Angkor Temples on the Grand Circuit

It took me two days to thoroughly complete the exploration of temples on the Petit Circuit of Angkor Archaeological Park. I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time to take on every single ruin within the park and even though I had originally wished I would have only spent one day on the Petit Circuit, it proved to be an impossible to task to carry out on the bicycle. The riding itself wasn’t an issue. Riding and exploring in this extreme heat was. And on top of this, a visitor to Angkor spends all of their energy fighting off ever so pushy touts.

Ways to Explore Angkor

There are no air-conditioned spaces at Angkor Archeological Park. But what’s worse – there is never any breeze there. Whether you’re out in the open, hiding under a tree or within the walls of an ancient ruins, there is no escaping the heat. It’s extreme, squeezes every bit of sweat out of you and you won’t get a break from it for a second. It’s like being in a sauna, except that you are also crisped by the sun and need to move. Granted, visitors have an option to hire the services of a driver with an air conditioned car, or join an organized tour that drives around in an air conditioned bus, but these are for people who have deep pockets and no sense of adventure.

Photo: Angkor Monkey Hides in the Tree to Escape Scorching Cambodian Sun
Photo: Angkor Monkey Hides in the Tree to Escape Scorching Cambodian Sun

A good middle ground is to go in a tuk tuk. Compared to taxis and organized tours, tuk tuks are cheaper and more typical of Cambodia affording a visitor an experience unique to this part of the world. Tuk tuks are not air conditioned, as a matter of fact they are not even enclosed, but they are roofed offering blockage from the intense sun and when on the move, they provide the feeling of breeze to wash away the sweat and cool down the skin. One of the biggest advantages of taking on Angkor temples in a tuk tuk or a taxi is the possibility to have the driver drop you off at one entrance of a temple and pick you up at the one on the opposite side.

Some Angkor temples are fairly large and take quite a bit to fully explore. You would normally enter using one of the main entrances and as you get across, you turn up at the exit on the opposite side of the exterior enclosure. If you hired a tuk tuk or a taxi, the driver would know that and would drive to the exit on the opposite side to wait for you there after dropping you off at the entrance. However if you go exploring Angkor on a bicycle – like me – once you have covered whole temple and turn up at the exit on the opposite side of it, then you have several hundred meters to go back through the maze of scorching hot fallen rocks and extremely aggressive child touts.

The latter makes an already exhausting task an unbearable one. And they know it. They count on the fact that you will be so exhausted by the exposure to the sun, you will not have any power left to fight their endless pressure off. They will be in your face start to finish and there seems to be an eternal supply of them throughout Angkor. Even if you go through unseemly hustle of explaining that you cannot buy their postcard, their bracelet, their t-shirt or whatever it is they want you to buy, and put your whole self into making it your final word, as soon as you’ve exhausted yourself physically and mentally dealing with this one tout, you’ll have a whole new gang of them running towards you and jumping down your throat cause now you’re at the end with your life-juices and for them it’s the opportunity to force you into buying their junk simply because you can no longer fight them off.

As a bicyclist, I got the worst of it. I got no escape from the heat because unlike people riding a tuk tuk, I was unable to go as fast as they do to catch any real breeze that would help wash away the sweat, plus in order to move at all I had to spend my own energy all the while being fully exposed to the sun. Furthermore, exploring each temple meant locking the bicycle at the entrance, battling the touts operating outside of the temple, then touts operating inside, having them bother me on each and every step while slowly progressing towards the far end which once reached, I had to turn around and do the same distance all the way back, all the while battling the same touts again, only in reverse order because if they were unable to trick me into getting my money the first time, now they have a second chance and be more aggressive than the first time since now I’d be increasingly more tired than I was before.

Touts of Angkor

It is common for Angkor touts to use verbal traps as their last resort. Usually, if despite your exhaustion you manage to beat them off and they have no option but to leave you alone (because you’re entering other tout’s territory), they do it by saying something like: “OK, on the way back then. ” Then when they see you going back, they will take their verbal trap and use it against you by stating that “you promised” to buy from them later. It matters not that you didn’t promise a damn thing. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t say a word to begin with. They will make you feel obliged and if that fails, they will resort to their favorite part – calling you names. Even if their total English vocabulary consists of mere 5 words, “stingy” is guaranteed to be one of them. And once they’ve exhausted all English words they know will offend you, then they will proceed with mockery in Cambodian, ensuring you can hear that they are talking about you as they laugh and point fingers knowing you can’t respond. It definitely is exhausting to spend a day in an environment as hostile as this.

Photo: Cambodians Rely on the Fact that As a Foreigner, You Won't Be Able to Cope with Heat at Angkor
Photo: Cambodians Rely on the Fact that As a Foreigner, You Won't Be Able to Cope with Heat at Angkor

Grand Circle Touts

But it wasn’t until I started off my third day at Angkor and set out to cover the Grand Circuit when I realized that it does in fact get worse. See, vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor Archaeological Park will only get a daily pass. Whatever they get covered within a day will be enough for them. It truly is way too hot even if you get to escape into an air-conditioned bus between the temples. As a result, 80% or more visitors to Angkor never make it to any temple outside of the Petit Circuit, with the exception of Banteay Srei which is a popular citadel some 25 kilometers north of the main temple complex.

Dealing with touts along the Petit Circuit was brutal, yet they get a pile of foreigners served to them every day. Unlike them, touts operating at temples on the Grand Circuit only get a sporadic foreigner every here and there. Virtually every temple on the Grand Circuit I visited on my third day at Angkor was without any other foreigners at the time of my visit. I was the first and only foreigner of the day so you can bet on it that when I showed up, they weren’t gonna let me go easily. The Petit Circuit touts were beyond unbearable, but compared to the ones on the Grand Circuit, they were a bunch of relaxed, easy going peeps.

It was also on the Grand Circuit where I had fake orphanage kids attempt to steal my bicycle. While riding around the Petit Circuit, I only used the lock I had to lock the wheel against the bicycle’s frame, because there was always so much traffic at any given minute, it would be difficult to steal a bicycle without someone noticing. Plus there are no racks or poles or anything of sorts you could possibly lock your bike against anyway so I did all I could.

But on the Grand Circuit it was different. These temples were quiet, only touts who operate at each of these every day were around and they work together as a gang so when a foreigner comes, they will support each other to make their purpose of separating foreigners from their valuables successful. Luckily for me, my guardian angel was around that day so after locking my bike against itself at one of the temples and walking inside, I got this strange feeling in the gut and instead of continuing with the temple, I returned back to look for a tree even if it required me to walk an extra distance back to the temple, but to have the bike locked against something stationary rather than leaving it loose just like that. And I just got back in a nick of time to catch the kids who gave me a real hard time demanding money for their “orphanage” running away carrying my bike. Their theft attempt was successfully foiled thanks to the hint from the guardian angel.

Temples on the Grand Circuit of Angkor

The reason why so few people take on Grand Circuit is that all of the most famous and most interesting temples are on the Petit Circle. Each other temple is less impressive and usually in greater state of despair so for most, once you have seen the temples on the Petit Circuit, you have seen them all. From that point on it’s just another pile of old rocks that looks the same way a pile of rocked they had seen before did. It worked for me because roads were quiet so I didn’t have to ride in ditches to avoid being run over by speeding buses and it was possible to take pictures without swarms of weirdly dressed foreigners getting in my view. The following is the list of temples from the Grand Circuit I had on my radar for the day:

  • Prasat Top
  • Pre Rup
  • Prasat Neak Leang
  • East Mebon
  • Ta Som
  • Neak Pean
  • Krol Ko
  • Preah Khan
  • Prasat Prol
  • Banteay Prel
  • Krol Romeas
  • Tonie Sngout
  • Angkor Thom North Gate

I started my Grand Circle tour properly – in a counter-clockwise direction after learning it the hard way with the Petit Circuit. I also made an emergency stop at Banteay Kdei to meet with my new friends and have a coconut for energy before a long and tiring day. If all was to go well, I would also get a chance to make an emergency stop at Angkor Wat for one more coconut – the last one of the day – with my also new friends who operate there on my way back home. And here I was, taking on the Grand Circuit of Angkor.

Tips on How to Deal With Pestering Cambodian Touts

While playing word games with pestering child touts bastardizing the Angkor Archaeological Park did the trick and saved me from a lot of abuse, there was still a question of how to deal with more the persistent and obdurate ones. I got my answer with the most solid tips on how to deal with pestering Cambodian touts after coming back to Angkor Wat for the afternoon pictures and meeting with my new found friends for one more coconut.

I was definitely a happier camper than most other tourists at Angkor. Their faces ware telling stories of utmost frustration and there was no wondering why. Spending a day exposed to the abuse Angkor touts put foreigners through is enough to drive even the most hard core individual insane. Yet here I was still able to walk through the viper’s nest, into its very core where at the end of it was the shop I wanted to buy a coconut from.

As I saw kids sprinting towards me with various low quality items hanging off of them like shiny balls off a Christmas tree, I countered each of them by reciting their rites before they got a chance to start. I simply said right off the bat that I was from “Canada, capital city Ottawa, population 32 Million, we speak two languages” and concluded my chant by firmly stating that I’m going to the second last shop where my friends work so I can buy everything I need from them. Bam… that shut them off.

It was very hot, I was very tired and was wearing clothes that got drenched many times over with sweat during the day. Sipping energizing fluids out of a cold, freshly opened coconut provided me with an uplifting feeling. Trees provided much needed shade and at times I even caught a little bit of breeze that helped to wash the sweat off my face. Having previously spent over an hour with those girls, we kept chatting about random things and even though many freelance touts still kept trying their tricks on me, I was for the most part left alone. And then I noticed something that was going to completely change my approach towards dealing with touts.

Learn from the Koreans

As I was sitting there blended with the shop, I noticed that if any westerners came into view, all of the touts would jump them in a relentless tactics of pressure but when a group of Korean tourists showed up, none of the touts would make a step towards them, never mind trying to pester them. That instantly boosted my interest and I started asking around:

How come nobody tried to sell anything to any of those Korean people? There was a group of about 30 of them, most of them in their productive years implying that they have their lives well secured and have disposable income to be able to buy anything they want. Yet none of the touts would even try to come to them but if a western backpacker, someone who looks like they’ve been on the road for a while and have to watch what they spend their money on shows up, they get dozens of pestering touts jump them and follow them around not giving them a minute of peace. How is it possible that Koreans are left alone, allowed to enjoy the experience undisturbed, while westerners are pestered on every single step of their way by dozens of relentless touts at any given time?

I asked my new friends why none of them jumped any of the Koreans given that there was such a large group of them. One person trying to sell something to a group of 30 should have a better chance of getting business than 30 people trying to sell something to one person. Yet nobody even moved when the Koreans showed up and I really wanted to know what their secret was – why are Koreans allowed to enjoy the experience undisturbed while westerners are put through hell. It was a million dollar question and I got a million dollar answer:

“Koreans are rude and they ignore us when we talk to them!”

Tip 1 – Ignorance is Bliss

Bingo! I could not have asked for a better pointer. So this is the secret to turning a bastardized Angkor experience into an enjoyable one? Start fighting fire with fire by responding to rudeness with rudeness? Is this really the key to having a peaceful and enjoyable time at Angkor? As it turns out, it really is!

The thing is – Cambodians realized that westerners are brought up being polite and started abusing that fact against them. They knew that us westerners are always told that ignoring is rude and it is not only polite, but downright necessary to at least acknowledge, if not respond to every person who approaches you, even if they are a stranger on a street. As such, you don’t even think about responding when approached by a stranger trying to sell you something – you naturally respond by politely stating that you were OK and didn’t need anything at the moment. Of course, after you have done that the first two million times within a span of one day, it will wear you out and you’ll turn grumpy and look the same all westerners you see at Angkor in the afternoon do.

So the tactics of pestering Cambodian touts is to abuse the fact that westerners are polite by being rude to them, yelling at them, clapping at them from across the street, honking horns at them or otherwise verbally abusing them – because they know it is natural for westerners to respond.

Korean culture and way of life is entirely different so for them – if you approach them with rudeness, you will get rudeness back. Whether by being ignored – which as described here is one of the most powerful tools you can utilize to save yourself from an ongoing headache of being in Cambodia or if that doesn’t do the trick, they’ll deploy the ever so powerful sweeping hand movement.

Tip 2 – Sweeping Hand Movement

Even though vast majority of Cambodian touts won’t bother Koreans, there are still oddballs who go over and beyond the call of duty and wish to take pestering foreigners to a whole new level. After spending a while observing how touts operate, I did on occasion spot a random one trying their luck with a Korean. The response was absolutely priceless:

If a Korean person does get jumped by a tout, they still ignore and say absolutely nothing, but they’d make this hand sweeping movement as if to knock the pestering tout off their coat like bread crumbs. Without any attempt to make an eye contact with a bothering pest, the hand sweeping movement seems to be an extremely powerful way to end the abuse. Following this valuable experience, I’ve tried the hand sweeping movement myself and it worked like a charm. For some reason it looks as though Cambodians found it very offensive when you sweep them off like this so if nothing else works, if you get a super aggressive tout on you that wouldn’t leave you alone no matter what, trying the hand sweeping movement could still do the job. Almost each time I tried it after all else failed, it did free me up from even the most pestering of pests.

This is especially helpful with your pimps who would drive by you on a motorcycle trying to sell you a lady bum bum, cocaine, heroin and whatever other fishy substance you could think off and wouldn’t leave you alone no matter what. Don’t say a word, don’t even turn your head, just do the hand sweeping movement and you’ll see them get right on their way. It’s pure magic.

Photo: Huy Meng Mini Mart in Siem Reap - Many Child Slaves Insist on Buying Them Food from There
Photo: Huy Meng Mini Mart in Siem Reap - Many Child Slaves Insist on Buying Them Food from There

Another good example of use are pimped out kids working for organized cartels. These kids are purposefully dressed up in torn up clothes and made to look dirty. They can cry on command and will grab your hand and won’t let go, insisting that you must buy them food or they die hungry. Of course, if you offer to take them to the restaurant where you would buy them the food so they can eat on the spot, they won’t go. They will only accept food from a nearby convenience store with which they have a “contract”. These are extremely difficult to brush off and they are also the rudest of all. Now don’t get me wrong – being rude is natural to all Cambodians so being told to “F%$k Off” if you don’t give them a hand-out, or if you give them not as much as they think they are worth, or if you give them something they don’t particularly like – is absolutely normal and happens all the time in Cambodia, but the pimped out kids are particularly aggressive and particularly rude and will usually not settle with mere “F%$k You”. There will be a whole slew of swearings if they don’t trick you into buying something from the convenience store they are a part of.

Deploying the sweeping hand movement can be the only way for you to get rid of those kids. They will grab you by the hand or by the piece of clothing and will not let go no matter what. If the hand sweeping movement fails, you will be left with no other option but to board a Tuk Tuk and drive away. In this case it’s still you who loses, only now not a pestering kid, but a different tout (Tuk Tuk driver) will get your money.

Tip 3 – Video Camera

It is recommended to eat in westerner owned restaurants when in Cambodia as most local owned ones will attract and won’t deter pestering kids from bothering you while you eat. There is nothing more irritating than spending 20 minutes waiting for your meal after a whole day of exploring Angkor, when you can’t wait till your sizzling stuff makes it to your table cause you’re starving like a lion, then the moment comes, you get your dish, you dig right in, savoring the flavor to the fullest and then a pestering kid comes, shoves itself one foot away from your face and starts chanting some incoherent shite. Needless to say, you just want to enjoy your meal in peace cause you’re really hungry and need energy but this kid will not leave your side and will spoil your dining experience entirely.

There is very little you can do when this takes place. If you happen to find yourself in a restaurant that won’t send the pest away for you (or worse yet, one which encourages them – like a few I have dined in) you won’t be able to explain to them that you can’t buy them food because you only have enough to pay for yours. They either don’t speak English or pretend they don’t which serves as an excuse to stay in your face.

Sweeping your hand doesn’t work very well with these kids. They don’t care that they are disrupting your dinner as it’s that disruption that may force you to shell out so you can finish your meal in peace. Because of that, you usually only have one choice that could still work – point a video camera at them to make it look like you are vidoetaping them pestering you. This will work in 9 cases out of 10. Camera equipped cell phones and 5th generation iPods work just as well.

The thing is – unless you do something that will safely send these pestering kids on their merry way, you will still have them murmuring crap into your ear 5 minutes later. They are extremely hard to shake off so for the most part, unless you have a backup from a Cambodian speaking person who can yell at them in a language they do understand, the only thing that could help is the camera in their face.

Lesson Learned

Even though Cambodia is a country of extremely aggressive touts, you can make it easier for yourself by following the Korean example. It won’t save you from verbal abuse and rude remarks as even Koreans are subjected to it and there’s nothing they can do about it, however you can still cut down on about 95% of direct pestering by completely ignoring them, sweeping your hand at those who still won’t leave you alone and shoving your video camera in the face of the rest of them who make a point off turning your stay in their country into a miserable experience.

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?