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Sunrise in Siem Reap

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 5 December 2013 | Views [1642]

Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat sunrise

I am cold! For the first time in the six months since I left New Zealand I am actually really quite cold. It is 5am, dark and the tuk-tuk is buzzing along the road that leads to Angkor Wat. Along with hundreds of other tourists, we are heading to the most famous landmark in Cambodia to watch the sun rise up behind it, colouring the lake in front in which the reflection will complete this much photographed image. Innumerable nationalities jostling lightly for a prime photo spot. The anticipation unites us all as the skies shed the blackness of night to reveal the world's largest religious monument, around nine hundred years old. It is truly awe-inspiring that it should even have been possible to build, let alone that it is still standing centuries on.

The crowd starts to disperse as the sun climbs higher and it is even possible to find a quiet spot. As I wander along the corridors I am further amazed by the hundreds of sculptures and bas-reliefs clearly depicting historical events of so many years ago and still viewed today by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Not only is it's importance established by its UNESCO World Heritage status, but signs at many of the temples undergoing restoration show the project is being carried out in conjunction with other countries - Indonesia, China, India were a few that I noticed. Restoration work is being undertaken with the greatest respect and adherence to materials and construction methods originally used - reusing original sandstone blocks where possible. 

Everything seems to cost one Dollar and there are no end of people, very often young children, pushing you to buy. Here lies the age-old dilemma of wanting to support a country where poverty is rife, but one person cannot feed all these families and begging is not a long-term solution. With just a backpack and very limited space to keep buying, my answer (which seems to be an acceptable compromise) is to carry small packs of biscuits. The amount of tourists mean that money will be earned and I get to see the children directly benefitting from something to eat. 

Tourism is massive. From the five star international brands to small guesthouses of varying levels of comfort, there's place for every budget. There are restaurants at every turn and the night market houses plentiful souvenir sellers. The starting prices are outrageous, although that's nothing unusual in Asia! Good bargaining should leave both parties happy. Tourism certainly provides a lot of employment. Inbetween the restaurants and stalls are the massage parlours. US$5 for an excellent one hour foot reflexology massage.

Cash machines dispense in US$'s and you are expected to pay in Dollars although it's common practice is to receive small change in local currency. Ideally you need to come equipped with a large amount of small denomination notes. Other forms of employment are the tuk tuk drivers, a perfect way to get around these flat lands. The $20 one day pass to Angkor Wat and various other temples also pays the 'Eco army' - their green uniform identifying them as they cut grass, hand dredge man made ponds and lakes, collect litter and generally keep tourist areas clean and presentable. Thailand and Malaysia take note! The people I have met so far have been friendly and courteous. I have noticed a certain childlike playfulness in many people in some South East Asian countries, usually displayed when they feel comfortable with the people around them. I see it here too although there is also a kind of resignation. Life is hard.

Tanei Guest House is set just off the main road by the night market. I am walking to the mini mart, feeling somewhat irritated by never-ending shouts of the tuk-tuk drivers or masseurs or people asking for money and I'm being rather short with my replies. Inside the shop I am looking for the biscuit packs I have taken to buying to hand out, when I notice a lady with a baby behind me who had not long asked for money. Beside her was an older Western man. I moved aside to let them past and watched as he picked up a tin of baby milk and gave it to her. She was beaming with pleasure and gratitude as he paid the US$25, a large enough sum by a traveller's standards, a fortune by hers! I have tried to find a comparison to describe that touching moment. The problem is, how many people these days actually know what it is like to live hand to mouth, day to day? How often do we feel the massive relief of being able to feed our baby for a few more days? I am humbled and vow not to snap at people who are only trying to eke a living.

Ubud invites introspection and self healing, where as in Cambodia you are faced with real poverty of a people that have been through so much suffering. I suppose some will close their eyes, but for many Cambodia evokes compassion. There are large numbers of NGO's (a few not quite so reputable I am told) working to help the Khmer people create a future that can support them. A fellow traveller observes that the people here are much warmer than the Thais who seem so jaded by mass tourism. I suppose it's just a matter of time before tourism holds up the economy here whilst breaking down the morale. The shift towards responsible tourism cannot come soon enough to ensure that cultures are not lost under the commercial concrete of tourism.

Tags: ankor wat, cambodia, humbling experience, ngos, one dollar, responsible tourism, siem reap, tanei guest house, unesco

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