Coconuts at Angkor Wat and Value of Repeat Business

Man, this heat really wears you out. I was enthusiastic and ecstatic to see Angkor Wat at last, but I was quickly running out of juice. My clothes were drench with sweat and the supply of water I took with me was exhausted, yet thirst remained unquenched. I knew I was fit enough to pull entire Angkor adventure off on a bicycle, but the heat made it far more challenging than I was ready for. Here I was after just one temple out of hundreds and already parched out of myself. I needed an escape from the heat and something to both rehydrate my moisture stripped body and boost my energy. I desperately needed a coconut so I can replace lost minerals with its isotonic, re-energizing water.

Photo: Line of Trees Along the North Pond of Angkor Wat Hides the Line of Stalls Selling Junk and Refreshment
Photo: Line of Trees Along the North Pond of Angkor Wat Hides the Line of Stalls Selling Junk and Refreshment

Line of trees along the northern exterior wall of Angkor Wat hides a line of shops full of desperate touts who make a point of earning money on every foreigner who comes to sight. Entering their reign meant giving myself in to their relentless harassment, but I had to. I needed a shade of the trees and needed a stall with cold coconuts so I can cool myself from within and refresh my stagnating vigor.

As I walked down the stairs from the Terrace of Honors, I already had a few dozen kids running towards me with postcards, scarves, bootleg books, and other useless junk they were determined to beat me into buying no matter what. Already armed with strong ability to resist their arguments as to why I can’t afford to not buy from them, I adamantly insisted that I didn’t need anything of what they had to offer. They instantly continued to offer anything and everything I have not yet said “No” to, yet I knew that if I tell any of them that I wanted a coconut, they would take me to any stall where I would have to pay higher than normal price to also cover for their commission.

I continued walking along the stalls keeping a keen eye on what which shop had to offer and when I saw the first one with coconuts, I asked how much they were. She said 3,000 Riel which instantly meant loss of potential business. I could appreciate that they were trying to rip each new tourist off as much as they could, but I wasn’t ready and willing to play their game. I saw there were many stalls selling coconuts so I was just gonna walk along and would refuse to buy from anyone trying to rip me off. Some went as far as to ask $1 for a coconut which only affirmed my position of not giving them my business. First shop to quote me a fair price for coconut (2,000 Riel or $.50 US) would get my business, which would involve at least two coconuts and a large bottle of water.

Cambodians focus too much on attempts to make quick and easy buck the first time a customer is there. Such things as building continuous relationship with a customer and striving for repeat business are unknown to them. They just try to rip you off as much as they can, even though they know sooner or later you are going to find out that they ripped you off and you will never buy from them again. This is a bad business practise and results in lower earnings overtime. Understanding the importance of repeat, loyal customers could make a difference between how long the merchant stays in business. Cambodians fail to recognize this important aspect of business and work strongly against it.

Being a man, I was happy to have been quoted a fair price for a coconut by a stall with a couple of very pretty Cambodian girls. Dripping with sweat, obviously visibly exhausted from heat and mentally drained after endless attempts to rip me off while dozens of touts didn’t give me a second of peace, I took a seat on an offered chair and asked for a coconut from the fridge (fridge at Angkor Wat where at the time of my visit was no electricity was a plastic box with large cubes of ice which keep the content, such as bottled water, soft drinks or coconuts cool).

Photo: My New Friends From the Stall at Angkor Wat Where I Was Buying Coconuts
Photo: My New Friends From the Stall at Angkor Wat Where I Was Buying Coconuts

My first coconut went down like I haven’t had anything to drink in weeks. I instantly asked for another one and a large bottle of water. I also needed a break from the sun and since there were no air-conditioned rooms to have, sitting in the shade of large trees was the best it got. Cooling off inside Angkor Wat is no solution to being hot. It shelters you from the sun, but ancient stones radiate as much heat as the sun so stepping inside for a minute to relax will drench you with sweat as much as sitting outside in direct sun.

Trees provided the shelter from the sun but also some exposure to cooling breeze. There is very little of it in Cambodia, but at least I was standing a chance, unlike it is inside the temples.

Photo: Angkor Wat Resident Monkeys Kept Me Company by Eating Coconut Leftovers
Photo: Angkor Wat Resident Monkeys Kept Me Company by Eating Coconut Leftovers

As I was sitting there drinking my coconuts and water, I had the kid touts continue approaching me. Having a foreigner seated at a coconut is a good opportunity to offer junk as he’s not gonna run away. That’s their thinking. However, as much as I was getting fed with all this abuse, while I was sitting there catching my breath, I got a different perspective on the hardship people from surrounding villages go through on day to day basis.

I spoke with the girls from the stall where I bought the coconuts and many things took a whole new image. I already bought from them so they had no more reason to harass me, except from occasional attempts with upsales, but as I was sitting there, hustling turned into friendly chat. I really needed a good break so I spent about an hour at their shop recharging. I explained them the importance of building quality relationships with customers and what value repeat business means compared to one time increased gain, and told them that if they tried to overcharge me like so many stalls before them attempted to, they would not get any business from me. I also explained that this simple act of quoting me a fair price will result in me seeking them again next time I’m in the neighbourhood and in need of a coconut.

This is what previous stalls failed to realize and it was gonna costs them many dollars in lost profits. Instead, all of the money I was going to spend at Angkor Wat would go to to my new friends who showed decent business sense and kept me comfortable and amused while I was in their care.

Photo: Girls from the Stall Introduced Me to the Cambodian Way of Eating Coconut Meat
Photo: Girls from the Stall Introduced Me to the Cambodian Way of Eating Coconut Meat

Before I left, I had yet one more coconut and bought another bottle of water from them. I drank six coconuts that day, five were from these girls. Three at this first visit and two later on when I was on my way back to Siem Reap. And it didn’t end there. Each day thereafter, during my seven days long adventure exploring Angkor Archaeological Park I started and finished my day by going to Angkor Wat to have a coconut and buy a bottle of water from these girls. This is what loyal customer base does to you. You never know how long who is going to stay in your neighbourhood. Don’t try to rip them off as much as you can with their first purchase thinking you will not see them again. Value of repeat business is immense. Many Cambodiian business need to realize that and act accordingly.

Coconut – Essential Source of Hydration and Energy

I have said it before and I will say it again – exploring Angkor Wat or any other temple at the Angkor Archaeological Park is an extremely hot and sweaty effort. Cambodian sun is scorching hot and the stone blocks temples are made of get exposed to it on daily basis and radiate this heat back. You have nowhere to escape the heat and it will wear you out sooner than you would care to admit. It is absolutely essential that you keep well hydrated in this heat but your body will certainly need more than just water to keep going. For that, there is nothing better than coconut water from fresh (green) coconuts.

When you start traveling a lot and leave your home country for an extended period of time, you’ll soon grow to realize that you need to do more for your health now than you would at home. Getting sick in a foreign country could be a traumatizing experience but moving from one geographical zone to another changes the demands of your body making good care of your health confusing. So what do you do to provide your body with what it needs regardless of whether you are sweating in a tropical country or freezing up in a snowy mountain? The answer is simple – fruits and vegetables endemic to that area.

Nature has the best answers for the needs of people so look to the nature and stick with produce that’s endemic to the area where you currently are. Fruits and vegetables that are native to the geographical zone you are in will contain nutrients you need to keep you going in weather typical of that particular zone. Coconuts are endemic to the tropical climate zones, such as that of Cambodia and contain nutrients that are an essential source of hydration and energy you desperately need in this heat.

Clean, safe drinking water is without doubt essential no matter where you are, but if you are in a tropical location and exposed to excessive heat such as when exploring Angkor temples, you need more than just water. You need an additional source of hydration, which is also a source of essential vitamins and minerals you burn off the fastest as you sweat excessively and is at the same time a source of natural energy.

This is exactly what you get from fresh coconut water. It is 100% natural and full of biologically pure natural sugars, vitamins and minerals to beat off fatigue, boost immunity and hydrate your parched cells. It’s like drinking the most potent energy drink but all natural, without harmful chemicals and preservatives. Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium contained in the coconut water are in perfect balance. Isotonic properties of coconut water replace the minerals and fluids that your body loses during excessive sweating or increased physical activity.

Yet there is one more essential fact to consider – energy drinks can strip your wallet off a few dollars per bottle. Similarly, bottle of filtered tap water of questionable quality costs $.50 (or 2,000 Cambodian Riel) to purchase in Cambodia, yet one fresh coconut costs the same: $.50. You get a little less fluid out of a coconut than you would get one of a 1.5 litre bottle of water, but it is pure nature, not potentially bacteria filled tap water and it is full of essential vitamins and minerals you would have to pay a lot of money for if you wanted to buy as supplements. And you get it in purely natural form, and as a liquid for easy and fast absorption and additional hydration.

Savvy visitors to Angkor drink a lot of coconut. Those unwise stick solely with water (again, you do need clean water but it’s simply not enough) or buy carbonated soft drinks and condemn themselves to inevitable burnout. As a guy who used bicycle as his sole means of transportation from one temple to another, I was exposed to the heat and remained physically active at all times. The demands of my body were severely high and coconut was the only thing that kept me going.

Photo: Monkey Munches on Young Coconut Shells at Angkor Wat
Photo: Monkey Munches on Young Coconut Shells at Angkor Wat

Cambodian heat and radiation of temple stones make exploring Angkor Archaeological Park an extremely challenging adventure even if you hire a cab and get driven around in an air-conditioned vehicle. If you opt for a less expensive option and hire a Tuk Tuk to drive you around, you won’t get the pleasure of cooling down in an air-conditioned space, but you will get a chance to sit and relax for a moment while the Tuk Tuk is moving, creating a fan effect that washes off your sweat during the transport. However if you go for a self powered, environment friendly transportation option – such as a bicycle the way I did, you will face a rewarding, but excessively challenging adventure. To not give up and see it through to the successful end, do yourself a favour and drink fresh coconut water every time you can. Coconut is an essential source of hydration and energy and provides you with nutrients you desperately need to survive in this heat. And what’s more, it’s one of the most effective antiviral superfoods that’s available (in Cambodia) for as little as 50 cents.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs

I got back down from to the first level of Angkor Wat Central Temple to explore the bas reliefs covering most of the wall’s exterior. 600 meters of the surrounding wall is covered with 2 meters high bas reliefs. In addition, the interiors of south-west and north-west corner pavilions are also covered in bas reliefs. South-east and north-east corner pavilions were left uncarved as the construction of Angkor Wat was halted after death of god-king Suryavarman II.

Since there is no artificial lighting anywhere in Angkor Wat, as a photographer you are left with available light. When it comes to bas reliefs, the light comes in from the opposite side of the walkway which contains pillars supporting the upper floor. Because of that you are gonna end up with inconsistently illuminated photographs. It gets even worse with vertical light. Two meters high bas reliefs are much darker on top, near the ceiling than they are towards the bottom. Yet they are visually spectacular and a sight to behold. It is my understanding that these bas reliefs are considered the pinnacle of Angkorian-era artform.

Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kuru
Photo: Bas Reliefs Surround Central Angkor Wat - This One Depicts Battle of Kurukshetra

The most famous and most important bas relief and their locations are listed below:

  • Battle of Kurukshetra – along the south wing of the west gallery and the interior of the south-west corner pavillion
  • Procession of Suryavarman II – along the west wing of the south gallery
  • Judgement of Yama and Heaven and Hell – along the east wing of the south gallery
  • Churning of the Sea of Milk – along the south wing of the east gallery
  • Battle of Lanka – along the north wing of the west gallery and the interior of the north-west pavillion

Other bas-reliefs on the walls and their locations are:

  • Battle of Devas and Asuras – along the west wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Krishna over Bana – along the east wing of the north gallery
  • Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras – along the north wing of the east gallery

Interior of the south-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Churning of the Sea of Milk
  • Shiva and the Hermits
  • Life of Krishna
  • Ravana shakes M. Kailasa
  • Shiva kills Kama
  • Rama kills Valin
  • Shiva in Meditation
  • Vishnu receives offerings
  • Water festival at Dvaravati
  • Lifting Mt Govardhana
  • Rama chases the golden deer Maricha

Interior of the north-west corner pavilion contains following bas reliefs:

  • Sita’s trial by fire
  • Rama’s return to Ayodhya
  • Rama, Lakshmana and Vibhisana
  • Hanuman gives Sita Rama’s ring
  • Rama and Lakshmana battle Kabandha
  • Rama wins Sita in an archery competition
  • Krishna brings back Mt. Mahaparvata
  • Rama and Lakshmana form alliance with Sugriva
  • Vishnu reclining is petitions by gods
  • Rama and Lakshmana slay Viradha
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Cham Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II
Photo: Bas Relief Depicts the Battle of Kuru Against Armies of Champa Lead by Angkor Wat Founder Suryavarman II

Bakan – The Principal Sanctuary of Angkor Wat

Bakan is the name of what used to be the principal sanctuary of Angkor Wat. It is the summit of Angkor Wat’s central temple, the highest of temple’s three galleries and the uppermost point of world’s largest religious complex. Unfortunately for me, access to Bakan was prohibited at the time of my visit to Angkor Wat due to ongoing construction and restoration work on the temple. This basically means that I will be coming back to Cambodia at some point in my life and hopefully by then the access will be restored so that my Exploring Angkor Wat experience is complete.

Photo: Bakan - The Principal Sanctuary of Angkor Wat
Photo: Bakan - The Principal Sanctuary of Angkor Wat

Just as it is with other Angkor Wat sanctuaries, galleries and libraries, Bakon has a doorway at each cardinal point. Scholars tend to think that Bakon originally housed a statue of Vishnu which is currently located at the “Sanctuary of the Royal Ancestor” (locally known as Kuk Ta Reach) in the southern part of the west wing of the exterior wall.

When Angkor Wat became a centre of Theravada Buddhist pilgrimage, the doorways were sealed with newly constituted sandstone walls and statues of standing Buddha were carved into them. Bakan remained sealed off like that until 1908 when archaeologists re-opened the southern doorway to gain access to the sanctuary.

Upon entrance, the archaeologists found several sculpting-art fragments of which two seemed of particular importance: a statue of Buddha seated on a naga (which is now venerated in Bakan’s eastern gallery) and a rectangular object made of stone which is believed to have served as a sarcophagus (for god-king Suryavarman II? Could that explain why Angkor Wat was built facing west?). Similar objects in which a corpse would have been laid in a foetal position were also found in other Angkorian temples.

Some of the inscriptions at Bakan and Preah Poan (Hall of the Thousand Buddhas) indicate that the transformation of Angkor Wat from Hindu into a Buddhist sanctuary took place in the late 16th century and was carried out on king’s order (whose court was already in Phnom Penh). This theory is further supported by the style of Buddha statues found within the blocked off Bakan sanctuary.

I have not been lucky enough to explore Bakan with my own eyes, but I understand it shelters four statues of Buddha, each facing different cardinal point. The Buddha of the future (Maitreya), which symbolizes peaceful transformation of Angkor Wat from the Brahmanic sanctuary into a Buddhist stupa is enclosed within garbha, the matternal matrix which the four Buddhas surround. There must be some truly spectacular view from Bakan, I have to come back!

Angkor Wat Central Temple

I walked through the entrance gopura of the Angkor Wat central temple and continued walking upwards to reach the five-peaked summit of what represents Mount Meru. The first level wall contains extensive bas-reliefs but I left those for later. I really wanted to see the central temple first.

Photo: Steps Leading to the Central Gopura of Angkor Wat Temple
Photo: Steps Leading to the Central Gopura of Angkor Wat Temple

Gallery of the first level consists of a cruciform cloister with four rectangular stone basins. There were several statues of Buddha within the passages of these semi dark galleries. When Angkor Wat turned from being a Hindu into being a Theravada Buddhist temple, this area was named “Preah Poan” or “Hall of the Thousand Buddhas”. While there certainly are dozens of Buddhas in the halls, you won’t find anywhere near thousands of them there. It is possible that in the 16th century when Angkor Wat temple was a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, there were as many as thousand statues there, but they were either removed to prevent them from damage or destroyed by the Khmer Rogue regime in the 1970’s.

Photo: Hall of the Thousand Buddhas
Photo: Hall of the Thousand Buddhas

I climbed further up to reach the second level from where you can already see the towers of the Angkor Wat central temple unobstructed, in all their glory. Similar to the causeway through Angkor Wat city, central temple has two small libraries on both sides of the footbridge leading to the courtyard. I walked around the courtyard to the north-east corner to get a photo of the temple with the sunlight but that was not easy even after I stuck myself all the way back into the corner. The temple is set slightly towards the east so I could get much better a picture from either north-west and south-west corners but because of morning light, from there I would get the dark side of the temple and have strong backlight. Yet another reason why it is absolutely essential to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, not in the morning hours.

Photo: Because of Nearby Wall, Pictures of Central Angkor Wat Temple Are Tough Even With a Wide Angle Lens
Photo: Because of Nearby Wall, Pictures of Central Angkor Wat Temple Are Tough Even With a Wide Angle Lens

Third level of the Angkor Wat central temple carries all five towers and the uppermost gallery, but at the time of my visit it was off limit. There was ongoing construction and restoration work in progress so I never got to reach Bakan – the summit of Angkor Wat. It looked like part of the restoration process was the construction of wooden stairs that would lead to the third level. That sort of made sense because the temple is built very steep with original, stone stairs under insanely difficult angle.

Climbing up the stairs that are only a few degrees off being completely vertical is excessively strenuous and dangerous – much like climbing a mountain. This perhaps was the thinking of the engineers and architects who designed Angkor Wat – if it’s meant to represent Mount Meru, let’s make the climb to its top as challenging as climbing a mountain. I can’t otherwise imagine why they would build the stairs this steep.

Photo: Steep Stairs on the Eastern Side of the Angkor Wat Temple
Photo: Steep Stairs on the Eastern Side of the Angkor Wat Temple

It is speculated that third level gallery once housed the statue of Vishnu which is now at the entrance gapura within the exterior wall. I never got to go up there, but I understand that the gallery presently houses four statues of Buddha, each facing the different direction signifying the fact that the temple is now dedicated to Buddhism, not Hinduism as when it was originally built.

Exploring Angkor Wat

After much hustle and bustle, with nothing else getting in the way, I was finally laying my first steps across the sandstone causeway that bridges the moat surrounding Angkor Wat. Vastly unhindered, I wiped the sweat off my face into a t-shirt and headed straight against the sun. The wait was over, I am here, exploring Angkor Wat.

Photo: Exploring Angkor Wat
Photo: Exploring Angkor Wat

Based on Hindu mythology, Angkor Wat represents the center of the universe with five peaks of Mount Maru in its center. Being world’s largest religious monument, the name of Angkor Wat justifies its meaning in Khmer language – city which became a temple. When you go exploring Angkor Wat, you will find yourself within the walls of what was once a magnificent city. Today, Angkor Wat remains an architectural masterpiece of Khmer construction graced by almost 2,000 carvings of Apsaras and 600 meters of narrative bas reliefs.

The sandstone bridge across the moat is said to have replaced the wooden bridge that once existed to connect the outside world with the temple but has decayed overtime. The bridge as it is right now doesn’t have any railings or other barrier to protect people from falling into the moat. The balustrade is a body of a seven-headed serpent but only exists at expanded areas of the bridge. Yet because this is Cambodia and not North America, there were no signs warning people of not coming too close to the edge or risking the danger of falling into the moat. However there was a sign protecting the balustrade from damage that sitting on it could cause. Good call.

Photo: No Sitting on Balustrade - a Sign Warns
Photo: No Sitting on Balustrade - a Sign Warns

Several young boys spent the morning jumping off the bridge and into the moat to cool their bodies off and protect themselves from scorching heat. Others sat on the edge with hand-made fishing rods looking to catch the fish to eat for supper. Even though Angkor Wat is a popular tourist destination, the life for villagers doesn’t stop so they continue doing what they used to prior to the temples of Angkor becoming as popular as they are now. The presence of thousands of tourists doesn’t seem to bother them at all (or maybe it serves as a way to show off).

Few steps lead to the west gopura – an entrance pavilion that serves as a main gateway to the hallways and passages within the exterior wall. Bunch of locals were sitting at the doorway steps making me the only who could not wait to get inside to hide from the sun that was frying me alive.

To the left and to the right of this central gopura there are additional entrances with doorways large enough to allow an elephant through. This gave them the name of “Elephant Gates”. It is quite likely that when Angkor Wat was constructed, there were bridges across the moat each leading to either of the Elephant Gates.

Photo: Naga, the Seven Headed Serpent as Balustrade with the Elephant Gate in the Background
Photo: Naga, the Seven Headed Serpent as Balustrade with the Elephant Gate in the Background

To the right of main gopura there is small shrine still within the outer enclosure which contains a statue of Vishnu. This statue with eight arms is believed to have once been located in Angkor Wat’s central sanctuary (while the temple was still dedicated to Hinduism).

As I continued exploring the insides of the exterior wall, I noticed that there were many, randomly placed statues of both Buddha and Vishnu (mostly Buddha) there. You could tell one was nearby by smelling the essence of burning sticks. There would usually be some locals knelt before the statue, praying to the deity it represents holding their own incense stick firmly clasped between their palms. On top of people praying though, there would also be scam artists, often involving old women with shaved heads (female version of a monk) who would hand you a burning stick and prompt you to put it with all others in a holder at the statue’s feet for good luck and fortune, but the catch is that they would insist on a donation which as they claim would go to the monks and to upkeep the temple. This is obviously a scam. None of the money will be used any way other than personally by the person who gets it from you. These people hang around the spots where tourists go and abuse the holy place and the divinity portrayed for their own enrichment. They work with the moment of surprise, appearing next to you out of nowhere, handing you the incense stick. Unaware what to do, it is a natural instinct of a foreigner to take what is offered to the, so as not to offend anyone and show respect for a deity that may be anticipating this action. Unfortunately, once you take hold of an incense stick, it will be difficult to talk your way out of handing the money over. If anything is handed to you, don’t ever take it or it instantly means that you have to pay for it.

Even though passages inside the walls provide shelter from the devastating rays of Cambodian sun, they won’t offer many opportunities to cool off. It’s as hot or hotter within those stone walls as it is outside on direct sun. The sun roasts the stones every day and that heat radiates back keeping the corridors at the boiling point. You basically have nowhere to hide from noncompromising heat and unless you keep well hydrated, Angkor Wat is gonna burn you out sooner than you’d care to admit.

There is no electricity in any of the temples hence no chance of stepping in an air-conditioned room or at least as little as a fan to wash the sweat off your brow. Exploring Angkor Wat is an extremely hot and sweaty effort. I’ve met several people who underestimated Cambodian heat, purchased three day passes to Angkor but only used their first day. They could not handle any more of that heat and let the rest of their entrance pass go to waste.

Since there is no electricity within Angkor Wat, the only source of light is through the windows which are evenly distributed throughout the walls. Windows are nicely decorated with lathe-turned balusters keeping the awe ongoing no matter which part of Angkor Wat you are exploring at any given moment.

Photo: Lathe Turned Decorated Windows on Angkor Wat - Exterior Wall
Photo: Lathe Turned Decorated Windows on Angkor Wat - Exterior Wall

As the name of the temple suggests, Angkor Wat was once a city. The scale of the city became evident after I exited the passages inside the exterior wall and stepped back down onto a causeway that follows through until it reaches the cruciform terrace staircase of the central temple 350 meters further. Only houses of Gods were built of stone, human dwellings were built of wood and have long since been claimed by the decay of time. Vast, open areas on both sides of the causeway once housed dwellings for people who resided in Angkor Wat. Even king Suryavarman II’s castle was made of wood and is believed to have been located just north of the central temple. People did not live within the structures we see at Angkor today. Human dwellings are all gone. What is left are mountain-temples built for the gods, such as Vishnu to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated.

Causeway is decorated on both sides with balustrades in the form of seven-headed serpents locally known as “nagas”. There are seven nagas on each side of the causeway. After about 50 meters, each of the nagas turns and that’s where an access point to the original city from the causeway is created. You can take the steps down to walk on the grass or to get to the libraries which are each on one side of the causeway further ahead.

Photo: Damaged Naga at the End of Balustrade Lining Up the Causeway to Angkor Wat
Photo: Damaged Naga at the End of Balustrade Lining Up the Causeway to Angkor Wat

Since it was an early morning and the temple ahead of me was not very photogenic due to strong backlight created by the rising sun, turning around to take pictures of the gapura behind me was awesome. There are some apsara carvings on the insides of the exterior wall which look great in the morning light and the whole wall also makes for some decent photos on its own.

Libraries are stand alone buildings with doorways on each cardinal point and are believed to have been shrines, rather than manuscript repositories. They are not that big on the inside, but the space gains on volume thanks to their height. They are otherwise empty and don’t attract that many people. Just as the rest of Angkor Wat, you will find temporary refuge from devastating sun rays, but no feeling of cooler air whatsoever. It’s as hot or hotter within the libraries as ancient stones bombarded by unceasing sunrays radiate heat of their own turning each of the libraries into a sauna.

Further ahead of the libraries are two ponds. The one on the left is where best pictures of Angkor Wat can be taken from. You can get the shape of the temple reflected by the waters of the pond and that simply can not be beat. There is no better spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat anywhere within the enclosure. Perhaps from the air, if you took a helicopter tour, then you could match the awesomeness of the pond picture, but unless you shell out for an option to get aerial shots, this is your best spot. Again though, it’s gonna look like crap in the morning because of strong backlight, however you do have to come back in the afternoon anyway so when you do, that’s where you’re gonna go to get your best shots of Angkor Wat.

Photot: Angkor Wat Picture with Reflection in the Pond Taken from the Popular Photo Spot
Photot: Angkor Wat Picture with Reflection in the Pond Taken from the Popular Photo Spot

It is said that the ponds have not been the part of the original design of Angkor Wat. The space they occupy was originally dedicated to the dwellings of city’s residents but after the city was abandoned and houses fell apart (16th century?), ponds were created in their place. The cruciform terrace that’s at the top of the staircase starting at the end of the causeway bears architectural elements that differ from the rest of the city making scholars believe that it was also added later.

Cruciform terrace contains a gopura that leads inside the central temple. Since the terrace is elevated, turning back and facing the sun illuminated area which was once a powerful and prosperous Khmer city offers yet better impression of its scale. Hidden under the line of trees along the northern exterior wall are stalls with beverages, snacks and souvenirs. You need to allow about (understand “at least”) two hours to properly explore Angkor Wat and take my word for it – 15 minutes under Cambodian sun is more than enough to handle at one time. By the time you have gotten to the cruciform terrace, it’s actually time to walk back down to hide under the trees and recharge bodily fluids with cold water or, better yet – fresh coconut. You’ll need more energy for the next step – exploring the Angkor Wat central temple.

Apsara Authority Cambodia

The Apsara Authority is a government sponsored agency in Cambodia responsible for management and protection of Angkor Archaeological Park. That sounds like a fair and noble cause and to some point it is, however being part of the most corrupt government in the world, it comes as no surprise that Apsara Authority would be as corrupt and twisted as the people who created it.

On their website, the Apsara Authority describes its purpose and agenda as follows:

The government has created APSARA, the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, in charge of research, protection and conservation of cultural heritage, as well as urban and tourist development. This legislative and institutional framework marks the beginning of a new active role Cambodia will take, responding to the call of her own people in the voice of her King, as well as to that of the international community, in managing Angkor as a national and world heritage for the generations to come.

On the History and Organization page, the text on the website states that Apsara Authority is responsible for:

  • Protecting, maintaining, conserving and improving the value of the archaeological park, the culture, the environment and the history of the Angkor region as defined on the World Heritage List.
  • Refining and applying the master plan on tourist development according to the five zones, defined in 1994 in the Royal Decree on the protection and management of Siemreap-Angkor and taking action against deforestation, illegal territory occupation as well as anarchy activities in Siemreap-Angkor.
  • Finding financial sources and investments.
  • Participating in the policy of cutting down poverty of the Royal Government in Siemreap-Angkor.
  • Cooperating with the Cambodian Development Council on the investments of all the projects that are involved with APSARA Authority’s mission.
  • Cooperating with ministries, institutions, funds, national and international communities as well as international governmental institutions and non-governmental organization on all projects related to APSARA Authority.

There are some truly dubious statements in the description of their responsibilities and by looking at past actions of Apsara Authority throughout the Siem Reap area one can come to conclusions what they likely mean.

Photo: Apsara Authority Inspector at an Entrance to One of Angkor Temples
Photo: Apsara Authority Inspector at an Entrance to One of Angkor Temples

The first alarming statement can be seen in the introductory sentence where it is mentioned that Apsara Authority was created “for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap” – and the region of Siem Reap? Why does Apsara Authority want to spread their jurisdiction outside of the Angkor Archaeological Park? If their purpose is to preserve and protect the ancient temples of Angkor, than why stick fingers in villages outside of Angkor?

Another even more dubious statement is one you have certainly already noticed – anarchy activities. What in the name of Buddha are anarchy activities? Has this phrase purposefully been forced into the list of Apsarta Authority responsibilities so they have their asses covered no matter what they do? Past actions of the agency show us that it truly could be so.

Photo: Apsara Authority Logo on an Information Panel at Banteay Kdei Temple
Photo: Apsara Authority Logo on an Information Panel at Banteay Kdei Temple

From the reports of people living in touristy areas as well as from articles published in the Phnom Penh Post it is evident that large groups of Apsara Authority officials have been going around villages in the Siem Reap province, threatening the villagers at gunpoint that if they modernize their houses or build something new on their land, they will be evicted without recourse. If any of the villagers voices against unlawful eviction, they are simply told that their actions are perceived as “anarchy activities” and are henceforth removed from the land that their predecessors lived on for centuries. They are subsequently moved to a tiny piece of land that was assigned to them in lieu of their coveted location. Their new land is in the middle of nowhere, in the district where they have no friends or family to rely on. That is what Apsara Authority refers to when they say “anarchy activities”.

Apparently, for as long as the villagers keep their original, “traditional” houses – aka wooden, thatched barns on stilts – and don’t try to modernize them, they should be fine. I have my own theory why they insist on people living in prehistoric houses that are falling apart:

It has everything to do with foreign donations coming in massive chunks to Cambodia. In order for the financial support from abroad to continuously grow, foreigner must be exposed to villagers who look poor, live in atrocious conditions with houses falling apart around them. If there were any signs of improvement of conditions in which regular folk live, foreign donations could diminish. Given lack of transparency throughout Cambodia along with the most corrupt government in the world, any money coming to Cambodia, regardless of who it is intended for, eventually ends up in the hands of the ruling elite while impoverished, underprivileged citizens get nothing. However they are a good bait for foreign donations so it is absolutely essential for the government to ensure that people remain poor and look poor. At least those who live in the areas where foreigners go.

Angkor Entrance Guards and Scam by the Sokimex Group Cambodia

At last I got through the hoards of tireless hustlers who will do and say anything and everything just to get you open your wallet and spend money, and there I was stepping up the stone steps leading to a causeway that follows across the entire Angkor Wat. There was however one more local I thought was also a tout I had to go through at the beginning of the causeway. Armed to ignore all locals who approach me asking for something, I ignored this guy too but soon came to realize that he’s one and only exception to the crowds of peddlers who are solely after my money. This was an entrance guard stationed at Angkor Wat to ensure everyone who enters the temple itself has a valid pass.

I thought buying a ticket at the ticketing booth and showing it to the guards at the beginning of the road leading to Angkor was good enough but Sokimex Group Cambodia, company that makes millions of dollars collecting entrance fees from foreigners also stations their inspectors at entrances to all main temples as a secondary line of ticket inspection just in case a foreigner somehow snuck into the Angkor Archaeological Park.

To avoid scam Angkor area was riddled with before, all authorised guards wear light blue shirts on which they have a badge with their inspector number and around their neck a lanyard with Sokimex ID bearing their name and photograph that identifies them as rightful entrance guards. They are also armed with wireless radios and frequently communicate with each other.

Photo: One of The Ticket Inspectors at Angkor Wat - Wearing Light Blue Shirt, Badge and Photo ID on a Lanyard
Photo: One of The Ticket Inspectors at Angkor Wat - Wearing Light Blue Shirt, Badge and Photo ID on a Lanyard

From what I was told, scam that consisted of anyone and everyone pretending to be an authorised guard to collect entrance fees from foreigners was virtually entirely eliminated using this approach. At least now when you pay your entrance fee, it does help the temples, not some scammer pretending to collect fees on behalf of Apsara Authority, right? Wrong!

Sokimex Group Co. LTD is a company with close ties to the CPP – Cambodian People’s Party, the ruling party of Cambodia. The CPP is well known for being one of the most corrupt governments in the world and has a very bad human rights record. Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the CPP has no problem threatening those who oppose him with use of force or military action. Ordinary Cambodians who are not part of the Cambodian elite approved by Hun Sen have no chance of real freedom.

In April 1999, Cambodian People’s Party gave Sokimex Group full control over the Angkor Archaeological Park entrance ticket concession sales. This was done without any input from the public or Cambodian opposition. Angkor, which is the cultural heritage of all Cambodians was taken away from them by their corrupt government and given to the private company to financially benefit from its worldwide popularity while ordinary people get nothing. The deal required Sokimex Group (Owners of Sokha Hotels chain) to pay the government One Million Dollars per year with all excess kept by the company.

Photo: Angkor Archaeological Park Entrance Ticket Bears Sokha Hotels Co. LTD Name To Show Who Controls the Temples
Photo: Angkor Archaeological Park Entrance Ticket Bears Sokha Hotels Co. LTD Name To Show Who Controls the Temples

Due to strong opposition, the agreement between the CPP and Sokimex was amended a bit, but Sokimex Group still remains in full control over ticket concessions at Angkor and keeps a large part of the profits. To further benefit the company that supports the government, the CPP also commissions Sokimex Group to supply uniforms, food and medicine for Cambodian military, as well as the gasoline for the governmental agencies which is run through well performing voucher scam.

Apsara Authority, governmental body responsible for preservation, maintenance and protection of Angkor Archaeological Park gets small part of the profits, however being CPP controlled, Apsara Authority is also a dubious organization with shady practices violating the poor. There have been many cases of large groups of Apsara enforcers coming to villages with guns to threaten the villagers who “dared” to modernize their “traditional homes”. Many people have been evicted and had their property repossessed by Apsara Authority with all rights removed and no voice to stand by them (all voices that oppose the practices of Cambodian People’s Party get silenced).

Welcome to real Cambodia, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Touts – The Dark Side of Angkor Wat

This was it – here I was at the doorstep to Angkor Wat ready to start exploring the temple that’s been at the top of my “Must Visit Before I Die” list for ages. The morning was in its early stages yet the sun was already pretty intense. As I took my last turn around the moat that surrounds the temple complex, I noticed a bunch of locals having a big laundry washing day in its waters. None of the hundreds of locals passing by in both directions seemed to pay any attention to it and neither did the policemen that ride their motorcycles throughout Angkor making the laundry washing look like doing it in the moat is a normal, every day thing.

I found it rather weird that you would take all your clothes to the moat where everyone can see you and pour loads of washing powder in it to openly poison the environment – especially when it comes to such significant piece of history as Angkor Wat yet since I was the only one who seemed to have found it awful, I just moved on and continued riding towards the entrance gate which was only a few hundred meters ahead of me. The excitement was unmeasurable at this point. I was only minutes away from entering and exploring Angkor Wat, however before one gets to that point, the dark side of Angkor Wat is revealed to them – extremely aggressive touts, hustlers, peddlers and other con artists.

Photo: Touts at Angkor Wat Selling Bootleg Books to Tourists on a Tour Bus
Photo: Touts at Angkor Wat Selling Bootleg Books to Tourists on a Tour Bus

There was a super high density of locals right opposite Angkor Wat’s entrance gate that’s proceeded by a sandstone causeway over the near 200 meters wide moat. Countless Tuk Tuks and unceasing ruckus left little for guessing. This is Angkor Wat – the most famous and the best preserved temple of the Angkor Archaeological Park which also happens to be the closest temple to Siem Reap from where all organized tours originate so mobile touts concentrated around here in anticipation of fat profits.

As I was riding by I had just about every local screaming at me to make me stop but it wasn’t until a woman came running across the street to block me from going any further that I stopped. She came after me with such haste it looked as though it was a matter of life or death. At first glance I thought that maybe I have done something wrong, perhaps by entering a road that’s off limit and she ran to stop me so I don’t get into any trouble but the real motifs came to light right away. She used the moment of surprise to get my attention so she can make money on me. Now that she had me stopped it was up to her to make the most out of the opportunity. Afterall, there are hundreds of other touts and she was the only one who got me stop and listen to her.

She could see this was my first time here and I didn’t know my way around very well so she fooled me into believing that I couldn’t go any further. I didn’t mind that one bit because I was gonna stop and go to Angkor Wat anyway, but this was yet another lesson that taught me that one should never trust a Cambodian who’s on a mission to get your money (are there any who are not?).

The woman said that I could park opposite Angkor Wat for free, but I had to buy cold water from her. She insisted that the temple was big and there was no water to buy inside. As soon as she said that I could park there for free, I knew I was dealing with a simple scam artist who is ready to throw any lie that will work my way just as long as it ends up in her making money off of me. With this being finally clear in my mind, I turned away from the woman and drove through the parking lot, alongside countless Tuk Tuk drivers who saw me riding a bicycle yet kept asking me if I needed a Tuk Tuk ride anyway. I rode until I found a chain fence and locked my bicycle against it.

Within two seconds I had dozens of kids with postcards, bracelets, water, bootleg guide books and other junk surround me and bash at me from every side, unceasingly demanding that I buy something from them. Within additional seconds they were joined by dozens of adults who insisted that I buy a hat from them because it’s hot, the sun is scorching and there is no where to buy a hat inside Angkor Wat. Everything that can be sold was offered to me, but I use word “offer” sparingly., Those people were extremely pushy, surrounded me, got in my face and never took “No” for an answer.

It was clear that they are used to harassing tourists and used to being told “No” so they had a response at the ready no matter how I responded to their pressure. I showed them I had water of my own and didn’t need any more weight on me. I also showed them I had a hat of my own and was happy with it. I was well equipped for a whole day on a bicycle riding in this extreme heat yet it mattered not to them. They were continuously bashing and bashing at me and pulling more and more of their handy tricks to get me buy something from them.

After I had about five dozen touts on me, they were joined by new way of hustlers – tour guides. To avoid scam, legitimate tour guides must wear pale yellow-ish shirts with a badge on it to identify them as licensed tour guides. Because it is possible to earn $20 or more (in case of non English or French guides) as a tour guide, it is an extremely popular money maker so supply far exceeds demand. As a result, tour guide who got their license and are not booked for the day yet hang around the most popular temples at the right time of the day to try to score a gig right on the spot. Dozens of them got on my bum to get me buy their services, most of them by instantly starting to “guide” me without my permission in anticipation that they will stick with me until I feel obliged to keep and pay them.

I remained adamant that each of them is wasting their time using the most solid reply they have nothing on:

“I’m out of my money. All I have is one dollar and I’m saving that for a bottle of water in the afternoon. You are welcome to guide me for as long as you understand that you are not getting paid for it. And no matter how hard you try to argue me into hiring you, I simply have no money to give you. End of story.”

There is no such thing as a “helpful local” in Cambodia. They all make it look like their sole purpose is to help you yet the only people they are looking to help is themselves. A tourist who doesn’t realize this sets themselves up for a big surprise. I continued on keeping my pace disregarding all attempts to get money from me so now that they could tell there was no way I was gonna buy anything from them, they used passive aggressive lines to make me feel obliged for the future. They did it by saying something like this:

“OK so then you’re gonna buy on your way back, OK? I’ll be waiting for you. Don’t forget you promised to buy from me!”

It is notably shocking that everything any of these touts lets out of their mouth is a lie. Ancient temples of Angkor are widely regarded among Cambodians as sacred places with powerful deities patrolling them. Angkor Wat where all these touts jumped me is particularly powerful in that regard since it has been a point of pilgrimage ever since it was built, being the only temple in Angkor Archaeological Park that has served that purpose without being fully abandoned.

Everyone in Cambodia will tell you that you should never lie in proximity to Angkor Wat (or any other temple for that matter, but Angkor Wat in particular). If you do so, you are bringing very bad karma upon yourself. However, if you do so knowingly, karma effect gets hundred times more powerful. If these Cambodians are fully aware of the fact that they mustn’t lie in presence of a temple, how come they all do it openly and without a wink?

Once you have walked inside Angkor Wat, you cross the passages inside the exterior wall and walk along the sandstone causeway, there will be small libraries on both sides followed by small ponds also on both sides – right before the steps that will lead you to the first level of the central temple. On the left hand side, where the most popular spot to observe sunrise at Angkor Wat is (also the best spot to take pictures of Angkor Wat) hidden from the sun under the line of trees, there is a long line of stalls selling everything you may need.

Each time any of the touts outside of the temple tells you that you must buy water/hat/scarf/food/whatever from them because there is none of it available inside, you will know they are straight up lying. And this starts with kids as young as three years old. These people grow up being professionals liars. After decades of doing nothing but lying each and every day of their lives – what have they grown to be?

Angkor People and Corruption in Cambodia

Here I was at last – facing the entrance gate to Angkor Wat after a brief bike ride around the vast moat that surrounds it. Ready to start exploring the largest religious complex in the world, I noticed that the area around the Angkor temples is densely inhabited by Angkor People – locals living in wooden houses on stilts. Whole Angkor Archaeological Park is full of randomly scattered villages people of which take good advantage of increasing popularity of Angkor and unceasingly follow every tourist until they succeed in talking them into spending some money. Sadly, at present time, exploring Angkor Wat also means being hassled by locals on every step of your way.

I am not entirely sure what Angkor People would do if they didn’t live in the neighbourhood of famous ancient temples. Tourists are a source of easy money and Angkor People are well aware of it by taking full advantage of the fact, but what if they weren’t that lucky and haven’t had their predecessors built these phenomenal complexes that result in millions of dollars in revenue? I can imagine that at some point in the past, they were focused on growing cattle, growing rice and perhaps hand-crafting useful items that could be offered for sale at markets in Siem Reap.

But this is no longer the case. Nowadays the villagers get up early in the morning and station themselves at the gates to the nearest temple or other point of interest that attracts lots of tourists and spend their whole days following each and every one of them around basing their livelihood on their success rate to get as much out of each tourist as possible. Children as young as 3 years old are dispatched by their parents after the tourists because it’s easier for them to talk a tourist into buying worthless junk than it is for their parents. Afterall, who could say no to a child that just learned how to speak and is already reciting well tailored sentences in English that are aimed to melt your heart and… most importantly, open your wallet?

Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)
Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)

If you end up spending several days exploring the temples of Angkor, you will notice that children who should be at school spend their whole days bothering tourists, vastly undisturbed by the fact that they are not getting any education. The ability to talk as many foreigners as possible into spending the money is all they have going for the future. They can’t read or write in their mother’s tongue, but they can already speak English and possibly one or more other foreign languages. Infants who are too small to follow tourists around are trained to recognize foreigners and repeatedly scream “Hello” at them. You will get that on every step. Kids under two years old will instantly leap on their feet and start yelling “Hello” and waving at you as soon as they catch a glimpse of you. And this is the way they are brought up – believing that their purpose in life is to get after every foreigner in vicinity and don’t stop bothering them until they have lured some money out of them. And if the wallet gets pulled out, then try to get as much as possible – never settle with little amounts.

From the beginning I could not comprehend the fact that when you go to Angkor you see all those kids trying to get money from you when they should be at school, but as I started paying closer attention to the issue, I noticed that parents themselves don’t want to send the kids to school because if they spend the best part of the day there, then who’s gonna bother tourist for easy money? It’s much easier for kids to score dough than it is for adults so why waste kid’s time for schools? The older they get, the more difficult it will be for them to talk foreigners out of their money so school gets simply taken off the list of important things for their kids.

But it gets even worse. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, second only to the likes of Somalia where there is no government to begin with so it’s hard to talk about corruption or well known, long established mothers of all things corrupt – Burma (Myanmar) and Haiti. The government of Cambodia is too corrupt to care about anything other than their own pockets. The fact that their people lack education is of little concern or, more likely, a preferred outcome because obviously uneducated, poor population will continue attracting foreign donations much of which will end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. They need the world to see the poor people with no access to education and health care because that’s what drives sympathy and compassion and those are the main driving force behind millions dollars that come to Cambodia from international philanthropists. And once this money is in Cambodia, people in power get to choose what is done with it. Only a small fraction makes it to where it’s needed and this is precisely the purpose.

Again, if living conditions for ordinary people improved, donations would shrink or… stop completely. In other words, if they used the money they have to fix their country and improve the economy, then there would be no more need for international organizations to continuously sending more aid. This fact is amplified even more by the fact that Angkor attracts millions of people to Cambodia every year and that generates massive revenue. It starts with a $20 – $25 visa fee, continues with a pile of expenses to cover for everyone’s stay and gets highlighted with Angkor Entrance Fee which ranges from $20 to $60 per person.

Here’s the catch – Apsara Authority, Cambodian organization responsible for protection, conservation and research at Angkor World Heritage Site sees mere 10% of all the funds accumulated by charging entrance fees to Angkor Archaeological Park. This is yet another scam played up by corrupt Cambodian government (along with the scam by Sokha Hotels chain, the Sokimex gasoline conglomerate division with close ties to CPP – Cambodia’s leading People’s Party which runs ticket concessions and gets to keep 17% of revenue generated by Angkor temples).

If majority of the monies Angkor generates was used to preserve and protect it, then foreign organizations that currently sponsor preservation, restoration and protection efforts at Angkor would no longer be necessary. Whereas right now, because Cambodian body responsible for preservation and protection of Angkor (Apsara Authority) doesn’t have enough money, they heavily rely on help from the abroad. But let’s ask again – why does Apsara Authority not have enough money in the first place? How is it possible that they can’t make ends meet if Angkor generates millions upon millions of dollars in direct foreign revenue (plus indirect revenue from Tuk Tuk fees, tour operation fees, sales of keepsakes, etc.)?

Just as foreign donations to Cambodia disappear in the black hole of the corrupt Cambodian system, so do the money generated by Angkor temples. For as long as majority of Cambodian people remain poor, uneducated and health care deprived, the donations will not stop coming. And for as long as Apsara Authority continues not getting enough money to look after the works needed to preserve Angkor themselves, foreign sponsors will continue investing their money to Angkor to ensure this magnificent site doesn’t fall into ruin.