The very first local I encountered upon my arrival in Cambodia stole my pen because it had a laser pointer on it and he decided he liked it. It was the only pen I had readily available on me so when he said something was missing on my arrival card, I pulled it out of my camera bag and filled the missing information in. He then took the pen out of my hand and took the card along with my passport to add his notes, signature, a stamp or whatever it is they are supposed to do with those cards on it. He then went to get something else done by standing up from his desk and walking up to the opposite counter and when he came back, the pen was nowhere to be seen. I asked if I could have my pen back yet he insisted he gave it to me previously. Needless to say, this was the last time I have seen my pen.
I had only been in Cambodia for two minutes, and this was the very first Cambodian I had to deal with and I already got my pen stolen and was lied to straight into my face. He was the perfect reflection of what awaits a visitor inside the country. From the moment you’re in until the moment you’re out, there will always be a plentitude of locals looking for the ways to scam you out of your money or possessions.
Because the Cambodian government took measures to prevent scamming by anyone other than their befriended individuals, immigration people at certain points of entry (such as the Siem Reap or Phnom Penh airports) can no longer directly request bribes from foreigners who’d just arrived. That doesn’t however mean that they will miss out on other opportunities to enrich themselves at your expense.
Similarly, many overland points of entry are still major bribery hubs so if you fly in to Cambodia and continue on with your travels overland like I did, then you will be subjected to scam from the very first person you encounter to the very last (and virtually everyone in between). Similar open requests for bribes at overland border crossing will await you when entering and exiting Laos (on both Cambodian and Lao sides), but from my experience, this is not practised by Thai or Vietnamese immigration officials.
When I went I went to Thailand, scamming ended with the very last Cambodian I had to deal with. It goes without saying that he DID insist on a bribe but it was a breath of fresh air to come to the Thai side and be processed without any scam attempt. It works similarly when entering Cambodia from Thailand whereas Thai officials would process you without requests for bribes, but as soon as you come over to the Cambodian booth and start dealing with Cambodians, it gets to be a whole new story.
Vietnam doesn’t offer visa on arrival (or visa free entry) when entering overland from Cambodia (October 2009) so you have to apply for it in advance with the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh (at least if you’re a bearer of a Canadian passport) but as is the case with Thailand, open requests for bribes will end with the last Cambodian you end up having to deal with.
Isvarapura, or Banteay Srei as it is known today, is an ancient Khmer temple located about 25 km north of Angkor Wat. Its “out of the way” location and insignificant size make Banteay Srei seemingly unimportant, however through inclusion in most tour packages, it sees a fair amount of visitors. Frequently referred to as “Citadel of the Women”, allegedly because it was the women who decorated it, its name kept popping up in most conversations I had with locals before and during my trips to Angkor. If the temple was completely off my radar before, soon after I started touring the temples of Angkor, the impression that Banteay Srei was a “must not miss” became apparent. From students whom I taught English at the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda, through my coconut friends at Angkor Wat all the way to the villagers from Sras Srang with whom I ended up spending most of my time in Cambodia, everybody kept asking me if I already paid Banteay Srei a visit. When I told them that I’d never even heard of that temple, everybody gasped for the air and insisted that I definitely include it in my plan. I had so much of the “citadel of the women” name enter my ears, I was afraid to look at the toilet paper after I wiped my butt off for fear that I’d see the name of the temple etched on it.
Road Trip to Banteay Srei
While all of the temples you would have heard of and wanted to visit prior to coming to Cambodia are located reasonably close to one another and can be visited in one go, a visit to Banteay Srei requires a detour that’ll eat a good chunk of the day on its own. Since everybody kept shoving that Banteay Srei hype down my throat, I decided to dedicate whole day to it and combine it with a road trip present for Ha and her daughter. I picked up Ha from the Temple Club after returning from a nighttime stay at Angkor Wat, made sure she gets good sleep and takes shower in warm water before leaving my air conditioned room the following day to see her daughter. As part of my surprise package, I started the day by giving Ha’s daughter a present, took a bunch of picture of the four year old girl wearing her new top and as soon as we were done, a we heard a tuk tuk pull over just outside of the room where Ha and her daughter lived. It was my student from the English class with whom I made prior arrangements.
I knew Ha didn’t have anything to do during the day, because she couldn’t score a job in Cambodia so there was zero risk of either her or her daughter being unable to go. So when the tuk tuk showed up and everybody kept wondering why it would come to that remote part of Siem Reap where no foreigners ever go, I simply told them to get dressed, because we’re taking a road trip to Banteay Srei. I had to explain to Ha that I didn’t know whether they’d be able to go inside the temple as all non Cambodians need an expensive entrance ticket, however should we fail sneaking them in as Cambodians, I’d just leave them in a nearby restaurant for a meal while I take off on my own to take a few pictures of the temple. The excitement was instantaneous. We picked up a few sandwiches from a store next to their hut and set off for an hour long ride to Banteay Srei on a tuk tuk.
It was a very, very hot day so a ride in a tuk tuk felt very refreshing. The movement of air kept washing sweat off our faces as we rode through Angkor and on to Banteay Srei. The excitement in voice and actions of Ha’s little girl was extraordinary. This was the first time in over a week that she got a chance to do something other than staying inside the shed her mother rented from her Cambodian uncle. It felt like family going on a family trip.
Banteay Srei Temple
In spite of its popularity, Banteay Srei is not as overrun with touts as temples in the main Angkor area. While area around Banteay Srei is as flat as elsewhere in central Cambodia, the immediate surroundings of the temple were rich in plant life growing out of well kept pools of water. Small exhibition hall with brief introduction on the temple can be found on the way to Banteay Srei from the parking lot.
Banteay Srei is the only main temple of Angkor that was not founded by a king. Its founder – Yajnavaraha – the grandson of king Harshavarman served as an ayurvedic medic and a priest during the reign of kings Rajendravarman and Jayavarman V. According to the stele inscription, Yajnavaraha had the temple completed by 967 AD and dedicated it to the Hindu god Tribhuvanamaheshvara (Shiva). The dedication to Shivanism is evident through intricate carvings covering the walls of the temple. Carvings in red sandstone are well preserved and seemingly the temple’s strongest tourist attractant. Many speculate that the fine art that these carvings represent could only be done by the hands of women, hence the temple’s title of the “Citadel of the Women”. Others however maintain that the name relates to the many reliefs of Apsaras (female dancers) found throughout the temple.
Banteay Srei Carvings
The most famous carvings on the walls and lintels of Banteay Srei portray the scenes from the life of Shiva, though parts of the temple were clearly also dedicated to Vishnu. In one of the triangular pediments above doorways, the demon Ravana is seen shaking Mount Kailasa above which Shiva is enthroned. In the same scene, Kama is seen arriving to disturb Shiva’s meditation. Other carvings portray “The Rain of Indra” or “The Killing of Kamsa” both of which are important stories from Indian mythology. Some of the carvings were moved to the Khmer museum in Phnom Penh and some are in Paris, France after being recovered from the hands of collectors who bought them from Cambodian looters. Apsaras stolen by French adventurer/thief André Malraux were also recovered and contributed to the popularity of the temple worldwide.
Thanks to vast funding from the Swiss government, Banteay Srei went through extensive restoration works so temple appears well preserved and carvings are in good shape. The Swiss government also financed the installation of a drainage system around the temple which prevented further damage to the structure by water. Despite vast investments from the Swiss, nothing could prevent the destruction of Banteay Srei by the locals who looted and vandalized the living bejeezus out of it. After the original statues were replaced with replicas, the locals vandalized the replicas. But their greed didn’t stop there. A typical Cambodian mindframe dictates that “if I can’t have it, at least I’ll destroy it”! As a result, after the statues of Vishnu and Uma were removed from Banteay Srei, they were assaulted by vandals while placed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping.
Banteay Srei – Conclusion
Banteai Srei is about an hour drive from Siem Reap town. It’s distance from Angkor proper (where most temples are located) makes a visit to Banteay Srei slightly inconvenient. It’s also a small sized temple so one would think that an extra long trip for this little would make no sense. Yet Banteay Srei receives more visitors than many larger temples on the Petit Circuit, including Banteay Kdei where my villager friends operate as touts. What makes Banteay Srei this popular are intricate carvings covering nearly every square inch of the temple. If elaborate, fine carvings are your thing, then made sure you don’t give Banteay Srei a miss.
The temple is also surrounded by nice water gardens which make the access to it more picturesque. I don’t know what they look like in dry season, but rainy season keeps them lush and rich, which offers great opportunities for photography. I am personally glad I went to visit Banteay Srei, but that was because I had 7 days to explore Angkor. If I only had a daily pass, I’d probably give this temple a pass. I’d likely pass on it with a 3 day pass also. However since vast majority of foreigners who visit Angkor do so on a single day pass and buy a tour package from their hotel, they do get to see Banteay Srei because tour companies have this temple included (and temples like Banteay Kdei excluded) in their packages. This is likely part of their marketing strategy. Through its red sandstone walls covered with exquisite carvings, a trip to Banteay Srei offers the visitors something different from majority of temples at Angkor proper. If I had wealthy clients, I’d take them to Banteay Srei too. Taking them to temples like Banteay Kdei, which are in more state of ruin and nigh identical to many other temples would be like showing them the same thing they had already seen.
BTW – both Ha and her daughter did get inside Banteay Srei even though only I had the pass. Being Vietnamese, Ha looks just as any Cambodian girl would and since she could speak a bit of Cambodian, we were able to fool the guard. It’s not like they would gain anything if they kicked them out and barred from from entering…
This whole road trip idea was planned out to be a surprise for Ha and her daughter. I knew Ha couldn’t score a normal job in Cambodia – being both Vietnamese (keep in mind that Cambodians are extremely racist – just ask any Vietnamese person who’s ever visited Cambodia) and illegal to seek employment in Cambodia, so the only option she was left with was prostitution in Siem Reap‘s night clubs. However, the more time she spent with me, the wearier she kept getting of this whole idea of selling her body for money. Since she couldn’t have an actual job, Ha would the daytime with her daughter, as there was simply nothing other she could do. If I didn’t go to Angkor, she’d spend the day with me, but I needed to take advantage of good weather after waiting the rain out so I spent three consecutive days exploring the ancient temples, leaving the girls alone in Siem Reap.
I bought a 7 day pass to have enough time for even the more remote temples, but things went pretty smoothly so after three days, I had all of the temples on the Petit Circuit and the Grand Circuit covered, leaving me with 4 extra days to do the remote ones. The Petit and Grand Circuits are within main Angkor area where all of the famous and popular temples can be found, so by covering them all, I virtually had Angkor explored and everything on top of that would be an added bonus. One exception to this rule was the temple of Banteay Srei.
Banteay Srei temple is located about 25km from the main Angkor area (the area with where all famous and all biggest temple can be found – aka the area where most tourists go), however even though small in size, its intricate and elaborate carvings on red sandstone make Banteay Srei visually appealing so many organized tours include it in their itinerary. As a result, Banteai Srei, even though much smaller and significantly further away from Siem Reap, sees more visitors that Banteay Kdei – the temple on the Small Tour (Petit Circuit) where I made friends with villagers. While this is mostly a marketing pull on behalf of tour organizing companies, Banteai Srei did also gain notoriety among budget travelers which landed the temple a title of the “Jewel of Khmer Art”. As such, Banteai Srei is very overhyped and attracts tourists like honey attracts flies.
Needless to say – after being to all of the main Angkor temples, Banteai Srei was next on my radar. I knew Banteay Srei was 25 kilometers north of the main Angkor area, which all in all, would add up to being well over 30 km from Siem Reap, but since this part of Cambodia is completely flat, covering such distance on a bicycle wouldn’t be a problem. Sun and heat would be the biggest challenge, with potential of hostility from locals being close second. Afterall, being so far away from Siem Reap, all tourists who make it to Banteay Srei get there either in a bus as part of an organized tour, or by Tuk Tuk they hired in town. Omnipresent Tuk Tuks and motorcycles are fast moving and don’t draw much attention to themselves. Significantly slower moving bicycle with a foreigner on it, in an area of Cambodia far away from police patrolled streets of Siem Reap or Angkor… that sounded like a straight up death wish.
So instead of going all by me onesy on a bicycle, I decided to make my trip to Banteai Srei a Road Trip with guests and kill several birds with one stone. I could definitely do it on a bicycle, but after I took all other factors into consideration, the idea of a road trip prevailed. The undisputed advantages were:
1 – Tuk Tuk Ride
The idea of covering a long distance on a bicycle didn’t scare me. I was fit enough and enjoyed bike riding to the dot, but there were things in Cambodia a wise traveler never lets to slip his mind. But there was one even bigger reason why I had to consider a road trip on a Tuk Tuk and it goes back all the way to me teaching English at Wat Preah Prom Rath:
I have only been in Cambodia for less than 24 hours and I already taught a lecture in one of the classrooms at Preah Prom Rath. I enjoyed this experience profusely and was more than happy to volunteer my time to that cause as the students who attended the classes at the temple were ones who did not have a sponsor who would pay for a semester at a posh school. With me being part of their classes, they got more out of their lectures than students from incredibly overpriced schools such as the ACE – Australian Centre for Education. ACE – despite its high cost, is one incredibly useless school. If I were a parent of any of the kids who paid an incredible amount of money to attend that school, I’d demand a refund and get my kid the hell out of there. Most girls from the Sras Srang village where I ended up spending several months of my stay in Cambodia did attend ACE after sponsors paid for them, but day after day were forced to ask me to explain the lesson to them because they had no idea what it was about after attending a TESOL certified teacher lead class. After I explained it to them, then they understood, but there wasn’t one time in 5 months when any of the girls would return from the class and understand the topic of that day’s lecture.
Back to my English classes at Wat Preah Prom Rath – unfortunately for me, I came to Cambodia with an open mind and a will to dedicate myself to good causes. At the time, all one could find on the internet about Cambodia were utter lies. It took me all together 5 minutes to realize that Cambodians were hostile and that knowledge stayed from the moment I stepped foot on Cambodian soil, to the moment I left it. However even after being in the country for hours and already having experienced much of their hostility, I still lied to myself that there must be some good in Cambodia and if I keep my mind open, I would find it. It was a foolish thing to think.
Unfortunately, this type of mindset set me up for traps from which I could not get out of in the future. The students from my class instantly took advantage of the fact that I offered myself up to them with all openness and used each lecture to pressure me with business solicitations. As days went by and I realized that Cambodians are NOT those nice and friendly people travelers who fear reality make them to be, then I started to build a protective barrier between myself and the locals and didn’t allow anyone to take any more advantage of me, but this wasn’t until a few days after my arrival. During this first lecture of mine, as well as a few subsequent ones, I opened myself up and my students, instead of being grateful that I donated my time and knowledge to them for free, they took advantage of me and swarmed me with business hypes disguised as friendly chats. I reciprocated what I believed was merely an intention to have a friendly conversation with an English speaker, only to be forced into listening to pushy sales pitches from Tuk Tuk drivers and as they kept pressuring me and getting more and more in my face, the only way for me to escape was to eventually say OK to something.
They tried to force me into buying their services, but I told them I wanted to go for a walk that night so I couldn’t use them. Their response was that they would take me to see a sunset over a lake tomorrow then. And then that they would take me to the temples of Angkor. And then something again and again and again and again. From every angle, voices pressuring me more and more and cornering me and getting in my face until I had no choice but to say – “OK, I’ll let you know if I need a tuk tuk, G%$amn it!”
It was truly foolish of me to think that Cambodians would merely care to have a chat with someone from abroad. It’s not the case. It’s never been the case and not even after 5 months in Cambodia it ever happened to be one. But I wasn’t prepared for this to be a fact when I just came there and once a Cambodian forces you into even remotely implying something, then they’re gonna remind you of it day in and day out. And so they did remind me of that time when I said “OK”. Surprise!!!
Tuk Tuk drivers are an incredibly awful lot. They made every minute of my stay in Cambodia outside of my room a nightmare. If I had Ha with me, I could not finish a single damn sentence without one getting in my face and rudely interrupting. As a result, I would not give any of them any business just on principle. If I needed to go somewhere, I’d rather walk in that heat than give a Tuk Tuk driver a penny. Needless to say, they would still bother the living crap out of me, but at least I wouldn’t pay them anything. So it was not easy to actually get one on my own terms and offer him a gig of taking me to Banteay Srei for a road trip. But since this would shake off one of the traps Cambodians caught me in when I was too trusty, I said – why not?
2 – Fun Day for Ha and Her Daughter
Hellz yeah – to Ha and her daughter, every day was a struggle to survive (as it was for me, but for completely different reasons) with basically no chance to do anything fun. To Ha, every morning started with thoughts of worry about how she was going to buy food for her little girl. When simple day to day survival becomes your #1 priority, you don’t have the resources to buy basic necessities beyond food, let alone take your kid on a road trip. And knowing darn well how much hardship Ha and her daughter already went through, I instantly realized that affording them a simple day of simple joy would mean the world to them.
And this was the main reason why I opted for a road trip on a tuk tuk, rather than a self ride on a bicycle to Banteai Srei. A tuk tuk can seat up to 4 people easily, so taking Ha and her daughter along wouldn’t cost me any more than going on my own. And even though had I not met Ha, I would still have gone by bicycle, despite pressure from my students, knowing that by taking Ha and her daughter out for a day of fun, I could visit an extra temple without risking a ride through potentially hostile territory, and I would shake off the obligation my students forcibly placed upon me, I saw nothing but pure WIN for everyone in this arrangement.
The only trouble was that the night prior to intended road trip I did not make it to the class, because I stayed at Angkor Wat for night photography. I already had my present for Ha’s daughter with me, but I really wanted to make the day when I give it to her even more special. I wanted to take them away from the worries they experience every day and set their mind on something positive – while they are together, and myself with them. So despite being exhausted and wet (it rained like all hell during my nighttime stay at Angkor and I rode back home in that rain), instead of heading home to take shower and relax a bit, I headed straight for Pub Street and started looking for a tuk tuk driver from my class. Since Pub Street is where majority of foreigners who stay in Siem Reap go after dark, that is where majority of Siem Reap’s tuk tuk drivers aggregate after dark. I knew I stood a decent chance of finding him there as ratio of tuk tuk drivers to foreigners in Siem Reap is rather unfavorable (more tuk tuk drivers than tourists).
Luckily for me – he was there, hiding from the rain under the roof of his tuk tuk. I made arrangements with him, told him when and where to come the following day and told him where and how many of us are going. All set and done, I was ready to go to my room, make myself human again and head over to the Temple Club to meet with Ha so I could take her home with me for a warm shower and comfy sleep. I told her not that I had a gift for her daughter and that after the gift, I was taking them for a road trip to Banteay Srei. I kept it a surprise until the last moment and it paid off big time. Not only did the girls have their first worry free, fun day in a long time, it was also the first time for the little girl in years to feel like she had a father. I may not have made her, but she was in daddy’s arms the whole time. I do not have the words to describe how much it meant to them and to me, but what I got back in child’s laughter and mother’s tears has made an impact you can’t replicate.
After my first meeting with Ha’s daughter, I knew it wasn’t going to be our last. This sort of caught me off guard as all my recent encounters with kids were negative – either trained clowns able to fake-cry on command, going out of their way to get money off of you and telling you to F%$k off if you don’t give it to them, or screaming the entire flight turning an already exhausting experience into a nightmare from hell – so if you even remotely brought up anything to do with kids, I would have told you to keep them as far away from me as possible so nobody gets hurt. But bubbly personality Ha’s daughter was radiating got the best of me.
After I embarked on my third day of Angkor exploring, I took on the Grand Circuit in a counter-clockwise direction with a mandatory stop at my new-found friends’ from the Sras Srang village. The temple of Banteay Kdei was about 12 km away from where I stayed in Siem Reap, and just a corner turn away from the Grand Circuit which made it a perfect, strategic stop to recharge on energy with coconut water and cool off the sweat the ride so far has resulted in. But I also had an extra plan for the stop at Banteai Kdei.
When I first went with Ha to see her daughter, I made a quick stop at a convenience store to buy candy. I thought it would make a kid happy and pre-occupied enough to leave me the hell alone. It did make her happy – beyond happy – but it didn’t keep her off of me, though by that time I didn’t mind. Obviously, buying the kid a simple thing which her mother could not afford to buy meant a world to the little girl. Anticipating my next meeting with her, I thought I was gonna buy something more sustainable and less damaging to her already spoilt teeth. I had to take two things into an account:
Ha was always by my side, except from times when I was at Angkor
I wanted to make it a surprise so buying anything in Siem Reap would defeat this idea. And since any business in Siem Reap would try to rip me off as much as any tout at Angkor Archaeological Park would, there was no benefit to buying in town over buying at Angkor. On top of it all – my relationship with the Sras Srang villagers was nicely developing so I thought I’ll get the best of both world and buy something for Ha’s daughter from them.
As much as I enjoyed the company of the villagers, they were still Cambodians and I was still a foreigner. For them it’s always an “Us Against Them” game so as I kept spending more and more time with them, but buying nothing except a whole pile of coconuts every day, they continued bugging me and requesting that I fall for their sales pitch and spend more money. Under normal circumstances, I would not give in to the pressure of pestering touts (except that one time when the little girl tout who broke into tears after a would-be customer bought from somebody else), but since I wanted to buy Ha’s daughter something anyway, so why not from my new friends? Whom better to support financially than people with whom I was gonna spend several month with (though at the time I didn’t quite know it yet)? So I did just that. It didn’t ease the pressure one bit, but gave me an extra argument to counter theirs with when they tried to force me into buying some more.
Granted, everything they sell at Angkor is a piece of junk. There are basically two types of items you can buy: bootlegs of all sorts and miserable quality t-shirts. I didn’t have many options so I went for a low quality t-shirt. I’m not very good at buying presents so I had to make it easy on myself. The biggest challenge I was faced with was trying to guess the right size for Ha’s daughter. They had children sized tops with elephants on them in both small and medium. I asked my friends to get some four year old girl touts to come over so I can test the size on them. Since Ha’s daughter was the same age and racial differences are minimal between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, I thought this was gonna help me choose the right size. I ended up going with medium sized top as small seemed as though it was meant for infants. I also thought buying the top that’s a bit too big would be better in a long run than getting one that’s a bit too small. The four year olds grow big quickly, so if the garment is a tad large right now, it’ll fit just fine later. Whereas if it’s already tight, it’s gonna be completely unusable very soon.
My suspicion was correct – the medium sized top was still a bit too big for her, but that mattered not. Both Ha and her daughter were beaming with delight when I pulled the top out of my camera bag and handed it to the little girl. I haven’t seen this much happiness in a very long time. The girl was so excited she instantly wanted to pose for pictures with her new top on. She loved having her pictures taken and as a photographer, I loved taking them. Four year old, but so photogenic and just shining with glamour. Little did they know at the time that this was naught but the beginning. The main surprise of the day was yet to come.
Gallery of pictures I took of Ha’s daughter wearing the top I bought her from the villagers at Banteay Kdei temple is below:
I made an attempt to find the ruins of Prasat Tonle Sngout – a temple that’s off the main road, but according to the map, just by the side road that branches off the Grand Circuit at the bend north of Angkor Thom North Gate, across the road from Krol Romeas. I took that road and followed it for a few kilometers but found nothing. Locals in the areas – there were beyond plenty of them – were not only not helpful, but showed undeniable signs of hostility as this road clearly lead to a highly populated area but no foreigners ever go that way so I was seen as an invader of space beyond my limits. I tried never the less, but gave up after a while, returning to the relative safety of the paved road on the Grand Circle. Without wasting any more time getting off the road, I headed straight down south to meet with my coconut friends again.
By that time, both weather and daylight started to change rapidly. Dark clouds rolled in out of nowhere and covered the sky, giving me just enough time to make it to the concession area in front of main temple of Angkor Wat before the first drops of rain started to fall. Since 6pm – the official closing time at Angkor Archaeological Park – was only minutes away, not only were there hardly any tourists still in the temple when I arrived, the looming rainfall also rushed the touts and concession stalls owners to quickly start packing and prepare to leave. I was pretty darn tired after a whole day of riding in the sun and wanted to take a breather before the last leg of my journey so the imminence of rain was of no concern to me. I just wanted say “Hi” to the girls and have my coconut before leaving the area entirely.
Angkor Wat at Night
Being already a loyal and regular customer, the girls still served me my coconut but said their good byes soon after. By the time I was finished with this delicious fruit, not only were they gone, but so was virtually everyone else. Only myself, who couldn’t be distraught by the rain and wanted his minute of rest while recharging with a coconut and other two people stayed to hang around. The other two – a mother and her daughter – took advantage of the fact that rain scared everyone away and dusk fell on Angkor Wat and used it to collect Lotus flowers from the pond in the temple – the one which makes for the most photogenic pictures of Angkor Wat. It is otherwise illegal to pick up the Lotus flowers from the pond, as it is an essential tourist attraction in Angkor Wat, but the APSARA people who have the authority to enforce the rule were not around and I clearly showed that I didn’t care, so the mother went into the pool (it was raining so much, she would be drenched wet anyway) to pluck up the stems of the edible plant, while her daughter crouched at the edge to take what her mother collected. APSARA rips locals off enough as it is – I found it only fair that the locals take some of what is theirs for themselves too. This family needed food to eat and this was their opportunity.
Being so close to the equator, the day changes into the night very quickly in Cambodia. In a manner of minutes, everything went from hot day and bright daylight, into overcast sky and pitch darkness. Still hot as all hell, but now also extra moist due to heavy rainfall. My camera bag is rainproof so the camera was safe. I was feeling content having had a fairly successful day so I didn’t let the rain get the best of me. On the contrary, I thought this was a great opportunity for me to experience what most people who visit Angkor don’t get to experience – see and photograph Angkor Wat at Night. Everybody was gone. The two ladies who were still there were on a mission of their own. I didn’t mess with their business, so they didn’t mess with mine. So as the rain kept pouring down and night engulfed the temple, I had an opportunity to become the king of Angkor Wat. I explored it all over again, enjoying the environment without hassle of touts and obstruction of thousands of tourists. Without planning it, or even considering it in any way, I happen upon an experience which I haven’t even thought of taking on.
There isn’t much to Angkor Wat at night, though the fact that you can stand in the middle of the causeway and take a picture with not a single person on it was remarkable. This is nigh impossible these days as thousands visit Angkor Wat every day. What I found interesting was that none of the vendors locked any of their merchandise up. It would be highly impractical to take all the merchandise with them every evening, only to haul it back every morning so they leave it all there. The stalls are sheltered by thatched roofs and before leaving, the vendors cover them up with large sheets of fabric but somehow the understanding that this stuff is not to be touched when the owner is not around remains deeply embedded in people’s minds and they don’t take it lightly. It could be because unlike with most other temples, these stalls were within the walls of Angkor Wat and Cambodians seem to become different people when they walk on a holy ground (except from the rapists, who use it to their advantage and there are more than too many of them in Cambodia). I noticed that when I first visited the Preah Prom Rath Pagoda in Siem Reap. Tuk Tuk drivers would be harassing me relentlessly no matter where in Siem Reap I was, but as soon as I walked within the pagoda, even though Tuk Tuk drivers were there, they all left me alone. Hypocrisy of the highest caliber as they’re nothing like what they are in a temple, when they are outside, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Photos of Angkor Wat Illuminated at Night
Even though I did stay at Angkor Wat at night, I didn’t get a chance to take any photos of the temple illuminated with external lights. I’ve seen such pictures on the internet, but I don’t understand how and when they were taken. Angkor Wat was not illuminated when I stayed there at night but most of all – I have not seen any light fixture anywhere around it and this area has (purposefully) no electricity. I simply don’t have an answer as to how these pictures could have been taken. Perhaps portable lights and power generators are used on some occasions (New Year?) to illuminate the temple, but at the time of my visit, it didn’t seem like any form of illumination existed. Besides – all visitors are expected to be the hell out of Angkor by 6pm anyway, which is when it starts getting dark – so installation of light fixture would make no sense as there would be no tourists to see the temples illuminated against the nightly skies. And since I never enquired with anyone who might know how and when the pictures of Angkor Wat illuminated at night were taken, I still don’t have an answer to that.
After getting properly drenched with rain (it actually felt better than being drenched with sweat, which was the case of most of the day prior to coming to Angkor Wat) and snapping a few pictures of Angkor Wat at Night, I walked out of the temple, mounted my bike and rode through the rain to Siem Reap. I could not wait to meet with Ha again and tell her all about some kids trying to steal my bike earlier. Needless to say, my decision to stay at Angkor Wat for the night meant that I missed the English language lecture at Preah Prom Rath temple, but that was OK for a day. And what a day it was.
Visiting Angkor Wat was a big item on my Bucket List so I was glad that after more than a week of being in Cambodia but being unable to go see the ancient temples due to daily downpours, the weather improved and I got a stretch of several consecutive days of sunshine. It was getting kind of weird because I continued to teach English at the Preah Prom Rath Temple every day and my students kept asking me the same thing they ask every foreigner (Cambodian way to start a conversation to eventually swerve it into an attempt to make money off you) – “how do you like Angkor Temples?” I could only answer by saying: “I don’t know, I haven’t been to Angkor yet.” And everybody would stare at me with gaping mouth cause it seemed like I’ve already been there for ages. I assured everyone that it is my foremost interest to do a thorough exploration of the Archeological Park, but I wanted it to be a memorable experience so I patiently waited bad weather out.
Then the day the weather improved I met Ha so on my first hot and sunny day in Cambodia, I just looked around realizing that this was to be my opportunity to see Angkor at last, but instead I’m spending my time with a girl I met in a bar the night before. That didn’t bother me one bit, though. Angkor temples have been there for centuries. I knew they wouldn’t run away and as I kept getting to know Ha a little better, I was truly glad I got to spend some quality time with her. Then I got to meet her daughter and everything inside of me changed.
I still wanted to pursue my dream of visiting Angkor Wat at the earliest suitable time but above all else, I had to keep my wits with me and never take anything for granted. I mean – there was not a slightest sign of lie in Ha’s eyes or voice, but she was still a girl I just met in a bar. I can read people really well, but I never place all my bets on one card. After a nice day spent together with Ha and her daughter, a day I would have made my first day at Angkor had I not met her, I told her that the following day and each day thereafter, if the weather was nice, I would leave early in the morning and head on my bicycle for Angkor. There would be no knowing when I would come back, and I still wanted to continue with my English classes in the evening, but come nightfall, I’d definitely be already kicking around Siem Reap so if she was up for that, we could hang out together then. My thinking was – if we are meant to meet again, we will so there was no reason to put Angkor off any longer.
After my first day at Angkor, I went to check if Ha was at the Temple Club but didn’t see her there so I left only to be halted by her friend (aka another prostitute on a lookout for a customer) who noticed me at the very last moment and sent Ha after me. This was the only night after the night I met Ha when she tried her luck as a prostitute in a bar. It didn’t work out, nobody picked her up so she went with me and told me that the following day, even if it’s nice again and I end up going to Angkor again, she would just come straight to my room to spend the night with me instead of trying for any more customers in a bar.
I was plain and simple the worst type of guy she could have ended up going with on her first night out as a prostitute. She didn’t want to sell her body, but needed money for her daughter and this was her only option. The feelings of not really wanting to do that were suppressed by the necessity to provide for her child. But then I came along and not only re-ignited those feelings, I made them so much stronger she could no longer suppress them. This was the end of her “career” as a prostitute. With that however, I unwittingly took upon myself the responsibility to provide for both of them. I was on a budget to begin with, but I could see that every penny spent on food for those two girls was money I could not have spent any better.
I gave Ha a little bit of money each day so she could buy the most necessary groceries to keep them from starving while I was gone and when I was around and went to visit Ha’s daughter, I always bought her some sweets and treats. The joy in that little girl’s eyes made the money spent so worth it. But the more time I spent with them, the more I learned about what they have and are going through and it kept bothering me beyond belief. Ha and her daughter were betrayed by the whole world. They could not stay in their homeland of Vietnam because little girl’s wealthy father had his men after them and out there in the foreign lands there was just no reasonable way for them to make any money. What chance for a normal life does anybody like them have?
While most locally run Cambodian businesses are not very customer friendly, there were exceptions worth doing business with. One of them was a local Cambodian restaurant on the east bank of the Siem Reap river, a block north of the independence bridge (about three houses back). The restaurant was clearly not targeting tourists as it was not on any popular tourist path and it didn’t even have an English name. None of the staff spoke any English, but where there is will, there is way to communicate.
Even though this restaurant was locally owned and run, it did not support discrimination and the same rates applied along the full spectrum of customers, regardless of their color of skin. Menu had items listed in Khmer language with some English translations to the right of it. Those translations seemed to have been put together by consulting a dictionary, instead of an English speaking person and had to be taken with a grain of salt, but gave reasonably clear idea as to the dish. There were occasional surprises, though:
Several items in the menu were translated into English as “Chicken and Vegetables” however what it ended up being was chicken stomachs with vegetables. Similarly, there would be a column of five dishes each with different Khmer name, but English translation for each of them was the same. The very first meal I ordered had its name listed in English as “Fried Egg with Tuna”. This was pretty close to what I got, except that the fish that came within this uniquely looking and tasting omelette was not tuna. It was some small, fresh water fish. Not a big deal.
The same menus were used by everyone – locals and foreigners alike and the same prices applied to everyone equally. Everyone regardless of their ethnic background also received the same level of service and courtesy, although I could only compare it with myself as I have never seen another foreigner ever dine in that restaurant. Still, despite being a foreigner, I have never been charged extra just because I looked different.
Virtually every meal they had in the menu was listed at mere 7,000 Riels (approximately $1.75) which included unlimited rice and tea (within reason, of course). Best of all, despite being a local restaurant, all customers were provided with safe-for-drinking ice to cool the tea down with. This was great since many locally run eateries use cheaper, industrial ice which is produced in unsanitary conditions using unsafe tap water. For your information – safe ice has smooth, cylindrical shape with hole in the middle of it, whereas unsafe ice is just an irregularly shaped crushed mass.
Food in the restaurant was fantastic. Preparation never took too long and every dish I tried had great taste to it. I also asked the students in my English class to teach me how to request no MSG in my food in Khmer language because no one in the restaurant spoke any English and I wouldn’t be able to continue dining there if they kept adding it to my food. Luckily, the cook had no issue with cooking without MSG for me so I was all set. BTW, it’s easy to remember how to say No MSG in Khmer – it sounds very similar to saying “No BJ” in English. You literally just use the abbreviation of “blowjob” and add “No” before it. If you can memorize “No BJ, no masau soup” they will know exactly what you are asking for and will gladly leave it out of your food.
For a few weeks, this local Cambodian restaurant was my favourite place for eating. It got pretty busy around lunch hour so I tried to avoid going there at noon but outside of breakfast (very early in the morning), lunch and dinner times the place was quiet and enjoyable. Everything was a little too perfect about it. They did not discriminate, food was great and well priced, ice was safe and No MSG requests were complied with. They never tried to overcharge me just because I was a foreigner so I kept supporting the business until the day the owner crossed the line and attempted an overcharge.
It was after a very long time of regularly dining there and never having a problem, when some woman walked in with a tray full of rice cakes. These were small, pinky sized rolls of rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Presence of raisins and some other fruit gave them slightly sweet taste which worked perfectly as an after-meal desert. Because this took place after I had spent more than a month in Cambodia, I could already understand some of the language, especially the numbers, so I overheard her asking for 100 RielS when she was offering the cakes to other customers (other locals who were also dining in the restaurant).
After having offered her rice cakes to everybody else, the woman eventually came to me. I had just finished my meal and the owner of the restaurant was by my table as I was paying for my food. Realizing that the woman didn’t speak any English, I made a hand sign with the money I was still holding in my hand for her to show me how much per cake. At that point the owner of the restaurant who was still by my table and felt compelled to “help” me understand the price took the receipt and wrote “200” on it.
I ended up buying that one cake for 200 Riel but felt like this was a major breach of trust. Needless to say, it was the last time I dined in the restaurant. He was always fair with me before so it was really disappointing to reach the point at which he would try to rip me off because I was a foreigner. Was the desire to earn easy 100 Riels by overcharging a foreigner really worth losing a loyal customer?
Siem Reap is the main tourist hub of Cambodia. Vast majority of foreigners who visit the country go there to see the ancient temples of Angkor and Siem Reap is where they stay and spend most of their time while they’re at it. Since violent crime in Cambodia can be a serious issue, it is perfectly legitimate to be concerned about personal safety while staying in town. Is Siem Reap safe for visitors or not? Let’s take a look at it:
It is understandable that Siem Reap is a major cash cow for the government of Cambodia. It starts with the purchase of the visa most foreigners who just wish to visit the Angkor Archaeological Park need to buy, takes a whole new level with payment of Angkor entrance fees and continues through fees (and bribes) paid by tuk tuk drivers, guides, tour operators and other “service” providers for the privilege to conduct business in this lucrative area.
With Angkor being such a massive money maker, Cambodian government certainly has the foremost interest to ensure nothing too newsworthy (like hostage taking and murder of a 3 year old Canadian boy in 2005) happens to a foreigner during their stay in Siem Reap. Increased police presence is the result. Luckily for visitors, the police stationed to patrol Siem Reap, including the tourist police the primary purpose of which is to assist foreigners in need of law enforcement, occasionally do what they are paid for. There have even been some cases of businesses being shut down and their owners/operators fined after foreigners complained because they were scammed (scamming happens more often than gets reported, but some foreigners do go through the hassle of reporting it and in some cases in delivered results).
This increased police presence throughout Siem Reap and Angkor area makes the whole Siem Reap province less dangerous than other Cambodian provinces. Rape is a serious problem all over Cambodia and I got to talk to many girls about it (victims who will never see justice being served) and found out that rape truly is less of a problem in the Siem Reap province than it is elsewhere in Cambodia. This allows the girls from Siem Reap to attend evening school classes and go home after dark without male escort.
Things are not as rosy in other Cambodian provinces where dusk brings the end to activities outside of the safety of people’s homes. However sometimes even your own four walls won’t protect you from sexual predators so groups of women who live together always have a male member of the family stay in a nearby house and available on the phone for those many days when someone is trying to break into their house for the score.
Heavy police presence throughout Siem Reap results in less dangerous environment not only for foreigners, but also for locals. Things do get sketchy after dark, though. When the sun goes down, the streets of Siem Reap get emptied out, except from the areas around Pub Street where most foreigners spend their evenings. The police patrol both ends of Pub Street with their bikes blocking entrances off to prevent vehicle access to the street that comes much alive at night.
Because this is where vast majority of foreigners visiting Cambodia spend most of their time, they come and go unharmed, believing that Cambodia is a safe country. Make no mistake, though – Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can be considered a safe country, but Siem Reap, despite not being entirely safe presents few dangers to an average visitor.
One good way to look at how dangerous Siem Reap really is would be by comparing it to Luang Prabang in neighbouring Laos. Luang Prabang is also a heavily touristed place, overrun with foreigners on any given day, with virtually every house on each of the downtown streets being either a guesthouse, a restaurant or some form of an office providing overpriced, pre-packaged tours. Yet even though it’s so heavily touristed, you won’t see any increased police presence there. Tourists wander the streets of Luang Prabang safely in the middle of the night, single woman walking down empty streets long after sunset, yet you won’t get any locals staring you down or throwing verbal remarks your way like it is in Siem Reap. Yet while you’re in Luang Prabang, there would be absolutely no police anywhere in vicinity.
I spent one week in Luang Prabang, exploring it back and forth, starting on some days at 5.30am and staying up on others until well after midnight. While thoroughly enjoying the street life of Luang Prabang on my own, I have not seen one police officer there. If you think about it, the government would only consider stationing more police officers in an area if locals pose a significant threat to the safety of foreigners who flock there with their hard currency. Since Lao people appreciate and value foreigners for who they are and what they mean to their economy, there is little need to police their actions. Draw your own conclusion about why Cambodian government spends extra money to have extra police in Siem Reap.
I continued attending my English class at Wat Preah Prom Rath, but I missed a few lectures while I was at Angkor. This one time when I did make it back before 5pm, a student came to talk to me after the class and said the his friend’s sister was in a hospital after she nearly killed herself in a suicide attempt. He said the girl swallowed an excessive amount of pills and ended up in an emergency care of the Siem Reap Referral Hospital where she’s recovering.
I knew where Siem Reap Referral Hospital was as I passed by it many times, but I had never actually been inside. I don’t even know why said student would come to tell me about the suicidal girl but I asked him if he could take me to her so I could speak with her and make her feel better about herself so she doesn’t try to take her life again. He said the girl was from a remote village in north-west Cambodia and couldn’t speak any English so there would be no talking to her. He could try to translate but he wasn’t sure how that would go about.
There Was Once a Girl…
The girl and her sister came to Siem Reap a few weeks prior. The village where they came from was very remote and the life in it existed without money. People grew what they needed to eat and used what nature provided to create tools and shelter. The life in the village was simple, but for the most part fairly self sustainable and unless some significant event crossed the path of any of the villagers, they would live and die without ever leaving the place.
The first time either of the girls saw a foreigner was when they came to Siem Reap. Their village was nowhere near any popular tourist route and there was nothing worthy of mention anywhere in the area so their lives consisted exclusively of farming. Had it not been for their father’s illness, they would have never left the village and would have dedicated their lives to the village life like everybody else who lives there. But they were not meant to.
Under normal circumstances, none of the villagers ever worry about money. All they need to worry about is to make sure they have enough rice and live stock to feed themselves with throughout the year and that’s about that. But when girls’ father fell ill, this all has changed and all of a sudden there was an unexpected need for money. So the girls packed up and left for Siem Reap the buzz about which has reached the ears of the villagers.
Because Siem Reap welcomes millions of tourists year after year (and growing), Cambodians associate it with a gold mine. Trouble was, that our two sisters did not speak English or any other foreign language to take advantage of town’s growing popularity and had to settle with non tourism related jobs which don’t usually land as much cash. Both girls started working for an ice factory (like Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury).
They weren’t making much money, but there was at least something left over so they could send it home to support their weak dad. But then something happened and one of the sisters attempted suicide. After just a few months in Siem Reap she tried to kill herself. The world of money sure changes people and enslaves them to the point of no return.
I don’t know why exactly the girl tried to kill herself. She never actually told the truth. I asked, but her response implied that she didn’t want anyone to know. She simply said that she attempted suicide because of family problems. That made little sense though, because in villages where people live together their whole lives, family is the strongest of institutions. People stick together through the fire and the flames because all they have is one another and they know it very well.
It was not my goal to stick my nose into what was none of my business. Whatever the real reason behind attempted suicide, I just wanted to make her feel better at least for that short moment while I was there. I knew that because of where she came from and where she worked in Siem Reap, she never actually had a foreigner talk to her. So, having a foreigner come visit her in a hospital definitely made an impact and I also brought her a small toy to try to put a smile on her face and despite severe stomach pains caused by the pills still in her system, it worked.
Siem Reap Referral Hospital
This was my first time in the Siem Reap Referral Hospital which is not particularly a high class establishment. The bunk beds are cramped together in dark hallways so rooms can be available for operations. While I was there, I saw several badly injured people brought in. Those were the victims of traffic accidents which there are never too few of in Cambodia.
But the most devastating experience was to watch a young man carried in by his brothers. He was in excruciating pain and twitched on bed as if he was being skinned alive. Expression of pain on his face left little out for guessing. I think he was suffering from kidney stones as there are few things that can cause this much pain. The response from a doctor on duty was nowhere near what I would call timely given the suffering this man was going through, but this likely goes with the venue. There are better health facilities with more professional and prompt medical care, but not everybody can afford it. Those who can’t are left with what’s attainable by their means and whether inadequate or not, Siem Reap Referral Hospital is definitely better than nothing at all.
Back to our suicidal girl – I asked a doctor if I could bring my fan to make the hospital stay more bearable for my friend. It just so happened that she tried to kill herself when Siem Reap was hit with a heat wave so wherever you went, if there was no air-conditioning, it would be unbearably hot inside. Siem Reap Referral Hospital is not only not air-conditioned, there are no fans there either.
The hospital was so hot inside, mere sitting there was making people nauseous so when I imagined that there was a girl who suffered from severe stomach cramps that forced her into vomiting every few minutes, I instantly knew she needed a fan to pull through. I wanted to bring my own, but the doc said “No” and there was no changing his mind. I had to go with it, though. I don’t know whether care provided by the Siem Reap Referral Hospital is paid or free, but either way it is available to people with little or no money so they don’t have the resources to cover for the electricity my fan would burn.
Later on, there was a whole groups of people who came to see the suicidal girl. It almost seemed as a solid way to receive compassion and make new friends. We spent a little time with the girl but eventually everybody had to go as it was getting late at night. I was in a group of the last people to leave but the girl wasn’t going to spend the night alone. Her sister was staying by her side so we wished her courage and strength and left. I’ve never seen the suicidal girl again, but that was not the case with her sister.
Brief video of the encounter with the suicidal girl is below:
Supporting local economy by buying from small local businesses is definitely a good thing and is both rewarding and empowering. I always follow this golden rule to the last letter and strongly encourage all travelers to support local businesses any way they can but as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, unless Cambodia puts an end to open discrimination their society is riddled with, I will maintain that supporting local Cambodian businesses is equivalent to promoting racism.
Unless you pop in a business that’s part of a nationwide chain, you are unlikely to see any prices posted visibly next to the items they apply to. There is a very good reason for that. Prices are not clearly displayed to allow for racial profiling which results in business owners applying different prices to different ethnic groups.
This type of racial profiling is not practised in any of the neighboring countries but then again, most businesses in the neighboring countries try to establish themselves by offering quality product and/or service whereas most Cambodian businesses specialize in ripping the customer off at any cost the first time they come to buy something.
Not all Cambodian businesses are like that, though. Visitors to Cambodia have an option to do business with non discriminatory companies and support good business practices, instead of scam and racism. Examples of good businesses to shop with in Siem Reap are Lucky Mall, Angkor Market or Angkor Trade Centre. In these businesses, prices are clearly marked and visibly posted and apply equally to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.
Aside from wider selection of items, these businesses also offer better pricing on most items however when it comes to fresh produce, you will always end up paying more when buying it from any of the non discriminatory businesses. Going to a local market and haggling for a price with a vendor there will land you a significantly better price. For example an average price for a water melon (an excellent source of energy and hydration in this heat) in Lucky Mall is $1.05 – $1.50 whereas the price for the same in Center Market or Old Market would only be 2,000 to 3,000 Riel (equivalent to roughly $.50 to $.75) or somewhere in that neighborhood. However in my mind, I will gladly pay a premium for the privilege of being treated equally than to be subjected to racial discrimination even if it saves me some money.
Unfortunately, you will also get local Cambodians shopping at these malls and Cambodians believe lines don’t apply to them. If you go shopping during a busier time of day, you may have a few people at every open cash register, so you just step in line and wait your turn. Other foreigners will step in line behind you or behind whoever the last person in the line where they want to wait their turn is, but when a Cambodian comes, they will simply step in the personal space before you and start rudely piling their stuff on the counter, completely ignoring everyone who have been politely waiting in that line for their turn. Cambodians are naturally rude and disrespectful so this type of behavior is normal.
By supporting local businesses in Cambodia, you will be directly supporting racism and discrimination. Small local businesses are an essential part of local economies, but if Cambodians care about their local economies, the change must start with them. I would never pass by the business that displays their prices visibly and gives me room to look at their merchandise without pressuring me into buying something from them. The formula is simple – you either leave me alone so I can carefully evaluate what I want to buy, or I’m not buying anything from you at all. I continuously need stuff to sustain my travels yet no business that tried to pressure me ever succeeded in making me to buy from them. I always go where I feel comfortable and am granted with space to breathe and time to decide.
Cambodians like to whine that business is slow, yet they don’t try to address the reason behind it. Nobody likes to be discriminated against and treated like crap. Many foreigners who come to Cambodia end up spending less money that they would if they were not constantly under pressure from aggressive touts. They go to local markets, but end up just passing from one stall to another, avoiding eye contact with the shop people just so they don’t have to put up with that constant pressure. As a result, they end up buying nothing because no business would leave them alone to decide what they could buy in peace.
Refusing to do business with businesses that don’t treat customers with respect is the best service you as a foreigner can offer to the local communities. When businesses realize that they are ripping themselves off by being rude, travellers will stay longer and will spend more money. It’s time for sustainable solutions, not short term, shady business practices. Help make the world a better place and do not support local Cambodian businesses that base their business model on racism and mistreatment. Criticism from faux-supporters who support this deadlock situation is superficial and unsustainable. Make the right choices that will promote the real change. It will help to make Cambodia a better and safer country, which right now it is not.
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