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Cambodia Day 2: The Wat Is Where?

CAMBODIA | Tuesday, 13 February 2007 | Views [1239]

Day 2 was all about the Wats. All of us, minus Uma because she'd done this before, met our driver at 4.30 a.m. and made our way back to the Angkor Wat. It was pitch black darkness. There are no streetlights in Siem Reap, not even around the Angkor Wat. We sat on the grass in front of the temple, together with many other tourists to wait for the sunrise. In the meantime, we blinded each other with camera flashes.

And then the light began to creep into the day. But where was the sun? Where were the golden rays and voices from heaven heralding the sunrise over the Angkor? The sky just got lighter and lighter until suddenly the sun was already up in the sky. What an anti-climax. Thank you, clouds.

We walked around the temple for about two hours and made the scary climb up to the top of the temple. I was terrified going down.

We went back to the guesthouse and picked up Uma before going to a nearby 'fast food restaurant' for breakfast. It had fast food chain chairs and air-conditioning, but the food was miles better than at a real fast food restaurant. Uma and Farah had fish burgers, the rest of us local food. Lianyi and I had coffee-flavoured bubble tea which was pretty good.

We then took our van to the temples. But first we had to sort out with our driver the order in which to visit them. During this communication process (it can't be called a conversation, it was way too halting and laboured), Soo Hian asked him, "The wat is where?" Thus was the theme and title for the trip established.

Our first stop was Ta Prohm, where we had to deal with our first group of souvenir-touting children for the day, the first of many. They were much like the merchant kids we'd met at the boat-shop of Kompong Chnang and the landmine museum the day before, except these children blocked our way into the temples if we didn't buy. It was quite maddening. Distributing sweets only made them ask for more. At one point I opened my bag to take out the sweets, and one child spotted a pen in my bag and kept asking me, "Can I have a pen? Can I have a pen?" Eventually, you would just have to squeeze past them into the temple.

Day 2 was also all about camwhoring. Lianyi took up the mantle of demanding photo director, not that anyone asked him to. "Look up! Step forward! No, too much! Stop looking like a retard! Now look into the camera! Look into the camera!!"

We spent about an hour at Ta Prohm taking lots of photos of ourselves among the ruins and the oddly shaped trees that had sprouted all over the temple grounds. And then at one point I stepped out of a doorway and found myself caught in the middle of a major Japanese tour group photo shoot, with people spread out over the many broken rocks and in several different poses. I ran back to my friends saying, "Ok you guys, we're all amateurs. You've got to see this." This sight of Japanese kawaii prowess inspired us to strike funkier poses and 'mix it up' for our own photos.
Another funny thing that happened was, Farah got conned into buying an erhu from one of the souvenir-sellers outside the temple. When we sat down to take a break, a group of German tourists crowded around us like we were buskers, waiting to hear her play. One of the men said, "We'll give you 1 dollar if you play." Of course we only giggled, because Farah didn't know how to play the erhu and probably never will.

It was mostly the same at the next temple Preah Khan, which had much fewer children and almost no other tourists: a lot of photo-taking and horsing around. Farah touched a phallic object which we later found out was called a Sivalingham. Many dumb jokes ensued.

As we were leaving Preah Khan, Uma squealed, "Oh my god, it's the teacher fucker guy!"

This was the third time in two days that Uma had seen the teacher fucker guy. The first was at Changi, boarding the very same flight to Siem Reap as us. The second, on the road to Angkor Wat on our first day. And now, he was entering Preah Khan as we were leaving. And on all three times, he was wearing a striped t-shirt which had the words "Teacher Fucker" sewn on the back.

Uma: I can't believe he's been wearing that same shirt for two straight days!
Me: Well at least now we know to keep a distance whenever we see him.
Lianyi: Maybe he has three versions of that shirt.
Uma: No, it's the same shirt. It's the exact same colour each time I saw him.
Lianyi: Yeah, why not?
Me: If I liked a shirt so much, I would buy the same design but in different colours.
Uma: Exactly.
Lianyi: Batman has five copies of the exact same suit.
Me: He needs it for crime-fighting.
Lianyi: Well maybe this guy needs it for teacher-fucking.

We then went for lunch at one of the restaurants outside Angkor Wat. There we were mobbed by kids again, who when we said "No," said, "After lunch you come and buy from me. Don't forget me, I wait for you here." It was heartbreaking, but I knew I couldn't save them by buying postcards. The face of one of the boys there still haunts me today. It was painful to think that we were having a wonderful meal right in front of them while they probably had very little to eat. If I ever go back I'll hand out bananas at least, not sweets.

Lunch was Khmer food. We tried their amok curry for the first time, and it was delicious. That was also the meal that sparked off the fruit shake battles that lasted throughout the whole trip. Every restaurant in Cambodia worth its name has a list of fruit shakes on its menu. But there is no knowing what you'll get by ordering any of them. For example, a strawberry shake will taste different, restaurant to restaurant.

At this one, Lianyi and Uma tied for first place with their unbelievable coconut shakes.

After lunch we headed off for more temple-watching, this time to Angkor Thom, within which lies Bayon.  Farah and Soo Hian had the great fortune to meet Ran, a local heritage policeman just outside the temple while Lianyi and I had been off looking for a toilet. Ran not only spoke perfect English but knew everything worth knowing about the temples. He offered to give us a tour, and of course we took it up.

I asked him, "Don't you have to do your policing work?"

He replied, "I'm a heritage policeman -- I can do whatever I like as long as I stay in this area!"

Lianyi quipped that it seemed like a pretty cool job, but Ran said he would turn into stone from boredom if he didn't interact with the tourists.

He told us a lot of really cool things about the temple, such as what the carvings meant. All of the carvings at Bayon tell stories about life back in the day. Some of these stories are tragedies, some comedies. It was really enlightening.

He took some cool trick shots of us and the Buddhas and brought us to a deep well that no other tourists knew about. He also complained to us about the Korean-run tourism industry within Cambodia, which uses up Cambodian resources but gives nothing back. We had already been pushed around enough by obnoxious Korean and Japanese tour groups by this point, so it didn't take much for us to agree with him that they were the bad guys.

Coincidentally, in the middle of Ran's rant about Korean tour groups, we came across one. Actually, they came across us. We had reached that spot in the temple first. And then they came by and the tour guide immediately shoved Ran aside and rudely said, "Excuse me" without a smile.

Despite the crowd, Ran showed us some cool camera tricks that made us look like we were touching noses with the huge Buddha faces on the temples. Of course, everyone around us saw what we were doing and immediately tried copying.

At the end of the tour, Ran whisked Lianyi away on his motorbike for a visit to the toilet (yeah, you need transport to get to the toilet) and met us back at Baphoun, a temple right next to Bayon. It was closed for restoration works, so we only got to walk on its long bridge (which symbolises the bridge to heaven or something) and then piled back into the van all sticky and gross and exhausted.

The consensus was that we wanted a massage but when? Should we shower first? Should we shove our sticky, dirty bodies under the hands of masseurs immediately? Decisions are hard to make when everyone's favourite phrase is "Up to you." It was finally decided that we should shower first. So back to the guesthouse we went.

After my shower I realised I could not put my jeans back on. They were disgusting. Sticky. Dirty. All around gross. But I had no other pants to wear because I had no other pants to bring to Cambodia! So there was no choice but to go out in my 7-year-old hockey shorts.

After showering we took our last ride in the van with Chad. He dropped us off at Seeing Hands, a massage parlour chain that's run by a Japanese NGO dedicated to helping the blind find work. All the masseurs in the parlour are blind, and extremely good at their job. But before going in for some flesh-kneading, we took a couple of photos with Chad and he gave us his email address. "Tell your friends if they come to Siem Reap, I can drive them," he said. And so I am telling you.

Uma, the Russian and I went for a massage while Farah and Soo Hian walked around Bar Street, just a street away.

The Seeing Hands parlour was kind of smelly, but my nose got used to the smell soon enough, especially when the hands of my masseuse started working on my back. It was the best massage I've ever received in my life. And it cost US$4! When I tipped my masseuse, she hugged me in delight. It was so sweet. But she fell off the massage table while massaging my legs, so it would have been heartless not to tip.

During the massage, there was a man next to me who kept moaning out loud, both in pleasure and pain. I couldn't really tell which table it was coming from, and I actually thought it was Lianyi at first. I thought, "Oh my god why is he acting like such a retard I am so embarrassed I am so glad these people can't see that he came in with me."

But then I realised that the noises were coming from the fat white guy right next to me. (Lianyi was two tables away from me; Moaning Man was in between the two of us.) So I turned my head to him and said, "You're making so much noise, I was wondering if something was wrong."

He said he was moaning in pain because the masseuse was kneading his Achilles' tendon and it was sore. We then went on to have a conversation. He was from Sydney. He had been visiting the floating village and flooded forest all day. He had gotten a three-day Angkor ticket before that and so had finished touring all the temples. He had visited Singapore before, and stayed in the Raffles Hotel. It had cost him $23 a night then; it was 1975.

After the massage the three of us went to meet Farah and Soo Hian at the Blue Pumpkin. On the way there we found a clothing store and I found a nice pair of army green cargo pants for US$10 that fit perfectly. I wore them out of the store, keeping my hockey shorts in my bag. Not even in Cambodia are hockey shorts cool enough to wear outside.

When we met Farah and Soo Hian, they commented that I now looked like a hardcore traveller who'd been backpacking for six months, especially since I was wearing my Beer Lao t-shirt.

Dinner was at a restaurant whose name I have forgotten, mainly because it was a meal that should be forgotten. Our food took about an hour to come.

While waiting for our food, this conversation took place:

Lianyi: Soo Hian, let's say you were in a boat and there were four kids drowning in front of you. One of them is your son, who is very fat. The other three are skinny Cambodian children. If you save your son, you can't fit any of the other kids on the boat. Or you could save the three kids and let your son drown. What would you do?
SH: Why would my son be fat? His father is not fat what.
(A small discussion ensued, and I've forgotten what SH's final answer was.)
Lianyi: Ok Farah, what would you do?
Farah: I would get the three Cambodian kids to help my son into the boat.
Lianyi: Yasmine?
Me: I'd let the fat kid die. In the long run, the three Cambodian children can grow up and work for me, while the fat kid will just eat and eat and use up all my money.

Everyone then agreed that my answer was the most logical.

When the food finally came, it was disappointing. Uma and Farah's grilled fish came in tiny portions, while Lianyi's and my grilled beef were of the consistency of pencil erasers. My jaw hurt trying to chew the steak. I gave up, eating only my salad and bits of Soo Hian's pasta.

Travel food lesson #1: Don't order red meat in a country not known for its steaks, unless you're very very sure they can do it properly, i.e. it's recommended by a travel guide or something.

After dinner we walked around Bar Street and found an art store selling paintings by Stef, a French-Canadian artist who draws pictures of happy Cambodians and works with NGOs that help Cambodian children. They were really nice paintings, but too expensive for us. Even the t-shirts were too expensive.

After that we took a nice walk back to our guesthouse on the dark streets. When we got back to the guesthouse, the owner's dog, Pickle was so happy to see us he licked our hands and frolicked around us and then -- went straight for Soo Hian's Crocs.

They dog started chewing on the Crocs while they were on his feet and he had to wiggle his way out of them. Then he tried to pull his shoe away from the dog's mouth but there was just no way. We're talking about a HUGE dog. On its hind legs it's about my height.

Of course the rest of us just stood around and laughed because Crocs are fucking ugly.

The guesthouse and dog owner came by and helped Soo Hian out though. Also he told us that the dog was only 10 months old!!! And then the dog went and played with the cat Branston, which involved a lot of biting. It didn't look much like playing to me but what do I know?

We went up and slept. Tomorrow morning, another early day -- catching the 7.30 bus to Battambang.

Tags: angkor wat, cambodia, preah khan, siem reap, ta prohm

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