I sometimes bemoan the fact that most tourism nowadays seems to be nothing more than a glorified amateur photography session, even though I know full well that I’m throwing stones in a glass house.
Do I care about the history of the places I visit? Yes, if it’s modern and relevant, like apartheid or the Holocaust, for instance, but not if it’s ancient stuff about the Middle Ages and whatnot. I mean, honestly, who gives a toss?
That’s one of the reasons I never hire guides. As someone who’s spent his whole life staving off boredom with an endless string of distractions, I think I can safely say that listening to a guide is one of the few things that has me struggling to suppress my yawns. I always want to stop them and say: “Look, I’m sorry but my eyes are glazing over here. I doubt if I’ll remember the details of what you’ve told me in a week, let alone in years to come, so can we just stop now? There are some pretty pictures I want to take.”
This overview of the temples of Angkor will therefore be brief and mainly pictorial.
There are dozens of Khmer monuments scattered around the countryside near Siem Reap, mostly from the 12th and 13th centuries, the headline-grabber being the vast Hindu mausoleum and temple of Angkor Wat.
A couple of kilometres away is the walled city of Angkor Thom, which perhaps housed a million people 800 years ago. Its gateways are truly bizarre
and offer a foretaste of one of the temples inside. Known as the Bayon, it contains 54 towers, each of them adorned with four giant carved faces pointing north, south, east and west. One theory is that they’re the face of the then king, Jayavarman VII.
Nearby you’ll find the Terrace of the Elephants (used by the king for addressing his subjects)
and the Terrace of the Leper King, although how this got its name is a bit of a mystery.
Nice sculptures, though.
Having been abandoned to the jungle, the temples were rediscovered by French explorers in the mid-19th century. Far from being restored, Ta Phrom has been left in a ravaged state and is all the more wonderful for it. It’s like entering a world where the Triffids reign supreme.
Other temples have their own unique charms but after three days I’d seen enough. They were starting to get a bit samey, frankly, although one of the joys of touring around was that you never knew when another corker was going to crop up.
Back in Siem Reap, I’m much happier now that I’ve seen the monuments. The town is still a tourist trap - funny to think that not that long ago it was a scattered group of villages - but it doesn’t seem as threatening now that I’ve run the gauntlet of tuk-tuk guys and survived.
I certainly don’t think it’s any more poverty-stricken than other places in Cambodia. All I know is that it’s full of tourists and that the locals, understandably, see a chance to make a buck. At every temple it was the same story. Children trying to sell me sets of postcards or paperback books about Cambodia; women and children touting T-shirts, sunhats and silk scarves, “cheap price”; and women with refreshment stalls employing the same old patter with one or two modifications. “Hello sir. You want cold drink when you finish? Coke, Fanta, Sprite, water, only one dollar. Stall number four. Remember the orange hat.” And they accept a polite rejection with such good grace and humour when it comes.
It’s much harder to ignore this country’s amputees, some of whom form chamber orchestras and perform traditional music on the long paths leading to several of the temples. As I understand it, about 200 people a year stumble upon an unexploded golf-ball-sized bomb, dropped during the secret, illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. How Henry Kissinger lives with himself, I’ll never know.
You see the amputees in town as well, often carrying an A4-sized laminated white card that describes their plight in English. They’ll sometimes approach you when you’re eating a meal, as the restaurants here tend to be open-fronted. Children - with all their limbs, and often quite neat and well turned out - do the same. They usually have a book of ten postcards to sell for a dollar and I always turn them down, having bought such a item from a guy with malformed legs on a wheelchair/bike contraption last week.
A couple of days ago, two scruffy little lads approached me and I regret to say I turned them away a little too dismissively. However, at the next table were two young women who had the bright idea of buying food for the boys, thereby circumventing any Fagins who might be waiting in the wings. Minutes later a diminutive girl came in and as per usual I declined her offer of postcards. But she was persistent. “Buy me food,” she said. “In here.”
She was thrilled to bits when I agreed, although I’m pretty sure she never thanked me. Awkwardly, I tried to make conversation and learned that she was a ten-year-old called Noi. Her mother worked nearby and expected Noi to sell five books of postcards a day to tourists. She showed me them in her kiddie handbag.
Did she go to school? In the morning, she said, in Phnom Penh. Which is impossible, as the capital is hours away. For the most part I let her get on with eating in silence, uncomfortably aware that I was treating a 10-year-old girl to a meal in Cambodia. If it had been a boy, I’d have looked just as suspicious. The only other person in the restaurant, a 60-ish white guy, chose to shun this newfound pastime, ‘buying food for a ragamuffin’. Possibly because, like me, he wasn’t keen on being mistaken for the next Gary Glitter.
When she was halfway through her meal I got up to leave. “Well, it was nice meeting you, Noi. Enjoy the rest of your meal. I hope you sell some postcards,” I said. Loudly.
Today I bought some small souvenirs in an indoor market, using US dollars as is the norm here, and was offered change in $2 bills. The stallholder had a sheaf of them in her purse, featuring a picture of some presidential-looking guy in an 18th or 19th-century wig. I just laughed. They weren’t quite the joke $3 bills with Bill Clinton on them but they weren’t all that far off. I’m surprised I reacted so good-naturedly, considering that she was attempting a petty theft. I must be in a good mood.