14 May, 2010
Siem Reap, Cambodia

There are three reasons people come to Cambodia. One is child prostitution, as discussed earlier. The second is drugs – I’ve been offered weed at least three times, and while I was walking to a nearby Caltex yesterday to buy some water a guy pulled up beside me on a motorcycle and tried to sell me opium, coke and “skunk,” whatever that is. The third is Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is used as shorthand for the entire complex of ruins to the north and east of Siem Reap. It’s an absolutely massive place, spread out across many square kilometres of jungle and forest. The correct term is Angkor Archaeological Park; Angkor Wat itself is merely the largest and grandest temple.

It’s also the shittest, because it’s covered in writhing swarms of tourists and it’s being extensively restored, which means another run-in with fucking scaffolding. This was a real problem at many of the larger temples: scaffolding, wooden beams, cement, “restoration.” A travesty committed by authorities who obviously don’t understand the allure of a ruin.

Take Ta Prohm, for example, the temple where they filmed Tomb Raider. Travel resources describe as the most amazing and atmospheric ruin in the whole place, because it’s overgrown with jungle… or at least it was, before 2010, when the powers that be decided to clear it all out.

I cannot understand a mindset that looks at this incredible decaying jungle temple and says “Right, let’s clean this thing up! Scrape all the lichen off, put some cement stairs and wooden walkways in, and fix all those crumbling blocks. And get rid of all those trees. I want this place looking brand new!” As with the bleached coral in Thailand, it’s depressing, because it gives you the sense that you’re a decade too late to appreciate the place.

The other annoying thing about Angkor Wat is the hawkers. I know this is a desperately poor country and they need whatever they can get, but after hearing SIR COLD DRIIIIINK? ONE DOLLAAAAA? fifty or sixty times, my patience was wearing thin. They’re a stronger breed than the garden-variety hawker, too. They’ll lock onto you from sixty or seventy metres away.

Having gotten those two gripes out of the way, I’ll mention that Angkor Wat was nonetheless amazing. I needed something awesome to restore my faith in this trip and, praise be to Saint Christopher, this was it.

We bought three-day passes for US $40, and rented bicycles for a dollar a day, since most of the major temple complexes are within riding distance. After being disappointed with Angkor Wat, we ventured a little further afield, and found that there are dozens of other sites that are completely secluded. No hawkers and no other tourists whatsoever. This here is either the Victory Gate or the East Gate of Angkor Thom:

This was absolutely deserted, hundreds of metres away from anyone or anywhere.

Another fantastic thing about the more remote sites (and even some of the major ones) is that you’re allowed to climb all over them. No velvet ropes, no guards. You can scramble up a pile of fallen blocks, walk along the walls, go nuts. This probably isn’t good for the ruins, but it suits me just fine. It’s like Shadow of the Colossus in real life.

For the record, yes, that is sweat drenching my back. This is typical when walking down the street in South-East Asia, let alone when riding thirty-five kilometres on a bike and then jumping around on ruined temples.

Chris is sick, unfortunately, which meant he didn’t really have the energy for riding his bike, let alone temple athletics. At one point he nearly fainted/vomited. This was after climbing to the top of a very steep and very high temple, and then sitting with his legs dangling over the fifty metre drop at the edge of the platform. Oh Chris! So on the second day he stayed in bed, while I ignored my ass blisters and rented a bike again to try to take in some of the northernmost temples.

That day, however, was a public holiday commemorating the king’s birthday. The King of Cambodia doesn’t have nearly as much of a public image as the King of Thailand, who likes to shovel himself down people’s throats, but apparently his birthday is a big deal. There were a lot of Cambodians seeing the ruins on their day off. The road between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, a long stretch lined with huge fig trees, was a pleasant cycle when Chris and I went down it on our first day.

On the second day I felt like I was in India. Parked utes, minivans and tuk-tuks lined the side of the road, and the narrow part left for traffic was crawling along at a metre a minute. I got stuck behind a van going at a sloth’s pace, carrying about thirty Cambodians. At one point a pair of elephants went past. It was annoying, but also kind of cool. I mean, you don’t get elephants on the Mitchell Freeway. And fortunately the Cambodian holiday crowd was all centred around that one road for some reason, with the other ruins being as deserted as the first day.

I wasn’t kidding about thirty people to a van, by the way. This country really knows how to get the most from its vehicles. I’ve seen up to five people on a single motorcycle. The average is three, and lone riders are a rare anomaly.

Traffic is, as always, chaotic. Due to the ass blisters I was generally riding while leaning forward with my arms crossed over the handlebars, which is a lot more comfortable but gives me less control. Which was not good when four-wheel drives came barrelling past with about ten centimetres of clearance.

There’s also a lot of Korean tourists here, on “HANATOUR.” When I fled Korea I thought I’d never have to see a frizzy perm and sun visor again, but there you go. But, as I said, it’s easy to get away from the crowd and go eat your lunch on top of a big, crumbling tower.

I don’t know a lot about Angkor Wat’s history. I know it was built around the 12th century by the Angkor empire, which stretched across much of South-East Asia. They were originally Hindu temples but later converted to Buddhist purposes. The Angkor empire eventually declined as the Thais and the Vietnamese ate up its territory, and the temples fell into disrepair. They were rediscovered by the French colonists in the 19th century and thus began the odious process of “restoration.”

There’s information signs all over the place and you can hire guides to explain the historical significance and artwork. Stuff that. If I want to learn about the history I’ll look it up on the Internet. I’m here to indulge my inner Indiana Jones.

I came to one ruin, Preah Khan or something, which was surrounded by a wall about a kilometre in every direction. After walking through the actual ruins, I decided to follow the northern wall back to where my bike was, rather than retrace my steps.

I kept thinking about landmines. Cambodia is rife with them, and while the odds of there still being any left anywhere near Angkor Wat is astronomical, I still found myself sticking to the ruined flagstones wherever possible.

As I was walking along, I suddenly noticed a pair of black dogs on the path ahead of me, standing there staring at me. I wasn’t sure if they were domesticated or strays, and since this was rabies country, I decided to quickly scramble up a statue of a garuda onto the wall. I walked with some difficulty along it, since it was sharply crenellated, and eventually looked down at the dogs. They barked and then ran off into the undergrowth, leaving me stranded on top of a five metre wall (the statue having been thoughtlessly designed so that it was possible to climb up, but not down).

Eventually I came to a spot where the wall had partially collapsed, so I could easily hop down the rubble to the ground. Angkor is such a swell place.

I took about three hundred photos. They all come out looking the same, of course, but there’s just something photogenic about the place. I can’t look at a fig tree growing out of an eight-hundred year old wall, its roots intertwining seamlessly into the stonework, and not take a photograph of it. Even if I already have twenty-two other photos of the exact same thing.

On the third day, today, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for $12 to take us around for the afternoon. It was a welcome respite for our asses. We drove out to the outlying Roluos temples (which weren’t worth the bother) and revisited one of the better parts of Angkor Thom, playing chess on top of a crumbling old archway. We also had children come up to us and tie flowers onto our fingers, then beg for money. Not to mention the blind musicians, or the woman cradling her deformed baby on the path up to the sunset hill. Sometimes this country feels like one huge guilt-trip.

I don’t feel anything about that, and that in turn doesn’t make me feel anything either. Yes, I have $20,000 to blow on private travel pursuits, and if I were to give that to a person here they could live like a king for the rest of their life. The fact that I earned that money by working for it does little to mitigate that – compared to most of the world, I was born into incredible luxury. If you’re reading this right now, on a computer, so were you.

There’s a massive imbalance in the spread of wealth, opportunity and living standards across the human race. Even when confronted with it, I don’t feel particularly compelled to do anything about it. Perhaps because there’s nothing I can do to alter the big picture. Perhaps because I’m just not ready to do so yet. Or perhaps simply because I’m selfish; like Henry Goose, I feel only gratitude that my maker cast me on the winning side.

Nonetheless, I’m at least going to acknowledge the privileges that my Western birth granted me, and make the most of them.

We’re moving on to Phnom Penh tomorrow, the capital. From there we need to look into getting Chinese visas (and Laos visas, to get there). I’d also like to see the genocide museum, and Bokor Mountain.

Chris is still dissatisfied. Angkor Wat didn’t particularly enthuse him, and he’s strongly considering going to North America, even having applied for a job on a ranch in Canada. I won’t be following him. I still want to see China. He still sort of wants to see Mongolia, so if he sticks around through China and leaves from Beijing I may go with him. I’m not sure what I’d do in Canada, though, nor am I interested in working again just yet. I might take the Trans-Siberian west, go through Europe a little bit, maybe work in Ireland. I’d have to travel on my own for a while to see if I was ready for a solo trip through Africa.

I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t like the idea of travelling alone, but I’d rather be alone than be with Chris when he’s not enjoying himself, miserable and hostile.

In any case, we’re in Cambodia for a while yet. I like Cambodia better than Thailand, and not just because of Angkor Wat. It’s cheaper, and Cambodians also seem friendlier. People say hello when you pass them in the street. Thais will only say hello if they’re trying to sell you something.

I’m never sure of how to wrap these things up. Let’s finish with a photo of the reassuring sign on the wall of our first guesthouse:

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