Preah Khan is a large temple. After visiting Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som and Neak Pean temple ruins, I was a bit spoiled because each of them was relatively small (not that small, but compared to most temples along the Petit Circuit, these were smaller) and didn’t take all that much time to explore. Coming to a temple that counted as one of the largest I have visited anywhere in Angkor yet, I had to mobilize much of my strength to still pull it off after 4 stops full of thorough explorations in this heat. It was already mid afternoon so the temperature were soaring, but the realization that I’m doing pretty good keeping up with schedule, and this is the last big task of the day, I was very eager to get right down to it.
Preah Khan was built during reign of Khmer king Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery which also housed a centre of Buddhist studies. Finalized in 1191, Jayavarman VII dedicated the temple which was built on the site of his victory over the invading Chams to his father Dharanindra. Temple’s central sanctuary originally housed the statue of Lokesvara, the savior god of Mahayana Buddhism which was carved in the image of the king’s father. Unfortunately, this image, as well as all other images representing Buddhism were vandalized during the reign of king destroyer Jayavarman VIII who initiated the reform of Angkor’s religion in favor of Hinduism.
Being similar in layout and style to Ta Prohm (which Jayavarman VII dedicated to his mother), Preah Khan bears further similarities to the former in the many trees which grow among and over the ruins. I found Preah Khan to be the second most jungle overgrown in a huge-trees-intertwined-with-ancient-rock way temple – after Ta Prohm. That just about made it the second most photogenic temple as spots with those monster roots running down the crumbling walls like spilled honey were the most visually appealing feature of Angkor Archaeological Park that drew me to Cambodia in the first place.
Preah Khan, whose name means ‘sacred sword’ (derived from its original name of Nagara Jayasri – meaning holy city of victory) was built on an area covering 56 hectares (138 acres). Including the moat (now dry) which surrounds the outer enclosure, Preah Khan measures 800 x 700 meters. The Jayatataka Baray (huge artificial, rectangular shaped pond) which had the unusually round Neak Pean temple in its middle, was right to the east of Preah Khan. The temple is oriented to the east (as are all Buddhist temples) with eastern wall bearing the main gopura (entrance gate). Each of the exterior walls (each cardinal point) has its own gopura and each has its own causeway over the moat lined on both sides with (now headless) asuras and devatas carrying a body of a naga serpent – similar to what can be found at each entrance to Angkor Thom (best seen at the South Gate).
Preah Khan’s central sanctuary (now housing a Buddhist Stupa) is surrounded with four rectangular enclosures. Coming from the east (that’s where you will most likely come from), when you reach the second wall (third enclosure), you will have come to its, rather large gopura which has two huge silk trees growing over its southern side. One of the trees was leaning too much and threatened to take the entire structure down and had to be cut down. Its roots, which hold the coridor together, were however left in place (along with the other tree) and offer a fantastic opportunity for photography. Except that if you come in the afternoon, like I did, you will have the sun creating strong backlight, pretty much ruining what could have been an otherwise awesome picture. You can also take a picture from the opposite side of the wall and have a sun nicely illuminate it, but it doesn’t look nowhere as impressive from there.
Needless to say, the corridor over which the two giant trees grow is crumbled up and very unstable, presenting a very realistic danger of crushing down hence there are signs warning the visitors not to enter that spot. I had to be the one with the death wish and climbed over rubble to get in there for a picture from within the roots and even though nothing happened to me, I must strongly discourage anyone considering doing the same. If you decide to copy my reckless behavior and the weight of the trees delivers the wall its final blow, there will be no saving you. I could think of better ways to die than by being crushed by giant stones. Don’t do it!
Further into the temple you would find another photogenic spot with what was once a huge tree growing over an ancient wall however the wall below that tree already did crumble down and only parts of it still stand supported by the roots and a wooden frame made by the restorers. The tree was too big and threatened further damage to the structure which sealed its demise. Only a stump is left of this once monster, however the stump is atop a big set of roots still encompassing much of the former wall in a composition that is sure to leave the viewer in awe.
Unfortunately, I only got a chance to go across the temple all the way to its western gopura (via the south which is flanked on both sides with cool stone guardians) and back before I started feeling uneasy about leaving my bike out of my sight while only locked against itself and went to repark it only to catch a group of greedy Cambodians attempting to steal it. This unpleasant experience had me abandon further exploration of Preah Khan and even though rather shaken, I moved on to the last few ruins on the Grand Circle.
There is an exceptionally unique two storey high, stand alone building just north of the Hall of Dancers which is on the west side of the third gopura (second wall from the east to cross, aka the one with two trees growing over it). This unique building features round columns – something that’s not found anywhere else in Angkor. Because of the bicycle stealing episode, I did not go back to Preah Khan and as such, didn’t get a chance to take a picture of this unique building (and a bunch of others).
Overall, I did enjoy my time exploring Preah Khan – too bad a bunch of self righteous locals had to totally ruin the experience for me. Its location on the Grand Circuit makes Preah Khan a less attractive target which results in incomparably fewer visitors crossing its gates. If you’re an enthusiast, I’d say the temple is definitely worth the time and would reward the you with great photo opportunities. If you can time your visit for the morning, you’d also get good light for more captivating shots which would make the whole experience so much better.
By the time I got to explore Angkor temples on the Grand Circuit, I have been in Cambodia for one and a half weeks. I adopted to the local way of thinking quickly and took all the precautions to minimize chances of being a subject of crime. The local way of thinking – as it exists in Cambodia – revolves around personal enrichment that involves anything other than working for money. Theft, robberies, assaults and various forms of violent crime (including murder and rape) are a daily happening.
As an observant person, I kept my eyes wide open while I was making my way around the country I have temporarily become a part of. The number of people I securely observed checking my pockets and bags to estimate whether they bore content worth a move was frightening. Frustration I observed in their eyes as I let them know that I am aware of what they are thinking and will be keeping a keen eye on their every move so they can’t make me a victim was noteworthy. I did stand my ground firmly and faced the dangers even though it continuously jeopardize my personal safety.
I did good though. By the time I reached Preah Khan temple, almost two weeks into my stay in Cambodia, I still have not had anything stolen from me. Few people who visited Cambodia can say that. With majority of the local population being constantly, round the clock on the lookout for a foreigner who would drop their guard for a second, it’s always a mere question of time before one succeeds with their pull. And after years of doing nothing but perfecting their art of crime, they’ve become masters of theft capable of getting almost anything from anyone. It’s unfortunate, but no matter how careful and vigilant you are, you cannot be 100% alert 100% of the time. There is bound to be a moment during your visit to Cambodia when you have had a long day and as you blink your eye to sooth your mind, your possessions will be gone. There will always be a local in your vicinity checking out whether an opportune moment to rob you has come. And when it comes – which is something that comes upon each and every one of us – you can bet your Scooby Doo Panties that Cambodians will be there to take advantage of you.
Cambodians are well aware of the above mentioned fact and rely on it for their daily thieving missions to be successful. They are ridiculously skilled in thievery and often work in teams to keep you distracted while the one with the most skilled fingers makes the pull. They are so skilled as thieves, many foreigners who were deprived of their possessions would actually believe that they must have forgotten their wallet, camera, laptop, or whatever the thieves attempted to steal in the restaurant where they dined earlier.
It only gets better in the fact that the restaurant staff, the police and virtually everyone else you encounter as a tourist in Cambodia would also never pass on an opportunity to steal from a foreigner so even if they don’t happen to be around skilled thieves themselves, locals you are around will be well connected with groups who are skilled thieves and will tip them off. You visit a restaurant and the server notices that you are a potentially easy target because you left your camera on the table while you were reading the menu, thus neither holding the camera securely in your hand nor keeping your eyes firmly locked on it, or they would notice that you keep your wallet loosely in your pocket and don’t have it on a chain fastened against yourself, or would simply notice that you carry on yourself something that seems of good value (laptop, jewelry, SLR camera, etc.) and you are a marked man. Cambodia is both a breeding ground for thieves as well as a well connected network of commission seekers. Nobody does anything in Cambodia unless there is a kick back in it for them. And since they are also inherently lazy and always looking for personal enrichment that doesn’t require working for money, vast majority of your day to day encounters will be with locals who will either try to steal from you themselves or will set somebody who is better at it than themselves on you.
Taking all that into an account, there are hardly few people who visited Cambodia and lasted for a week and a half without having something stolen off them by the locals. Being a rare one of the few, I knew that my “luck” if you can call it so was not because thieves never stumbled across me – that is impossible in Cambodia where there are more thieves per cubic meter than there are mosquitoes. It was only and solely because I always made sure that stealing from me would be impossible. I always made everyone visually checking my pockets know that I am aware that they are checking my pockets. I always made it clear that my camera or bag never leaves my grip and are always zipped up and across my shoulders. When I sat in a restaurant to do some work on the laptop, I got the laptop chained against an unmovable bar and laptop bag locked against the chain. When someone came within an arm’s reach of me, I increased my mental alertness to 100% and watched every move of the person closely while at the same time periodically checking my surroundings to make sure nobody else is getting close enough from behind to take advantage of me while the other fellow/lady is keeping me preoccupied.
The reason why virtually everybody who comes to Cambodia ends up having had something of their stolen, is that they do not do it the way I did. It has absolutely nothing to do with being paranoid and everything to do with reading people who surround you well and not fooling yourself they are nice when they are not. Being extra cautious when your environment warrants it is smart, not paranoid. But that’s why I lasted for a whole week and a half without having anything stolen, unlike vast majority of other people who visit Cambodia.
It was only thanks to that utmost vigilance that those suspicious individuals who kept checking my pockets and trying to take a peek inside my bag, started to back off instead of crawling nearer and took their stare away instead of systematically continuing to assess the contents of my pockets. And after whole week and a half, I still had everything that was rightfully mine under my control. And then I came to Preah Khan.
At the Preah Khan Temple
When I was at Angkor, I only carried my camera with me and always made sure I could physically feel it. The only other possessions I had with me while exploring Angkor temples were the cell phone in my pocket and my mountain bike. Cheap and beat up as it was, the bike was still mine and I wanted to keep it for future use as my transportation means to avoid having to deal with the aggressive tuk tuk drivers. However in order to ensure that Angkor touts can successfully bother foreigners out of their money, it is not possible for the visitors to Angkor to take bicycles inside the temples. You will see the locals entering temples with both bicycles and motorcycles, but if they allowed for tourists to do that, it would be much more difficult to for touts to pester them, hence ban.
As a result, if you come to a temple on a bicycle, you have to leave it outside of the entrance gate. This is usually not much of an issue on the Petit Circuit, as there is always a busy flow of tourists coming in and out at all times and some have small structural fences around parking areas you can use as unmovable bike racks. However it’s a whole different story in temples that are less popular. Cambodians are always on the lookout for something to steal from tourists. They won’t hesitate stealing if they have to pull it out of your pocket so when you make it easy on them and leave your possession in a stealable form don’t keep a keen eye on it, you will have created an opportunity for which they would hate themselves if they passed up on. It’s a way of personal enrichment without work, which fits their profile to the dot.
Fake Orphanage Kids
When I came to Preah Khan, I did just that. It was incredibly hot and all I could see in the vicinity were trees too big to wrap my chain around. So I merely leaned my bike against one of them and locked the wheel against the frame. This would make it impossible to ride the bike, but if someone were to come with a truck, they could easily load the bike up and ride off. Then once safely in their home, they would deploy whatever tools they had (or borrowed) to remove the chain and voila – they would have just become the new owners of a mountain bike.
I sort of suspected that something like this could happen, but fooled myself for a second that since Preah Khan is on the Grand Circuit and it doesn’t see that many visitors, local traffic in and out of it is not as heavy either so perhaps no truck would come while I’m inside. To further secure my position and have the locals who saw me leave the bike there be on my side and watch it for me, I responded to a swarm of kids who jumped me as soon as I was done locking my bike and insisted that I donate to their orphanage cause they are oh so poor orphans and will starve to death unless I give them money.
Cambodians, in their divine greediness will not hesitate to pull off lies that will stop your brain just to get money off of gullible tourists. They play with visitor’s feelings and try various things until a certain something proves to work. In less visited temples, such as those along the Grand Circuit, they really have to get creative in order to succeed because these temple simply don’t receive traffic comparable to the traffic popular temples along the Small Tour get. So they set up booths, print out a sign and pose as people from an orphanage to make their efforts more fruitful. Knowing darn well that they are fake orphans only using the sob story because it works better in getting money off tourists, I was reluctant to contribute. However since there was nowhere to securely lock my bicycle, I thought that if I gave them money, they would feel grateful and would in return ensure that if someone did try to steal my bike, they would prevent them from doing it. What foolish thinking on my behalf!
Exploring Preah Khan While Bicycle Easily Movable
Feeling slightly better about leaving my bike out of my sight while not properly secured, I walked into the Preah Khan temple and started exploring. The temple looked pretty good – overgrown with jungle intertwined with collapsing walls kind of like Ta Prohm, it offered many great opportunities for photography. It was early afternoon, though, so face of the temple and all of its important elements which were built to face the east had sun behind them, creating a mighty strong backlight which spoilt most of the pictures, but the impressive size of the trees growing over the structure left me in awe never the less.
Still, while I was exploring Preah Khan and taking pictures, I started feeling uneasy about my bike being out of sight and not fastened to anything unmovable. It was extremely hot so any extra steps to take would lead to extra wastage of energy of which you never have enough in this sun, but I decided to backtrack anyway, take my bike down to the paved road and look for a thin enough tree there to lock the bike against. Granted, a dedicated thief could saw the tree down to gain possession of the bike, but the likelihood of one armed with a saw walking around just after I locked my bike there seemed minimal. Plus the effort needed to mow the tree down would take some time which could serve as a deterrent because if it takes an extra time, then chances of the bike’s owner returning to get it increase dramatically. Plus it takes quite a bit of work to take a tree down and Cambodians don’t like to work hard. Locking the bike against a tree simply seemed like the only way to get a more realistic peace of mind, even if it meant extra walking in this unbearable heat. So I interrupted the exploration of Preah Khan to move my bike somewhere where I could lock it against a tree.
Thieving Fake Orphanage Kids
As I come out of the temple unexpectedly early, I see the group of kids and their supervising adults to whom I previously donated money all packed up, leaving with their table used for donations and my bicycle lifted up on their shoulders because they couldn’t roll it due to a locked up wheel and dashing off. The group, after I donated money to them even though they were no orphans, saw the bike was stealable and as I got out of sight, they quickly started packing to be gone the hell out of there along with my stealable bicycle by the time I was done exploring the temple. Somehow early on, I had my guardian angel watching over me and the feeling of uneasiness because I left my bike out of my sight while improperly secured continued to grow until it reached the level of being unbearable so despite the heat, I invested extra energy to return and have my bike reparked somewhere where I could lock it up securely.
I just spotted the thieving kids in the last moment, let out the deadliest shout I could summon and charged full speed towards the group. Scared by my yell of doom, the thieves dropped my biked and took off for their lives. Happy to know that in this, furthest from home point on the Grand Circuit I am still left with my transportation so I’m not at the mercy of greedy tuk tuk drivers who would only see it as an opportunity in itself and would take advantage of me for being out of options, I did not return back to Preah Khan and abandoned this temple never to return. Quite shaken and distressed, I rode on to my next destination. Not only was I shocked to have just nearly had my bike stolen, I was also disgusted by the fact that it was done by the kids to whom I previously donated money. Greed of Cambodians knows no limits whatsoever. You can simply never trust one as giving them a finger merely translates into an opportunity to snatch an entire hand.
The First Mistake
I guess all you can do is give them the finger the right way – by giving them the right one and nicely upright. For one and a half weeks I was able to keep relentless Cambodian thieves at bay only to make my first mistake by fooling myself into believing that by giving Cambodians money, they would respect me and in turn watch out for my property while I am exploring the temple. It was a ridiculously foolish thing of me to think and a valuable lesson to learn. Cambodians are not only greedy beyond words, they are also a bunch of backstabbers without a back bone of their own. There is no low to which a Cambodian would not stoop. And to no surprise of mine, I had it later confirmed by my friends from the Sras Srang village that none of these kids were orphans, none of the adults who were with them were orphanage owners and there was no such orphanage under any such name anywhere in the Angkor Archeological Park.
A trip to the Preah Khan Temple is one of those I will never forget. This is where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle and had it not been for an intervention by the divine providence, they would have succeeded. Not only would I end up without something that was rightfully mine, I would also end up stuck without transportation at the part of the Grand Circuit that just happens to be the furthest from Siem Reap. And that is not a very positive outlook in a country like Cambodia. I would have to rent services of a tuk tuk driver who, seeing that I was just a subject to crime, would take advantage of the situation for his own personal enrichment. For Cambodians, a person in need is not a person to whom to assist. For Cambodians, a person in need is a person easier to exploit because they are out of the options and cannot be choosers.
Luckily for me, in the nick of time I got that funny feeling that I should repark my bike somewhere where it would be more difficult to steal so I interrupted my visit to Preah Khan only to catch the fake orphanage kids to whom I previously donated money thinking that they would gratefully watch over my bike in return, dashing off carrying my bicycle with them. My untimely show-up with a follow up yell from hell made them drop the bike on the spot and run for their lives. It was hot and I was tired from whole day exposure to that devastating Cambodian sun, but when the feeling of uneasiness about the insecurely parked bike came upon me, I interrupted my visit to the temple thinking that I would return to finish the exploration after I had my bike reparked and locked against something unmovable.
Needless to say, the distress the discovery of the theft attempt caused made the return to Preah Khan a no option. I counted my blessings and feeling happy I still had my bicycle, I rode off, away from this God-forbidden place where some of the most horrible inhabitants of the Earth operate as the lowest form of scum imaginable. However, because I was only partially done exploring Preah Khan when I left to repark my bicycle, I don’t have pictures of all of it. The gallery below contains the images I did take, however I left some for after the repark, which I ultimately ended up not having a chance to capture. Those include a picture of that unique two storey stand alone building with circular columns – something very unique for Angkor Archaeological Park as nothing of sorts can be seen anywhere else within the area. And it also includes the missing picture of the central sanctuary itself.
Now to the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple:
The entrance causeway is lined on both sides with the same row of Asuras carrying a body of a huge naga serpent that can be found at the South Gate to Angkor Thom, however all Asuras at the Preah Khan Temple are headless. Locals stole the heads during their looting raids and sold them to rich foreigners who yearned to have a historically significant rock in their possession. Some speculate that presence of these Asuras at the entrance to the temple makes Preah Khan more significant than Banteai Kdei or Ta Prohm, both of which receive incomparably more visitor traffic (mostly because they are on the Small Tour).
As for the pictures with those giant trees growing over the structures – because the passages immediately below the trees are crumbling and no way has been found to secure them yet, the access to these parts is restricted by the warning signs (as you can see from one of the photo in the gallery). However there is no one enforcing the no access requirement so a visitor to Angkor with a death wish can freely proceed and stand right below the crumbling rocks on top of which a monster tree is growing ever so tall. I had to be one of the crazy ones. I just could not pass up on this opportunity to stand right below those enormous trees knowing that the piles of huge rocks that support them could come crushing down at any given time. Utmost stupidity and I was fully aware of it at the time, yet still I wanted to stick my head where the danger was. It was my time at Angkor, afterall. For me it was a one in a lifetime opportunity to stand below those famous silk trees that brace the stones of Angkor in substitute for pillars in a frisk of nature that is as astounding as it is precarious. It was this close knit of nature with ancient architecture that drove me to Angkor in the first place.
Anyway, without further ado, below is the gallery of photos of the Preah Khan temple I took before the attempt to steal my bicycle by the fake orphanage kids took place. The few spots I left for after the bicycle repark I never eventually got a chance to photograph as I could not comfortably walk inside the temple outside of which an organized group of large caliber crooks operated without backbone of any form:
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.
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?
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?
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.