And this was the first slap! Under the tree, tuk-tuk drivers waiting for their passengers, but also, Cambodians were selling water and other goods. But because the visitors did not want to be harrassed – so they drew a line for them that they could not cross. If you walked there and bought something it was ok, but they couldn’t come closer. Therefore, they ended up shouting and begging so you’d go closer. Greg had to grab me and push me to continue walking as I just wanted to buy a bottle of water from all 40-50 of them…
Next shocking revelation. It is such a basic thing to have a loan mower at home right? Well not in Cambodia… 40 degrees. Crazy humidity. And you are cutting the grass all day long using a tiny little tool and nothing else, with bare hands.
As we continued on, little orphans started following us, begging to buy some fridge magnets, bracelets and scarves. Some of them couldn’t have been older than two. At first I still felt shocked but they got more and more aggressive and there was so many of them. We bought 2 magnets, but it just made it all worse… Greg tried telling them that we already have identical to those – but their answer was ‘but it doesn’t matter, buy more because it is only 1 dollar!’ That was the point when I got angry – they literally saw us as walking wallets – they thought just because we have money we don’t care if we need them – we’ll buy more magnets just because WE CAN. I can imagine some people doing that, but it just made me furious as we were on a strict daily budget – backpacking style. But it clearly showed how they saw us. Especially Greg as he was taking photos with his iPhone 4 – and the tour guide beforehand told us that if someone in Cambodia has one of those you are considered rich. I guess it would have been even worse if we had a proper camera?!
Continued on walking towards Ta Prohm where they were still in the process of rebuilding the ravaged temples. Huge sandstone rock pieces and giant trees eating up the rocks, we found fewer and fewer other visitors as it was quite far from the main Temples.
Among those secluded ruins we still bumped into little girls selling fridge magnets – there was one of them who was so little, I think she had just learnt to walk, must have been around 1,5 years… She was all by herself, stumbling among those rocks and the only thing she could say to us was: ‘1 dollar 1 dollar’.
So there you go – amazement, sadness, anger and worry all in one day. Might seem like it was a negative experience – but it certainly wasn’t. I am not travelling to see everything pretty, I am travelling because I want to get to know the world around me. This is all part of it – and I know myself (and generally the nature of humanity) I tend to take my life for granted. So I am looking for slaps – that make me realize how incredibly lucky I am being allowed to live the life I am living back in the Western world.