Cambodia, Kingdom of Vendors

Cambodia is known as the Kingdom of Wonders and with good reason as the temples around Siem Reap are truly wonderful.  However, the amazement of the experience is sadly overshadowed by the annoying persistence of the vendors who sell pretty much anything and everything.

What follows is a typical encounter with a Cambodian vendor.  Keep in mind we are walking briskly the entire time and he or she speed walks to keep up with us throughout the exchange.

Vendor: “Mister, Lady! You need guide book? “

Me & Fran: “No, thank you.”

Vendor: “I have guide book of all temple. Many, many temple!”

Me: “No, thank you.  We already have the same guide book.” [We produce our guidebook to prove it]

Vendor: “My guide book same same, but better!”

Fran: “Ot te aw khun” [Out of necessity Franny and I learned how to say ‘No thank you’ in the Khmer language].

Vendor: “But –

Me (interrupting): “If you don’t stop right now I’m going to knock that book out of your hand!” [only semi joking, but they didn’t  understand anyway].

Given some of my previous postings on the topic feel as if I am writing a dissertation on the personalities and characteristics of various vendor classes across impoverished countries of the world, but I think it is interesting to see how they differ in style and level of desperation.  The one thing I’ll say about the Cambodian vendors is they appear to have a sense of humor about it all, something that was absent with the vendors in Vietnam (who just seemed sad) and those in Bangkok (who seemed all business).

For example, the two girls in the photo below hounded us to buy watermelons from them and after several strong rebuffs they held up their melon cleavers in mock menace, yet smiling the entire time.   I had to take the photo and made them keep their cleavers poised to strike….in return we did purchase one of their watermelons… was delicious. J

If these vendors weren’t so annoying they would have been quite humorous. As your tuk tuk approaches any temple parking lot or, likewise, as you emerge after exploring one of these beautiful structures the serenity is pierced by the shrill screech of the vendor women like banshees descending on their prey.  It gets louder and louder until you finally make visual contact.  You steel yourself for the onslaught and then….they see you….and its all over.  Those winged demons from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” have nothing on the flocks of vendors who swarm around you and metaphorically peck out your eyes with their blood thirsty persistence.   I captured it on video so you can hear it for yourselves….

Ouk Barang (the guy we met when we arrived in Siem Reap who owned the tuk tuk business) hooked us up with his brother to drive us around to the temples for $15 per day.  We told him that we had read in our guidebook that $15 is the high end of the range and that $10 was more reasonable.  Never one to take the last dollar off the table, we settled amicably at $13.  As we sat and had a beer with him and his brother (we tried several times to get his name correctly, but it never happened so let’s just call him Sinh) and discussed what temples we wanted to see we kept having to tell Ong to stop talking and let his brother answer our questions so we could assess his English language skills – the last thing you want is to end up back in Phnom Phen because of a translation error.   After we established that his English was acceptable – not great mind you, but acceptable – we bid them goodnight and agreed to be ready at 5am to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

Sinh our tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap. License # 5016!

The next morning, groggy from only a few hours of sleep, we poured ourselves into the back of Sinh’s tuk tuk and motored our way through the chilly early morning air towards Angkor Wat.

The sunrise was amazing, but it was even more amazing to see all of the people who motivated to get up that early.  On the way there in the darkness we saw people in tuk tuks, regular taxis, mini buses, tour buses and even a few on bicycles, all making their way towards Angkor Wat.

Pictured above are only the three or four rows of people who had pole position in front of the main temple, but behind me for about ¼ of a mile were hundreds of spectators oohing and ahhing as the sun awakened from its nightly slumber.

Once the sun was up we decided to leave and visit another temple and come back to Angkor Wat later when the lighting was better for photos and the crowds were fewer.  The first temple we explored was Ta Prohm and it turned out to be our favorite.

Ta Prohm is a Buddhist temple constructed in the Bayon style in the mid 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, but it is more well known today as the temple that was used in the Tomb Raider film with Angelina Jolie.  There was only a light dusting of tourists roaming through its broken rubble and twisted vines.  A truly awe inspiring example of Mother Nature reclaiming what was rightfully hers.

On our way to the Preah Khan temple we stopped by the “Terrace of the Elephants”, an impressive 2.5 meter tall, 300 meter long wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas (large bird-like creatures from both Hindu and Buddhist mythology).

The Terrace of the Elephants

An old monk taking a rest on the steps of the “Terrace of the Elephants”.

Just up from the Terrace of the Elephants is the “Terrace of the Leper King” – thusly named because of a statue that sits on top of the terrace.  There is debate over why the statue was called the Leper King, but the most prominent theory appears to have been because the lichen-eaten condition of the statue when it was discovered gave the appearance of leprosy which, in turn, appeared to be a reference to the Leper King of Khmer legend.

Deeply carved nagas, demons and other mythical beings on the Terrace of the Leper King.

Then it was off to Preah Khan, also a Jayavarman VII temple that was originally built as a Buddhist monastery and school engaging over 1,000 monks.

Preah Khan temple which means “Sacred Sword” in Khmer.

As we wondered around we were approached by two young boys about eight or nine years old who told us about a gate that was off the beaten path and was worth seeing.  They also promised us a large garuda statue fully in tact – apparently a rarity in these temples.  We figured we’d give it a whirl and the two boys proceeded to walk with us and, in ridiculously good English, gave us detailed history of the temple, the gate and the garuda.

Fran and our two little guides in front of the garuda carving.  The kids in Siem Reap, particularly in the temples areas, all have a very good command of the English language which they learn just from interacting with the tourists. Incredible.

Franny & Sinh waiting for me to get through the gauntlet of vendors.

At the next temple, Bayon, we told Sinh to meet us at the South Gate instead of at the drop off point.  His eyes grew wide and he looked panicked as he informed us that the South Gate was a 1.5km away!  We told him that we were aware of that and that we’d be fine.  He insisted that he pick us up at the drop off point and only when we persisted did he acquiesce to picking us up on the far side of Bayon which would still spare us the 1.5km walk to the gate.  I don’t know if other tourists typically don’t walk or what, but he was totally freaked out that we insisted on walking to the South Gate, which we did.

Carved faces of Bayon Temple

Bayon is one of the more famous temples and is known for its huge carved stone faces (there are 148 faces on 37 towers….or there were that many originally. Now many of them are gone).

It also has some of the most well preserved bas reliefs (carvings) of any of the temples.

The 0.8 mile walk to the South Gate was very enjoyable and Francesca and I talked as we strolled beneath the shade of the tall trees out of reach of the sun’s hot rays.

Along the way we ran into a group of monkeys who were trying to raid the picnic a few locals were having.  Here are two of my favorite monkey shots….

Sinh was waiting dutifully for us when we arrived at the South Gate.

He gave us some interesting info regarding the bridge on the other side of the South Gate.

At this point we adjourned for lunch at one of the many tourist restaurants in the park.  This one was near Angkor Wat which we decided we would visit first thing after lunch.

I opted to try the tasty local dish Amok, a coconut milk curry dish usually made with chicken, fish, or shrimp, plus some vegetables.  It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side.     It was delicious! Sinh joined us as well at our request although I think he really just wanted to hang out with the other tuk tuk drivers.

After lunch I decided I needed a nap and made my way to our tuk tuk to lie down (it wasn’t a feather bed, but it would do).  Of course I was assaulted on the way by a gaggle of young child vendors.  These are the worst by the way, because they all look so cute that you can’t help but want to buy from them.  But today, however, I had one major weapon to defend me – I didn’t have any money on me!  Well, after paying for our lunch and Sinh’s we had $2, but that was it until we hit an ATM machine.

The lead girl, who I found out later was named Kouch, was smiling and had eyes that sparkled with an intelligence that belied her tender age.  While I was not in the mood to deal with vendors at that point I was amused by this girl and decided to politely play “the game” where she would try to entice me with post cards or guide books or key chains and I would say “no thanks, no thanks, no thanks”.   As I tried to get some shut eye Kouch (wearing the purple t-shirt in the photo above) was still giving me the full court press so I decided to give her a task and sent her to fetch me a bottle of water.  I said I wanted a large one, but could only pay $2 USD for it, not the $4 she was asking for which she agreed to.  By the time she came back with the water Francesca had joined me at the tuk tuk and had her iPhone out checking our itinerary.  Kouch and her friends were absolutely fascinated by it.  They had asked if we were married and so we decided to show them our wedding photos on the iPhone.  Even though they had never seen one they intuitively figured out how to use their finger to swipe from one pic to the next.  Kids just get technology.

Here is some video footage of these kids and their amazing knowledge of U.S. state capitals!  Francesca and I were seriously impressed.

Well I didn’t get any sleep, but we did have a great time chatting with the vendor babies and said our farewells and headed across the street to Angkor Wat.  As we were leaving Kouch put four wooden bracelets on Francesca’s wrist.  Thinking that was her way of getting us to purchase them, we told her we couldn’t pay for them as we had no money.  But it turns out she was just giving them to Francesca as a present.  We were touched by the gesture.  Francesca still wears them now (several weeks later – I’m quite far behind with my postings!) although she’s down to only 2 having lost the other 2 along the way.

Angkor Wat is the largest and most well known of the temples and with good reason – it’s pretty darn impressive.

Me seemingly auditioning for a Toyota commercial in front of Angkor Wat

Some of the excellent bas reliefs in Angkor Wat.

There were also some great statue carvings……

……that Francesca spontaneously decided to violate.  She claims she was just trying to “tune in Tokyo”.

We also saw some young Buddhist monks who appeared to love being in front of a camera.  I tentatively took out my camera, unsure of the protocol for filming monks, and they beamed with delight.  So I started shooting away.  It just so happened that their monk teacher was trying to impart some wisdom to them and so they had to appear serious and attentive, but I kept pulling funny faces on them behind the teacher’s back which cracked them up.  A few times the teacher turned around to see what was causing his charges to burst into spontaneous laughter, but he would only see the back of my head as I would feign interest in a wall carving until he turned back around.

We were feeling tired again – since we didn’t get our post lunch nap – so we climbed out onto an outside ledge on the third level of Angkor Wat and dozed for about thirty minutes.

After rousing ourselves we had some time to kill before sunset so we went to Baksei Chamkrong temple which resembles the Mayan temple of Chichen Itza (although not quite as tall).

It is a Hindu temple built in the Bakheng style by King Harshavarman I in the mid 10th century.  It is a twelve meter tall brick and laterite step-pyramid with VERY steep steps!

Francesca negotiating the step steps of Baksei Chamkrong.

Our tuk tuk driver Sinh  got an emergency call that his father had been in a car accident so he had to leave us for a few hours to visit him in the hospital.  Of course we told him to just take care of his dad and not worry about coming back to pick us up and that we would be fine getting a taxi or something, but he assured us that he would come back by sunset to pick us up.   So we made our own way from Baksei Chamkrong to Phnom Bakeng, a temple mountain which was the first temple to be built in the Angkor area and the most popular place to watch the sunset.

View of Angkor Wat from the top of Phnom Bakeng.

We got there about an hour and a half early so we wandered around the temple grounds and Franny took the opportunity to borrow a Buddhist altar to communicate with her Catholic god.  I’m sure he didn’t mind.  They probably have a cooperative crossover deal going.

We got a good seat early to watch the sunset and dug in while the hordes of tourists streamed in around us.

Then we just sat back and watched the magic….

As the fiery, orange ball of gas disappeared below the horizon line the crowd burst into applause.  We thought that was pretty neat….hundreds of people applauding Mother Nature.  Kind of gives you chills.

As we all started to file out of the temple and down the VERY steep stairs (see above) I captured a photo of a monk who was taking pictures of the tourists which I thought was a hilarious.

We had the option to head down the mountain via elephant, but we opted to walk, although I did take some time to say ‘hi’ to them.  I think I was more frightened by these behemoths than the Great White Sharks in Cape Town! (no protective cage this time).

I wonder if he was pleased or upset that I was wearing a t-shirt with elephants on it….

At the bottom of the mountain we were greeted by a group of men playing traditional Cambodian music.  As Francesca noted, “It sounds like they are all playing a different song!”

Sinh did come back for us and, thankfully, his father was okay.  Apparently some youngster on a moped hit him as he was walking down the street and he broke his wrist.

On the way back to our hotel Sinh took us to a drug store to get some necessities and next door we laughed when we saw the “6-11” convenience store.  I guess it’s just slightly less quality than the 7-11?

The next day we went to a couple more temples far outside of the main temple area, but none of them compared with the big three; Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and Bayon.

Bakong temple of the Roluos Group 13km east of Siem Reap

These kids were hiding behind a doorway and scaring tourists.  Cute, but devious.

Khmer girls on their way to school.

The beautiful countryside.

Ancient Buddhist carving directly into a rock by the river at Kbal Spean about an hour tuk tuk drive from Siem Reap.

Waterfall at Kbal Spean.

Hindu temple Banteay Srey.

After a long day of temple watching we really needed a massage and Sinh said he knew just the place for us.  He promised an excellent traditional Cambodian massage for only $6.  When we got there it was a bee hive of activity and a man came up to us with a massage services menu which showed the traditional massage for $25.  We told him that was way too expensive and he immediately brought the price down to $15 per person.  We said our tuk tuk driver told us it would be $6 per person and he said “Okay”.  Wow, that was easy.  An experience like this makes you realize that they have these prices on the menu because many/most tourists won’t even question it since $25 is cheap for a one hour massage where they come from, but if you just ask, you can save a lot of money.

#54 giving Franny a scalp massage.  Me with #s 54 and 72.

Francesca said hers was the best she’d ever had…..I, on the other hand, was in severe pain as my massage girl (#72) had brutal man-strength and was not afraid to use it.  After she inflicted serious pain by cracking my left toe joints I warned her not to do the same on my right as I have a painful bone spur on my right, big toe (I know, I’m getting old).  So what did she do?  She focused only on that toe until I was howling in pain.  Her older, more wizened colleague (#54) simply smiled and shook her head and said something to the effect of “why don’t you stop hurting him?”  Yes, that would be a great idea.

On our last day we both agreed “No more temples!” and decided to camp out at the five-star Le Meridian hotel for the entire day.  $10 got us access to the pool area, the gym and the gardens and a few more dollars go us internet access for the day.  We lounged by the pool, worked out, drank cocktails and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the lap of luxury.  Later in the afternoon we commandeered one of the pavilions and spent a few hours surfing the internet and skyping our friends and family.

Just as we were about to leave to head to dinner we heard what at first we thought was a dying cat put to music. It turns out it was some local Cambodian kids singing Christmas carols for the few guests that were spending $500 per night in this atrocious global economy.

I know I shouldn’t be critical of kids singing, but I tell you these kids were god awful.  I tried to record some of it so you could all hear for yourselves.  Here’s a quick clip of them singing Silent Night.  It’s bad, but not as bad as it sounded live.  In our defense, since we couldn’t see them at first, we did not realize they were kids when we were making fun of them.

That evening we treated ourselves to a little local culture combining a traditional Cambodian meal with a traditional Apsara dance performance.  My first impression was that the costumes and hand movements looked a lot like Indonesian dancing and then, sure enough, I read in the program that King Jayavarman II was educated in Java and had swiped the dancing from there and brought it back to Cambodia.

Francesca admiring her flower while sitting at the low tables at the Apsara Restaurant Theatre.

The Apsara ballet, one of three palatine dances performed for us, was often performed at offering ceremonies and palace celebrations in the Angkorian era.  The delicate hand gestures all have symbolic meanings.

The next morning was Christmas day and we caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with our travel friends Allie and Duncan.

I had been wanting to go to Cambodia and Angkor Wat since I was a young lad and while I am definitely glad I went and was impressed by some of the temples, I don’t think it requires more than two full days (unless you are a complete temple junkie!).  Plus with the harassment of the vendors fresh in my mind, it’s not a place I would hurry back to any time soon.

Country Stats:

Official Name: The Kingdom of Cambodia (formerly known as Kampuchea)

Official Language: Khmer

Country’s Name in Native Language: Preăh Réachéa Nachâk Kâmpŭchea

Population: 14,000,000

Capital City: Phnom Penh

Government: Constitutional Monarchy, Parliamentary representative democracy

Current Leader(s): Norodom Sihamoni (King), Hun Sen (Prime Minister)

For more information about Cambodia click here.


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