Present for Ha’s Daughter

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:

  • No matter where in Siem Reap I go, I’d get ripped off
  • 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:

Sras Srang

Sras Srang is a man made, rectangular shaped water reservoir located just across the road from the Banteay Kdei temple. Many water reservoirs were integrated into the designs of ancient cities of Angkor but nowadays, most are dried out. Sras Srang is one of the few still holding water which lead to speculations that it may have been a natural lake prior to its transformation.

Photo: Sras Srang Water Reservoir at Angkor, Cambodia
Photo: Sras Srang Water Reservoir at Angkor, Cambodia

Built during the reign of Rajendravarman II, Sras Srang was designed by the Buddhist scholar Kavindrarimathana whose name is the only name of an Angkorian era architect that survived and is known to us today. In Khmer language, Sras Srang translates into “royal bathing pool” which, given the size of Sras Srang was quite the pool. Being 350 meters wide and 700 meters long, it takes 30 minutes of brisk walk to just go around it.

It is quite possible that the original access route to Sras Srang was via Prasat Bat Chum, which would explain its inscription which requests the elephant owner to prevent their animals from trampling the dikes and polluting the water. Later date construction of Banteay Kdei has moved the access point to the lake’s west bank.

Photo: Sras Srang Before Dawn
Photo: Sras Srang Before Dawn

There is a small, artificial island right in the middle of Sras Srang. It is believed that it once housed a small temple, but that has since been washed away. The western side of Sras Srang, the one immediately accessible from the road one which you will ride to access the lake contains a decorated, laterite landing stage for boats. This was added during the reign of king Jayavarman VII two centuries later. King Jayavarman VII is also believed to have ordered the sandstone facing of the dykes which also resulted in shortening of the original (larger) lake into its current size.

Photo: Sras Srang Boat Platform with Stone Lions and Naga Balustrades
Photo: Sras Srang Boat Platform with Stone Lions and Naga Balustrades

Landing stage on the western dyke is decorated with naga balustrades and guardian lions flanking both sides of the stairs. These decoration are rather damaged with parts of them missing making for a lack of impressiveness upon an initial visit to the reservoir. As a result, most visitors don’t spend more than a few minutes at the lake.

Photo: Boat Platform Steps of Sras Srang Flanked by Stone Lions
Photo: Boat Platform Steps of Sras Srang Flanked by Stone Lions

It is quite likely that Sras Srang was originally flooded all the way to the edge but nowadays the water barely reaches half way. Still, considering that many other Angkorian era barays (water reservoirs) are dry now, Sras Srang is doing pretty well.

I spent much of my time in Cambodia involved with the village on the south bank of the lake and found the abuse of it alarming. Villagers have been using Sras Srang the same way other bodies of water in Cambodia are used – as a general dump site into which they piss and shit. It is also where people bathe using non bio-degradable soaps and wash their clothes in using non bio-degradable washing powders. Thanks to its great size, Sras Srang still looks like a large lake, rather than a large septic tank, but how long before the scales are tipped?

Photo: Villagers Bathing in Sras Srang at Dusk
Photo: Villagers Bathing in Sras Srang at Dusk

Environment doesn’t seem to be on the radar of anyone in Cambodia. It’s usually only through funding provided by some foreign organizations if any part of the natural treasures gets non destructive treatment. For months I had tried to explain the villagers that it should be their foremost interest to protect Sras Srang as it’s their lake, the lake by which they live but it all seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.

Photo: Sras Srang View from the Village - Not Many Tourists Get to See it From This Perspective
Photo: Sras Srang View from the Village - Not Many Tourists Get to See it From This Perspective

I was told that their predecessors used to bath and wash their clothes in the lake for centuries yet the lake is still there, so why should they start getting concerned about it and change their behaviour now. What they don’t realize, though is that their predecessors probably used some organic compounds (coconut extract or who knows what?) as washing fluid, not any of those cheap, chemically produced non bio-degradable powders the villagers use today. No matter how hard I tried, it has not stopped anyone from abusing their own lake or taking any kind of measure to prevent an unavoidable bad ending to it.

Photo: View of Sras Srang from the West Bank with Sky Reflection on the Surface
Photo: View of Sras Srang from the West Bank with Sky Reflection on the Surface

Sras Srang is still there today and it’s still flooded. Thanks to its size, the lake offers quite a buffer zone so it may be able to take a lot more abuse before it’s irreversible destruction is complete. It’s just sad that none of the villagers showed any form of interest in protecting their own front yard. Perhaps when the lake quits on them they will realize what they had done but by that time it will already be too late.

Making Friends with Villagers

Banteay Kdei was the first bigger temple I stopped at during my second day at Angkor but I was already heat-exhausted. Previous two stops at Prasat Kravan and Bat Chum were very brief and Banteay Kdei itself was much smaller than Angkor Wat or Bayon I visited the day prior so there was no real reason to feel tired but the intensity of Cambodian sun is not to be taken lightly. Sweat was oozing out of every pore on my skin turning the clothes I was wearing into a mush of grease.

If I were to continue riding bicycle and exploring more temples in this heat, I needed a break to recharge. I really needed a gush of cooling breeze but since that doesn’t exist at Angkor, I had to make do with the shade of a large tree. And once I got my breath back and stopped dripping like a broken faucet, I was gonna buy a coconut. Or two.

Like all other bigger temples of Angkor, Banteay Kdei is also overrun with aggressive, in-your-face touts and pestering children who won’t leave your side. As if dealing with scorching heat was not enough of a challenge already, you are also forced to battle off these relentless hustlers. There is no escaping them. You’ll waste a lot of energy shaking one off and just as you’re ready to breathe the fresh air having gotten yourself rid of it, a new half a dozen jump down your back and you’re back to ground zero.

The entire Angkor experience is greatly bastardized by touts who won’t leave you alone for one second. You can’t stop for a moment to take a picture cause it will give them time to encircle you so you have no way to escape their clutch. You can’t take a look to the left or to the right cause there will be a groups of them there who will instantly take advantage of an eye contact you have made and will treat it as an invitation to hustle you into buying worthless junk from them.

As I was exploring Banteay Kdei, I could not wait to get out of the temple grounds cause there were just too many touts inside and they were just too aggressive. I walked hastily towards the exit hoping to find salvation behind that giant gate with four smiling faces on top. But as soon as I made it through, I was jumped by a whole host of fresh touts who were awaiting just outside. Imagine the level of frustration this puts you through.

It was like: “You got to be kidding me! You are trying to sell me the same junk the touts inside had. If I had any intention to buy any of it, I would have bought it from the touts who harassed me inside. Hack, I could have bought it from the dozens of those at Prasat Kravan where I was earlier. Better yet, I could have bought it from the thousands of them super aggressive pests I had to deal with the day prior while I was at the most famous of all temples.”

Don’t these people get it? Everyone inside was bothering me with the same pirated books. What makes them think I would have gone through great lengths to not buy any from the touts inside only to change my mind now that I stepped outside? Regardless, they got right in my face and started with their mental torture, bashing at me from every angle I could turn to. It was absolutely horrible which only added to an overall feeling of being entirely heat-exhausted.

Photo: Would You Like To Buy a Book?
Photo: Would You Like To Buy a Book?

Abused or not, I could not go on. I needed a break, a coconut and a new bottle of water to take with me. I asked the girls if it was possible to hide in a shade of that large tree to the side of the entrance, where they all had plastic chairs full of extra pirated books just in case they’re having a good day and start running out.

Pausing right in the middle of the viper’s nest came with its repercussions – obviously. While it’s normally only about half a dozen of touts you have on your back at any given time, by pausing within their operation ground I had a whole host of them outscreaming one another in desperate attempts to trick me into buying something from them. It was beyond ridiculous but I needed a break regardless. I was too sweaty to go on.

The life didn’t stop with me being there, though. It was interesting to see how quickly their focus changes. While they all were on me because I was paused in their territory, when a new tuk tuk pulled in, their attention immediately shifted towards their new prey. And from the shade of the tree, I silently watched those other tourists desperately trying to shake them off, and just shook my head at how it was yielding zero results. I heard them all swearing in disbelief, trying to explain to the touts that they don’t need any of their worthless junk but it was all in vein. Visibly devastated by this ongoing abuse, the foreigners had to take it all in disgust.

Because Angkor touts seem to have territorial agreements between one another, entering a new territory means the end of abuse from one group, and the beginning of abuse from another. So when new tourists I saw coming escaped the grip of the touts operating in front of Banteai Kdei by entering the temple, they exposed themselves to the touts inside and the focus of the touts outside, which got temporarily shifted away from me was once again redirected back to me.

This pattern kept repeating with each new tourist (or a group of tourists) that made a stop at Banteay Kdei. Each time someone new came, they all went running to encircle them and when they walked inside the temple (aka outside their territory), they came back to me as even though I was just resting, I was still a foreigner and that translates to endless attempts to sell me something.

An interesting thing happened, though. After a good while and numerous attempts to make money at me, some of the girls eventually eased up on hustling and started to talk to me like friends. We talked about the country I came from as well as the country I was in, we talked about the way relationships work in Cambodia, about life in the village they were from, as well as a bunch of regular whinery Cambodians seem to be professionals at – how poor they are and how difficult it is for them to survive.

This was interesting because this whinery lands them with a lot of free stuff. The poorer they make themselves look in the eyes of dozens of foreigners they came in touch with every day, the more they get from them in donations and sponsorships. The girls I met had their English classes, their motorcycles, their expensive clothes – so many things paid for by people they abused during the course of their “duty”. They are used to getting handouts so an alternative is not an attractive option for them. The alternative, of course, is to invest time and effort into studying so as to acquire a skill that could land them a job and a career. But that requires hard work, dedication, sacrifice and in the end puts you in a position of having to go to work and deliver results as per your employer’s requirements. Then they would be able to buy their own motorcycle, their own clothes and pay for their own further education. But who can be bothered to do that. It’s much easier to just get in front of the temple and whine about how poor we are and be handed that out for free. So they do precisely that. And foolish foreigners, who have not been lucky enough to have someone pay for their education, go to work every day and dedicate the best days of their lives to earning money in the sweat of their own brow, end up falling for the trick and the handouts keep pouring in. Thus the culture of handouts gets enrooted deeply in the minds of the people who don’t even try to improve their own lives. But let’s get back to me making friends with the villagers.

I was definitely more heat-exhausted than I would have liked to admit so I spend good one and a half hour chatting away with those new found friends. Three of the girls in their early twenties were particularly nice to chat with as they were the only ones operating outside of the temples that were old enough to eventually get the fact that I’m simply just resting before the rest of my journey and am not buying anything other than coconuts and water.

Most of the touts harassing tourists are children deployed by their parents, though. It’s a perfect case of child slavery where parents are the masters. Instead of going to school, children are forced into spending their whole days at the temples to abuse foreigners because it’s easier for a child to pull off fake tears with lies to land some cash. These children are taught basic phrases that are proven to work the best. They often involve open lies, such as that they have no parents and need money for school, none of which is true. The “where are you from?” response to being told “No” is also a common phrase these children are taught.

Other than that, most of these children are too young to understand the foreign language well enough to get it when you’re trying to explain why you can’t buy anything from them. So they will just follow you around while continuously mumbling their memorized chants and you’ll have absolutely nothing to work with to get them off your side.

It was a little better with Saly, Sarein and Sokai (or Kai for short) who were past their twenties and spoke better English. After they’d failed to sell me their books the tenth time and after I’d repeatedly made myself clear about being unable to buy anything from them, they eventually stopped harassing me and only came over for a chat. They took off each time a new tourist showed up, but after the tourists entered other tout’s territory and there was nobody else to harass, they came to me to talk. It’s a long day they have at the temple (they start at dawn, which is often before 6am and “work” until dusk, which is at around 6pm) so killing time while they’re waiting for their next prey with someone new helped them get through the day faster.

This break I took eventually turned out being quite an interesting experience. I made new friends with those three girls and ended up spending almost every day of the rest of my stay in Cambodia with them. Saly and Sarein lived in the village on the south bank of Sras Srang, opposite Bantey Kdei temple, while Kai lived with her mother in the village along the road lining the northern bank. Child slaves never actually stopped bothering me, not even after months of coming there day in, day out, but this was definitely the most authentic Cambodian experience I could have asked for.

Angkor Wat Opening Hours and Visiting Times

When planning a visit to Angkor Wat and other temples and ruins of the Angkor Archaeological Park it is important to know what the opening hours and best visiting times are. There are additional details that I will share with you, details you won’t find in any guide book but can help you make the most of your visit to Angkor.

Angkor Wat Opening Hours Are:

Daily from 5.00am to 6.00pm

These opening hours apply to the main area of Angkor Archaeological Park and include all main and most popular temples, including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Bayon, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King), Thommanom, Ta Keo, Ta Prohm, Bantey Kdei, Sras Srang, Prasat Kravan, Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon, Banteay Samre, Pre Rup, etc.

Photo: Information Panel at the Angkor Ticket Office Contains Opening Times and Entrance Fees Schedule
Photo: Information Panel at the Angkor Ticket Office Contains Opening Times and Entrance Fees Schedule

The opening hours allow you to get to the temples before sunrise and leave after sunset. Because Cambodia is close to the equator, the sun rises at approximately 6.00am and sets at approximately 6.00pm every day. Angkor temples are a little bit off the equator so this time fluctuates slightly, but as a general rule of thumb, you get exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness every day. Visiting hours have been adjusted to accommodate the desire of tourists to catch both sunrise and sunsets over the temples.

Banteay Srey Opening Hours Are:

Daily from 5.00am to 5.00pm

Because Bantey Srey is about one hour by Tuk Tuk from Siem Reap, which is the main tourist hub for vast majority of all visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park, the closing time for Banteay Srey has been adjusted so you can get back to Siem Reap before it gets dark.

Kbal Spean Opening Hours Are:

Daily from 5.00am to 3.00pm

Kbal Spean is considered to be one of the most sacred places by the Khmer people. It is located on the sacred Kulen Hill (Phnom Kulen) and requires 45 minute hike uphill through the forest. Cambodians flock to Phnom Kulen for the Khmer New Year to prey before the statue of huge reclining Buddha and enjoy the swim at the waterfalls. It’s one of the less visited places by foreigners, but one of the most fascinating. Well known to local Khmer population, the unfortunate part about Phnom Kulen is that it will cost you $20 as a foreigner to get there. That fee is way out of proportion to what you would get for paying $20 to get to Angkor Wat area but can be avoided by taking an extra 2 hour hike. Some truly amazing carving in the rock

What Guide Books Don’t Tell You About Visiting Times!

The opening hours are what you SHOULD adhere to as a visitor to Angkor Archaeological Area. If you attempt to enter the area outside of these opening hours, you would be going there while it’s pitch dark outside, but there are no fences to hold you back so you are in fact free to enter.

The opening hours posted above are also the working hours of ticket inspectors on duty who are paid to check that every foreigner who enters the area has a valid ticket. So if you get to the checkpoint outside of the visiting hours, there will be no one asking you to show the ticket, leaving you free to enter at your own will.

That being said, foreigners caught inside any Angkor temple without a valid pass can be fined, whether it’s during opening hours or outside. All of the above simply means that there is virtually nothing to stop you from entering Angkor Archaeological Area after dark (as per opening hours posted earlier).

This also applies to leaving Angkor after opening hours. I spent a lot of time in a Sras Srang village oftentimes leaving late at night during which time if I wanted to, I could wonder into any temple and stay there (temples have been used for centuries as shelters for travelers). I’ve never done that, but it was a possibility. If I was done in a village before 6pm, I’d still have the guards at the checkpoint to give a wave to, but if I left after 6pm, there would be nobody there so even if I were going towards the village (aka towards the temples) I’d be free to enter.

Please note, that I do not encourage anyone to visit Angkor temples illegally and I definitely do not encourage anyone to wonder the forests of Angkor after dark. While this area has been thoroughly demined, there are other danger lurking in the dark than land mines. The above information is simply provided as a fact I know of but nobody else does. But now you all do.