Cambodians (actually, people from all of the countries we visited in South-East Asia) love children. “Hi, baby!” and “Hi, boy!” were near constant refrains during our stay. One night, when we ate dinner at a do-it-yourself barbecue place on the street in Siem Reap, a waitress took Jude out of his chair and brought him dancing (in our full view) across the street to a French funk band that was playing on a small stage next to a giant gaudy Christmas tree and a tank full of those ubiquitous massage fish. He loved it. “More dancing,” he told us for the rest of the night.
The people were charming and you certainly feel for them, considering everything they’ve gone through in the last 40-odd years. Reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s terrible reign are everywhere, from amputee beggars, to signs noticing the recent clearing of landmines.
Now, the biggest threat to Cambodians isn’t ultra-violent communists in black pajamas, but severe annual flooding. The architectural response to this is as ingenious as it is simple: put all of the houses on stilts. And people do. All manner of houses, from shanties to middle-class homes that wouldn’t look out of place in Larchmont, sit on fairly tall stilts (10-20 feet in some cases).
One of the more disturbing things we saw all over Asia, and especially in Cambodia, was the prevalence of skin-whitening products and procedures. Cosmetic products (for both men and women) claim to whiten users’ skin—from lotions, to soaps, to deodorants (are white pits really necessary?) to bath salts. We saw a number of plastic surgeons’ offices offering whitening procedures, a trend that is apparently on the rise.
As someone who admittedly has used self-tanner in the past (full disclosure, it has been close to ten years), I find this trend very hard to fathom. Why do Europeans and Americans think that tan skin is beautiful and Asians think that white skin is beautiful? Part of the explanation surely comes from people’s desire to look different, especially when that look is unobtainable or at least hard to obtain. I think there is a socio-economic explanation as well: in Asia, if you’re white, you haven’t been working in the rice fields; in the States, if you’ve got a nice tan, you may have just come back from a long weekend in Barbados.
In any event, the results, in some cases, look ridiculous. We saw a transvestite boat captain in Laos who had gone to serious lengths to whiten his face (think Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the Tim Burton Batman movie), but had left the rest of his body a natural tan. In most cases, the efforts hardly seem to produce the desired Miss-Saigon look, and instead just make the wearer look like they had some kind of accident while baking a cake.
We would be remiss not to address the most famous part of Cambodia of all: Angkor Wat. The first thing to know about Angkor Wat is that when people say “Angkor Wat” they don’t—usually—mean Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just one place, although a pretty cool one: it’s the world’s largest religious structure, a temple complex; the crown jewel of the Khmer Empire; and it appears on the Cambodian flag. Instead, they mean the temples—and palaces, citadels, and other ancient structures associated with the Khmer Empire—in the Angkor region in Cambodia. For instance, when someone says, “I’m going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat[,]” they probably mean that they’re going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, and lots of other great places as well. And there are lots of great places: we gave ourselves a generous nine days in Siem Reap (the launching pad town for Angkor) and just about saw all of the temples that we wanted to, just about… I use “temples” to refer to all of these structures, as the locals and other tourists do.
Five Tips for Temple Viewing in Angkor:
1. Don’t Become Blasé: One of the big risks about visiting the temples is becoming blasé. Standing alone, many of the individual temples, at least 10-20 or so, could draw in visitors from all over the world. The effect of having so many of these impressive buildings so close together can be overwhelming and also potentially desensitizing. The visitor can see so many of them in such a short period of time, that it would be fairly easy to fail to register each one’s full import.
I was aware of this eventuality and did my best to guard against it. Luckily, on our first day of sight-seeing, we were visited by my old friend Matt and his friend Xuân Mai, who both now live and work in Phnom Penh, and who had visited Angkor before. Good news. This meant they did not want to repeat the most famous temples, and were happy to visit some of the lessor-known ones with us during the couple of days they were in town. After they left, we could then go on to see the most commonly visited temples—like Angkor Wat or Bayon (the one with the big heads)—and be wowed anew with each successively more impressive temple (of course, some of our favorites turned out to be less-visited ones we saw first like Banteay Srei—looks like a smaller Angkor War with fantastic carvings but is more remote).
2. Consider Paying a Local to Show you Around: Don’t be afraid to hire one of the local “guides” who hang around at the various temples (I use the term loosely because the ones that offer their services on site are typically unlicensed). So many locals hassle visitors—beggars and vendors mostly—that it is tempting to just ignore them all. The few times we engaged locals to show us around, though, it was well worth it.
One morning when Bliss and Jude slept in, I went to watch the sunrise at Srah Srang, a man-made lake with an east-facing, 10th-century platform, perfect for watching a colorful sunrise. After taking in one of the best sunrises of my life and polishing off my flask of coffee, I made my way across the street to Banteay Kdei, a 12th-century temple, which I had to myself at that hour.
A few minutes after I entered the front gate, a smiling local man, about my age, emerged out of nowhere and agreed to show me around for $2 USD. Did he speak much English? Hardly. But he was able to show me the very best vantage points for temple viewing. As an added bonus, he pointed out where some of the scenes from Tomb Raider (that Angelina Jolie gem from about 10 years back) had been shot. I had to admit that I did remember the scene where she lifted the boulder (papier-mâché, he told me) above her head and ran down a stone corridor. (I still want the two hours of my life I spent watching that movie back.)
On the morning of our last day in Siem Reap, Jude hung out at the hotel with a terrific babysitter and some of the hotel staff he had become friendly with, and Bliss and I took the 40-KM tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea, possibly the coolest temple that we saw. Unlike most of the temples that have been restored somewhat, Beng Mealea is pretty much in the same chaotic state it was when “discovered” in the 19th century.
This means rubble everywhere, walls in a state of collapse and semi-collapse, and silk-cotton tree roots running amok, and uprooting the stone. One guidebook calls it “the ultimate Indiana Jones experience.” It is a perfect place for scrambling, for those adventurous enough. We were, but would not dare to tread on any of the precariously balanced stones without some kind of assurance that the stones would not crumble under our feet. That’s where the gang of three or four local boys aged 10 or so came into play. “You like climbing, mister?” one asked me. About 45 minutes later, we panted happily, having enjoyed a great scramble across parts of the large structure where most of the tourists did not venture. Again, going with local “guides” had been a great move.
One more example came at the Kbal Spean waterfall—a great daytrip out of Siem Reap, featuring a riverbed with hundreds of carvings of unknown vintage, but possibly dating back to the 11th or 12th centuries. The carvings are incredible, but some are hard to locate. The guide’s nominal fee was easily justified by his pointing out some of the more out-of-the-way carvings, and also by his having taken some family photos for us (we sometimes have a hard time getting photos of all three of us).
3. Buy Ancient Angkor and Learn Something About the Temples: I recommend buying the Ancient Angkor book, widely sold at almost all of the temples, as soon as you get the chance. With haggling, the price falls to six or seven dollars. It provides much greater depth of information, historical and architectural, than do any of the standard backpacker guides, such as Lonely Planet. I spent a couple of hours with it and got much more out of temple viewing from that point on. It’s fun being able to identify the mythological characters and creatures that appear again and again—oh, that multi-headed snake? That’s a naga. Those dancing women? They’re apsaras, etc, etc.
4. Time Your Visit to Avoid the Crowds: As magical as most of the temples are, they are distinctly less so when descended upon by a busload or two of tourists. Among other reasons that it’s better to go when fewer people are around is for the photo opportunities—it’s hard to shoot that famous apsara statue (or the like) when two topless Australian guys are planking in front of it (unless of course you want planking topless Australian guys in your apsara photo).
We were somewhat handicapped by Jude’s napping schedule, which basically takes 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. off the table (the temples close at 5:30 p.m., anyway). The best luck we had was early morning, say 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., after which people start showing up in droves at the popular temples.
One morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:15 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the north reflecting pool in front of Angkor Wat. It was somewhat of a letdown, as clouds covered up the sun for the most part, and hundreds of people crowded around the pool, all hoping to see the famous wat’s reflection. (Jostling for space with strangers in the mud is tough at that hour.) Still, the experience was absolutely worthwhile, as after the sunrise, most people left to go have breakfast, and we had Angkor Wat largely to ourselves for two or so glorious hours. (We had brought a picnic breakfast, which we quickly devoured to get back to sight-seeing.) By the time we left at 9:30 a.m., Angkor Wat was mobbed.
Another one of our favorite temples was Ta Prohm, which like Beng Mealea, is largely unrestored, though more so than BM. Ta Prohm is hugely popular though (for one reason, it’s right next to Angkor Wat), possessing a truly enchanting quality, complete with enormous silk-cotton trees (which, to me, look like brontosauruses) and stunning design. Another of the reasons for its popularity is that it features heavily in Tomb Raider. (I would make even more fun of that movie, but we were heartened to see that Angelina Jolie had opened a beautiful school just outside of Siem Reap.)
We went to Ta Prohm directly from Angkor Wat, at 9:45 a.m. or so, and several tour groups had already taken the place over. It was a bummer, but we were still glad to have seen it, its beauty absolutely breathtaking. Because I liked it so much, I decided to go back the next day, at 7 a.m., when Bliss and Jude were still in bed, and was very happy to have had the chance to see it again, sans-tour groups.
5. Don’t Lose Your Cool: We learned this very important lesson from a visiting Asian tourist. We hiked up the famous Phnom Bakheng (phnom means hill) to take in the sunset with Matt on one of our first nights (Xuân Mai had gone home). After waiting in a long line to get to summit (cordoned off to prevent overcrowding), and getting very close to the front, we were dismayed when the guards shut up shop, and decided not to let anyone else in.
While we were irritated, one man in his early thirties was apoplectic. He cursed and shouted at the guards; his face turning red, he started to insult Cambodia, and said he would tell all of his friends to stay away. The guards just stood there, poker faced, while this guy blew his top. Finally, and after 10 minutes (legitimately: 10 minutes) of yelling, he descended the hill with his girlfriend, defeated. After he was out of sight, the guards immediately let everyone else who had been waiting in line in. Some of the people who entered with us at that point were in the angry guy’s tour group (we think), so word would have got back to him. Ouch.
In all seriousness, this lesson extends to many features of a temple visit. At a temple’s entrance, throngs of vendors and street children typically hang out trying to sell you things (mostly cold drinks, Ancient Angkor, scarves, and these little wooden flutes). Some of the people are nice, but others are pushy and rude. There’s no point getting irritated (some tourists we saw did); if you do, you’re going to be annoyed a lot, because people trying to sell you things are everywhere.
Similarly, some other tourists are rude, loud, or insensitive when it comes to getting in the way of a photo you want to take—say, for instance, your kid is finally smiling and the light is hitting that wall just right, but a tour group has decided suddenly to stop in front of you to cover, in detail, the Khmers’ 12th-century transition from Hinduism to Buddhism and all of its physical ramifications on the temple you are looking at. Again, there’s no reason to get mad, because it’s all part and parcel of the experience.
ALL PICTURES FROM CAMBODIA: here