Saturday, January 16, 2010

So That's Angkor Wat? Huh...

“Yeah, waking up... probably not going to be a problem here.”

These were the words of wisdom gifted to me by my dorm room mate as I talked about my plans to go see Angkor Wat tomorrow. When I asked him why he was so sure of that, he just paused – widened his eyes – and asked, “have you not see the construction site next door?”

Seven in the morning, those men in white shirts, yellow hats, and crazy coloured silk masks covering their face get to work. At seven seventeen, when they've finally succeeded in dragging me, kicking and screaming like a new born infant, into the word of the waking, they take a break. Their break coincides with the exact amount of time it takes for me to get my shirt and pants pulled on.

Look – I'm not saying that this would make it alright, but if I was a blonde haired, blue eyed (which I am) lovely looking lady (which I'm not) I might understand their pause. But, you know, I'm me. But by all means, gentlemen, enjoy your hardy stare. It's not weird at all.

After a quick breakfast, the price for which seems to be decided at random – but there's all the juice you can drink, and that's often a winning scenario with me – I headed out to meet Boidna. I'm sure that's not how you spell his name, but it's as close to the phonetics as I could get it. Throw a dash after every two letters, and you're that much closer.

Together we rode off into the morning, I in the cushy back, and he on his scooter. The tuk-tuks here are more like dirtbike-pulled rickshaws than the well oiled machines of death that terrorize the streets of Bangkok. We headed off to the ticket booth for Angkor Wat. It was here that I learned two things – one delightful, and the other ridiculous. Delightful is that the locals here do not need to pay to access the site, or the temples. Cambodians get free tickets, much the same way that in Africa, locals receive seriously reduced rates for many attractions. Especially Victoria Falls, where it's twenty American for tourists, and only fifty cents American for those that live in country.

The ridiculous aspect, however, is that when buying your Angkor Wat ticket you have four price options. One day ticket – straight forward enough, yes? 7 day ticket – any seven days within a month. - Alright, I get it. 3 day pass. Here's where you have options. You can get a three day pass for three consecutive days, or you can get a three day pass for three days within a seven day period. Now, before you ask, yes – they are both the same price. And yes, if you get the within a seven day period pass, you can use them on three consecutive days. Pretty much the consecutive day pass is just to screw with you, to make you unsure about what it is you're actually purchasing. But no, you must get the three days within a week pass – because the other one is nonsense. You just might want a day off between temple hopping. And then, maybe you wont. And that's o.k. too!

Pass purchased, and photograph taken, I waited for the pass to be printed. Ten or so other people waited with me. One of them was handed all our passes, and left to sort it out. You know, giving my pass to a stranger doesn't seem the best of ideas, but then things are different here. Here, in South East Asian people get drunk and skip over a burning skipping rope. And when they fall and get terribly burned, well they've no one to blame but themselves. And the police just look at you and think, “well that was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?” And that's how it should be – thank you very much.

But seriously – don't go giving my pass away.

Once it was punched, thus activating it for today, we headed off through the first gate. And right at that moment I thought, yup. Alright. This is going to be quite the experience, isn't it?

And so it was. Though I still wasn't aware just how much of one it would become. At this point I was still of the mindset, “temples? Pssh – please, I've seen temples.” Because I have.

But right then and there, I should have been aware something unique was upon me. I was distracted though, you understand, by two young women trying to claw each others faces off, for the privilege of selling me something. Or trying to anyway. They were both selling books, “Mistah, mistah, I saw you way over there!” “No you didn't! He buy from me! Come with me mistah!” And the second one was so forceful and terrifying that I couldn't not obey. So over with her I went, as a gaze of death from the first attempted to reduce us each to ash.

Ancient Angkor was the name of the book I'd been told to buy. It was a good guide to the site. Cover price? Twenty Seven dollars. No thank you, but I've played this game before. Even with it being offered at twenty, I still scoffed. Now I've heard of this book going for five bucks – and I know there's a one dollar copy of it too, but it's all photocopied. This was a legit, full colour, delightful book. I named my price at nine. Nine dollars. And I would not budge. A few minutes, and some back turning later, it was mine. I, perhaps, should have bought at ten dollars – but... For what it's worth, I made up for it by buying one dollar sodas all day, only once haggling for a better deal. There is more clawing and cat fighting involved in getting your drink business.

You know, this was one of those moments where it dawned on me that if you grow up to be a pretty Cambodian girl in this part of the country, this is perhaps the best life you could hope for. And, it does pay well. If you sell me a coke for one dollar, that's about an eighty cent profit at the low end, and that's not too bad. For a full day of driving me around, my tuk-tuk driver made only 15 dollars. And I do mean a full day – he picked me up at 8.30 and dropped me off just past 18.00. Did I feel guilty? A little. But I'm told it's good money?

So back to these girls – they are sellers because they're good at it, and they can make money, and I'm sure most tourists buy from whomever they find prettiest. Here's the thing – they've been doing this for years.

Do not, please – oh please – if you are in Angkor Wat, or really any part of the world, please do not buy anything from children. Don't do it. It's like giving them candy, but so much worse. You don't give children candy because they don't have tooth brushes, or dental care, and your small piece of candy is going to destroy their teeth. If you buy from them you may be destroying their lives.

If these kids start doing well, they will be kept as sellers. They will not go to school, they will not pass go, and they will definitely not collect two hundred dollars. Well they might collect two hundred dollars, but at what cost? This will become their life.

But if you don't buy from them, what will their life have? It's a hard question – no simple answers. But please, if you must buy, buy from the adults, yeah?

I don't care how many bracelets that adorable girl offers to sell you, while following you off the path and into the woods (by the way – please don't go off the path into the woods. Fun fact, Cambodia has a lot of land minds. Yes land minds were put in the Angkor complex. Yes they did spent four years clearing them out of the main roads – and, you know, tourists have probably found one or two as well. But no, they did not go through the highly wooded areas, and those danger keep out signs? Well – explore if you must – but...)

For what it's worth, my record is seven. Seven bracelets for one dollar have been offered to me, starting from three, all by saying nothing. You can watch the photocopied lonely planets fall from seven dollars to one dollar through the same technique. I have no new bracelets. And no new books either. It kills me that I'd already added this Ancient Angkor to my load. Now I need to read two more novels before my weight will be zero sum again. Ugh. And I can't just chuck it later, because it's a nice souvenir. Maps, pictures, explanations – everything. If you go to Angkor Wat, it comes highly recommended. The Barltrop seal of quality in publishing, it receives.

Now, first we went to Angkor Thom. My driver said, “O.K. you meet me here in three hours.” I thought, uh huh – right – see you in forty five minutes, once I blaze through this place. And then I started to approach the temple. Yes I had to press through hoards of people trying to see me “T-Shirt, special size just for you”, “fresh fruit? Pineapple, maaaaango, baaaahnaaahnaaah”, “you buy from me – cold beer sir? Cold beer?” all shrieked in that obnoxiously high pitched voice that no one seems to use for polite conversation, but is unavoidable in the commercial enterprises.

But, pass through I did – and I found myself staring at... a temple. Great, ok, there are some faces, and some carvings, and what not. So what? What's the deal?

Full of jaded prejudice I began climbing steps which have been used for the last one thousand years. So that was interesting. Still, been there, done that, wrote about it from a castle in Scotland, thank you very much.

And then I checked my watch to see how much time I'd been wandering around. Oh, and hour has it been already? How'd that happen?

The labyrinthine passages connecting rooms with halls with rooms with courtyards with libraries with halls with rooms leaves you spinning in circles, climbing stairs, and feeling a great sense of accomplishment from doing what thousands, perhaps millions, have done before you. Still – you're exploring a temple ruin, and lets face it, this is as close to being Indiana Jones as you're ever going to get. So slap on that wide brimmed hat, and set to it.

The only real shortfall about this plan is that while millions may have done it before, hundreds are doing it at the same time as you. So every hidden nook and cranny is already full with tour groups, guides, or pseudo adventurers just like you. But don't let that take anything away from it.

Time check? Oh – two hours have passed. Interesting.

With only an hour left until I was to meet my driver, I quickly headed out to view two nearby smaller temples, and walked further back to where two monks were praying near a giant Buddha. I waited for a moment, watched for two, and then turned away. All over these sites you will find large stone statues clad in yellow robes. Remember, while travelling, that this still is a holy site.

Hours after were spent running through one temple, and then the next. At no point did I feel overly rushed, but at no point did I feel that I could slow down, find an empty corner, crawl up onto a ledge, and spend twenty minutes, a half an hour, or longer, just reading quietly. This is what I had longed to do, but it was not in the cards. Anyway, I was too busy soaking my shirt through with sweat. That was an activity that I seemed quite focused on for the better part of my day.

From 10:30 to 3:00 it gets hot. Really very hot. Now, I've acclimatized to the temperature somewhat, and it's not uncomfortable, but, you do need to accept that you will sweat – a lot – and then, once having come to that understanding, you will find yourself feeling delightfully cooled as the breeze catches your, now sticking, clothing.

We came to one temple which just climbed up, and up, and up – try as I might, flipping through my book now, I just can't find the name of it. Boidna warned me that I might have trouble climbing the temple, and so perhaps we should pass by. Trouble climbing? Please sir, don't you know that I have climbed mountains, and Parisian towers, not to mention one Dune 45? Such a thing as these seventy three odd foot tall stairs will worry me not.

And they didn't. It took all of, perhaps, four minutes to go from bottom to top. And the views were lovely. Later, it was discovered, that he didn't think I wouldn't be able to do it for any apparent reason, aside from my elderly age. He assumed, you see – beard and all – that I was much older than he. When I told him that I was but twenty seven, and a good seven years younger than him he was quite shocked. It's interesting how easy it is to tell age from within your own culture, but once you start branching out, it becomes rather difficult. You're never quite sure what to look for.

Another highlight of the tour was Ta Phrom, which is better known by some for being featured in the movie Tomb Raider. I had no idea – but would later watch clips of it, and come to decide that Lara Croft blowing up all number of things, and jumping from wall to wall, is rather quite entertaining. Not entertaining enough to watch while in Cambodia – but when I return, months from now, to the – quote unquote – real world, I think I might check it out.

Ta Phrom was left, somewhat, rundown and overgrown. In a state not all the unlike when it was discovered. Or so they say. Clearly much bush has been cut away, but some strangler figs, growing through the stone, remain to illustrate what it may have been like. And for that reason, it makes for a worthwhile excursion.

The day was growing long, and the sun was ready to set. It was finally time to move to Angkor Wat.

I had no idea, honesty upfront, that Angkor Wat was but one temple out of many. No idea that viewing the complex would take the better part of three days. But that's how I travel – based on ignorance, and without research. And I quite like it, because each moment can surprise you, delight you, and make you keep looking for more. The world's a strange place, and we should strive to keep it that way.

The sun set while I viewed the three well known towers. There had been a partial solar eclipse earlier in the day, but I saw nothing save for the bright glowing sun glow ever the lesser behind a wall of cloud. But because of this cloud it was feared that sunset would be equally disappointing. This would not be the case. The sky wall full of bright reds as the orb changed to colours that would make the Japanese proud. And there, at Angkor Wat, I watched as it quietly, and slowly, slipped down beneath the trees.

Driving back to the hostel plans for the next day were arranged. I would wait out front at 5:00am. Hey, you wanna see sunrise, you gotta get up early. After all, it's the thing to do.

Back in my room, I ended up chatting with a teacher from New Zealand, touring about on his summer break. We headed out for food, and he showed me a restaurant with Asian food good enough, and at the proper price point, to rival anything I could get back in the Greater Toronto Area. This is high praise indeed. Pork, rice, and vegetables, with a side of curry, a pineapple smoothie, and a banana one to chase it with – four dollars. Can't be beat.

Feeling as if we were stuffed, but unable to resist the allure of ice cream, we headed to Blue Pumpkin. If you're in Siem Reap, and fancy a tasty treat, head here. Order your food, and wander to the second floor lounger. There, you can recline on long couches set out in the trendiest of styles, surf the internet on your iPhone, or other such gadget on their complementary wifi, and just while away.

I foresee many hours spent here in my future.

And then it was back to sleep. After all, five o'clock – that was going to be early.

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