March 2, 2013
Today because we’ve arranged to do what’s described in guide book as an enchanting sunrise tour, we meet our taxi driver and a tour guide in the hotel lobby at 5:00 a.m. It’s pleasantly cool and mild in the open three wheeler, which is only one of many vehicles in a column of buses, vans and three wheelers traveling on the newly paved road through the dark jungle towards Angkor Wat.
Our tour guide Khemrin tells us how lucky he was, despite losing his father during the war, to have had a mother who allowed him to attend school although she desperately needed his income. The country was at war during most of his life, and even now is still not free. If Cambodians dare to express politically incorrect opinions, ‘accidents’ or sudden disappearances are the consequence. Cambodia is a long way from having the freedoms and luxuries citizens of democracies take for granted.
After buying our entrance tickets, he leads us to a large reservoir in front of Angkor Wat, where he says we will be able to get good photos of the sunrise. Since everyone reads the same guide books, the reservoir is bustling with crowds of people all jostling one other for the best places near the water. Although we’d had an image of a quiet sunrise in the middle of the jungle, it becomes apparent that since the tourist industry sends hordes of visitors – thereby employing hosts of guides and drivers – out for a Must See Sunrise, it’s unwise to hang onto the idea of getting that perfect sunrise photo. Make-shift stands selling breakfast and freshly pressed juice have been set up and the area has the character of a folk festival. It’s impossible for Christof to find a free spot where he can take a photo of the sun rising behind the temple. Every time he’s close to getting a shot, which needs a long exposure due to the dim lighting conditions, other people equipped with bigger cameras and professional looking tripods block his view by stepping in front of him for their own perfect shots.
Quickly tired of the hustle and bustle we search for Khemrin, who, after depositing us by the reservoir, went off to breakfast with his buddies. Disgruntled at being interrupted, he tries to discourage us from exploring the area by warning us that the third tier of the temple won’t open until 7:40. Dauntless, we convince him to join us for a dawn ramble around the immense empty grounds (the other tourists are still gathered by the reservoir), watching a fantastic conglomeration of towers, walls, stairs and passageways decorated by an unbelievable multitude of sculptures: demons, gods, dancing women and elephants carved into the friezes beautifying the sandstone buildings and magically coming to life when touched by the first rays of the rising sun.
King Suryavarman II dedicated Ancor Wat to Vishnu, and it’s thought – due to its western orientation facing the disappearing sun and symbolizing the disappearance of life – that it was constructed as his own funerary temple. The massive five-towered temple structure rises majestically from a reservoir that reflects its grandeur, and leads a society, which was strictly divided in castes, into its inner sanctuary by three separate entrances. The middle one, reserved for the king and the royals, was flanked on either side by entrances used by the middle classes, while the two outer most gateways were left to the commoners. The temple was built in three tiers; the highest one housed the tomb of the king and contained libraries and worship spaces for the royals, while the middle and lower tiers held the libraries and places of worship for their respective classes.
Climbing the steep stairs to the top of the temple is a bit like climbing a ladder or a mountain, its arduous ascent representing a pilgrimage towards the divine. Ancor Wat is a stone replica of Hindu cosmology, and since Mt. Meru has five peaks, its five towers symbolize this mythological mountain, while its moats are thought to represent the oceans and its outer walls the mountains surrounding the world.
We spent a long morning exploring more temples than we can recount, disappointed that our guide didn’t add much to the experience. Khemrin had obviously memorized a short text for each temple, although his rote recitation was delivered in a lifeless monotone so boring, it was impossible not to tune him out. Any questions we asked threw him off balance and, unable to answer, his only strategy was, in an annoyed, somewhat louder tone of voice, to repeat what he had just finished saying. Khemrin reminded me of an indolent student, vainly hoping to swell his small store of knowledge by repetition in order to hide the true object of his interest, to earn as much as possible while doing as little as necessary. He took constant rests in the shade, repeatedly giving us ‘time to explore on our own’ and sending us off amongst the largest temple assembly in the world with the words,
– Nothing to say, nothing to explain, same as before. Enjoy yourselves, get good photos, careful of steep steps. I wait for you on North Side Exit.
Alongside most long paths leading to the separate temple sites, groups of men injured by land mines sat on provisional wooden platforms playing traditional music. A sign in poor English explained their wish to earn their own living. How unfair to be handicapped for life just because you happen to be born into one of the world’s most heavily mined countries!
Sadly, despite the immense poverty visible on all sides, it was impossible for us to purchase something from every vendor, or to help each and every crippled musician and begging child.
By 3:00 we’re back at the hotel wondering how on earth we could feel so exhausted by taking a chauffeured tour, until we see a thermometer reading 100 F, 37.5 C. No wonder Khemrin spent so much time sitting in the shade.
The hotel offers its visitors every possible luxury, a posh rooftop terrace equipped with a bar and a pool, air conditioned bedrooms with carved wooden beds covered by silk canopies, and ornately decorated showers running into pools of water lilies. We’d never stay in a hotel like this in the West and because we can do so here, in the midst of such acute poverty, it feels decadent and off-color. The fact that goods and services are so ridiculously inexpensive seduces tourists, drunk on the strength of their currencies, into immodest behaviors. We watch a group of fat, over-fed men touching their pretty waitresses, convinced they’re doing them a favor. Others have no qualms enjoying pursuits that are illegal in their home countries.
The streets of Siem Reap are jumping with well dressed tourists cruising from cafe to cafe, while young barefooted children with younger siblings attached to their hips run between them begging. The difference between the visitors’ well fed, clean children carried safely on their backs is heart breaking and leads to the age-old questions about economic life and wealth distribution. It is crushing that even two generations later the results of the war have left people so poverty stricken, they’re obliged to do everything they can, including forcing their children into prostitution and selling the virginity of their daughters, in order to survive.
Everyone around Ancor Wat is hustling, although oddly the vendors all sell the same articles as their neighbors, entering into competition with them and thus diminishing their own income. Here, where the earth is dry and dusty, and we’ve been told that it hasn’t rained since October and won’t rain again until May, growing food is a far more challenging enterprise than it was in Sri Lanka, where the poor people had the luxury of stands piled high with fruits and vegetables.
In 2001 Angelina Jolie played the main character Lara Croft in the film version of the popular video game Tomb Raider which was shot amongst the ruins of Angkor Wat. Its tremendous success is responsible for many of the two million annual visitors who come here to see the temple overgrown by tree roots they recognize from the film. The Red Piano, a restaurant in Siem Reap, sells a cocktail named after her and because she adopted a Cambodian child and created a foundation in his name that helps the inhabitants of 10 villages lead better lives, she is loved and revered.
School attendance is voluntary because many families can’t survive without the incomes their children provide, and those who have the privilege of going are obliged to get there on their own steam. There are no school buses or parents ferrying children to and fro twice a day, so it’s not uncommon to see tiny children in school uniforms riding along crowded roads standing up on the pedals of gigantically oversized bicycles.