Even though I liked the weather and the mountains surrounding Arequipa, it became clear right away that it’s thus far the most aggressive place of all I’ve visited in Peru, as far as touts are concerned.
Right from the moment I got off the bus, I had dozens of them on my tail, stuffing flyers in my hands, insisting I book a hotel they recommend because all others either don’t exist or are not good for me, trying to get me take the ride downtown with them, or otherwise forcing me to shell out for whatever they said they had to offer.
They were like vultures and the whole bus terminal was inundated with them, so I just smiled and walked steadily out of the terminal and onto the street, where it got a little bit better, but not a whole lot.
The first impression of Arequipa was definitely not the greatest, but somehow in the melee, I managed to pick up a map of the city, so I elected to walk my way toward Plaza de Armas (every Peruvian town/city appears to have the downtown square named Plaza de Armas).
Minibuses were passing me by, but their markings provided little assistance in determining where they were going. I approached one that got stuck in a jam and asked the woman collecting the fare if the bus passed by Plaza de Armas. She unexcitingly barked back at me that I’m on the wrong street for that, but provided no indication about where I’d need to go to catch the right bus.
Moreover, Arequipa has awful reputation regarding the dangers of taking a taxi, with express kidnappings being alarmingly frequent. It seemed from the map that the terminal was on the outskirts of Arequipa, with Plaza de Armas being quite a bit away, but whereas I’m used to walking a lot with my backpack on, and since Arequipa sees very little precipitation, I merrily hit it.
When I had about 3/4 of the way to Plaza de Armas covered, I saw a hotel to my left that seemed reasonably decent while reasonably remote to possibly offer an attractive price for a room, so I thought – what the heck. It doesn’t hurt to ask. I normally go for hostels and leave hotels out as I prefer good price to more comfort, but the location and the state of the building seemed to suggest the possibility of a good deal.
To me, a visit to Krol Romeas evoked similar feelings to those I felt when I first entered the Neak Pean Temple – a positive change from the “same old”. After a while, whether it’s due to immense heat of the Cambodian sun, harassment by relentless touts or whatever other reason, all Angkor temples start to look the same. Many are built in the same way – both architecturally and artistically – bearing the same styles and motifs, but even if you get above all that, they all start to look like crumbling piles of jungle overrun ancient rocks after a while. But then you come to Neak Pean and you see something entirely different and it just feels very uplifting. And if Neak Pean felt positively different, then Krol Romeas does twice as much.
What’s most intriguing about Krol Romeas is that it wasn’t even built as a temple. Neak Pean looks unlike anything else at Angkor, but it’s still a temple. Back in the years of the Angkorian glory only temples – being dwellings of the gods – were built out of stone and as such, they are the only thing that still remain. Dwellings of people, including royalties were built from wood and other perishable materials and have long been claimed by nature – including palaces. Everything that was once a powerful and busy area is now gone, except from the temples which still stand. Yet there is one exception to it – Krol Romeas. As it turns out, Krol Romeas is not a temple.
Because not even Khmer kings had their palaces made from stone, the discovery of Krol Romeas lead many to speculations that it must have been a water reservoir. All that remains of Krol Romeas today is a large circular hole in the ground with thick walls of stone along its circumference. But when the signs of an inner wall were discovered, and the fact that the outer wall is just unreasonably thick for a pond of this size, the notion that Krol Romeas was built to be a Baray (water reservoir) was quickly abandoned. But if it’s not a water reservoir, than what is it?
A different look at this unique monument would have it that Krol Romeas was an elephant corral. Its location just outside of the north gate to Angkor Thom would make it suitable for royalty to mount their mahouts for long journeys through the jungle, yet by being behind the gate, the roaring and smell associated with large keep of wild beast would not bother anyone in the palace. Elephants would be bathed and fed inside of the keep and its level being slightly below the ground would make it easy for the nobles to board the animal.
Needless to say, scientists are not firm as to the real function of Krol Romeas but one thing is for sure – it stands out. Unlike Neak Pean, Krol Romeas has not been restored at all. It is as difficult to find as Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei so virtually nobody ever goes there and since it’s completely overrun with trees, it’s also impossible to step back to take any reasonably looking photo of it which would fit all of the structure within.
The dirt road which leads to Krol Romeas has a slight upward slope and is far less trod down that that leading to Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei making its identification tricky. Since the structure doesn’t stick above ground and trees grow uniformly throughout it in the same density as they do outside of it, any form of guesswork which could imply that there is something up that road is not gonna work. Luckily, being not far from the north gate of Angkor Thom, you don’t have a long section of the road to scout through so if you find a dirt road which diverts from the paved road forming the Grand Circuit of Angkor towards the east, regardless of how little used it may seem and how into the middle of the woods it seems to point, it’s probably the one leading to Krol Romeas. Take it.
Banteay Prei is a small, quiet temple that’s in even more ruin than its nearest neighbor – Prasat Prei. Located a couple hundred meters up the dirt road from Prasat Prei, a visit to Banteay Prei is incidental to finding the dirt road which leads to them both. If you do find it, you will be rewarded with relatively quiet spot that will afford you some peace from hellish Angkor touts and a view of the temple that’s built with strangely small doors.
The structure is in a pretty ruinous state with stones collapsing around the doors, but it’s easy to make out what size the door once was and after a visit to a few Angkor temples before, its size will leave you puzzled. Like its neighbor, Banteay Prei was also built in the 12th century and also by great builder King Jayavarman VII. It features architectural/artistic style and scale similar to Ta Som. The temple has some Buddhist carvings on the lintels and some Apsaras on the corners but overall it’s a small, uncomplicated temple ruin that shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to explore.
To get to Banteay Prei, you just have to try your luck with one of the dirt roads diverting from the Grand Circuit road towards the north. The dirt road is not too far from access road to Preah Khan, only a little bit towards the nearby Neak Pean. Being a Buddhist temple, Banteay Prei was built to face East so if you can visit it before noon, you will have a chance to get nicely illuminated pictures, not crappy once with strong backlight from the sun like I have, cause I got there in the afternoon and the sun was baking.
A visit to the Neak Pean Temple was a refreshing change. This temple is nothing like anything else you’d find at Angkor Archaeological Park and that makes a visit to Neak Pean very uplifting. Even if you’re totally enthusiastic about the largest religious complex in the world and appreciate ancient architecture, the temples eventually all start looking the same because it’s only small differences that set one apart from another. However a visit to Neak Pean breaks this cycle of sameness apart and makes a weary visitor spry again. Though ultra intense sun and relentless touts can take even the most indestructible spark of enthusiasm and throw it right down to the depths of hell. So what makes Neak Pean so special?
Because I wanted to cover the Grand Circuit of Angkor in one day, and have the rest of my 7 day entrance pass to use for more remote temples, the Neak Pean Temple marked the second half of my itinerary. It felt good knowing that by the time I got to Neak Pean, I was half way through my today’s challenge. The bad news was that when I got to Neak Pean, the day was at its hottest.
It is without doubt humanly possible to cover whole Grand Circuit on a bicycle in one day and have enough time to thoroughly explore each visited temple, however being in Cambodia, one needs to take into an account the mighty element that has the power to juice every last bit of energy an individual, regardless how strong and fit, has in them. Sheer exposure to the intense heat and merciless rays of the Cambodian sun can leave a person breathless, but if you try to engage in any kind of physical activity while the sun inexorably debilitates you, you’re in for the world of pain.
Yet it only gets worse. As if the struggle to keep going while the sun is incapacitating your every single cell was not enough, you also get constantly pressured by the relentless Cambodian touts who specialize in wearing tourists out until they end up giving in and buying whatever junk the touts have for sale. The good news is that the Grand Circuit is not as tout heavy as the Petit Circuit, the bad news is that those who do operate on the Grand Circuit are 10 times more aggressive (something you wouldn’t even believe was possible as any of the million and one touts who jump you on the Petit Circuit will have been the worst pests you have ever had to deal with in your life) because they don’t see the same number of tourists the Petit Circuit touts do each day.
Up to this point, the tout infestation situation has not been that bad, which left me with enough energy to battle off the heat but the visit to the Neak Pean Temple marked the beginning of some of the worst pestering nightmares a person can go through – including an attempted bicycle theft at the largest temple on the Grand Circuit. Still, despite immeasurable heat and a half day of temple exploring on a bicycle behind me, I was very enthusiastic when I approached Neak Pean.
Neak Pean, The Temple
The first thing you notice when you come to the Neak Pean Temple is that it doesn’t make you look up, it makes you look down. Normally, every temple you visit would have the most attention grabbing bits built above the ground. Neak Pean has them below and that gives the temple its unusual feel which made me truly appreciate it.
Granted, had East Baray not gone dry, Neak Pean would shy away before the body of water surrounding East Mebon. However, without the water there, East Mebon look just as another temple build in the middle of a large field. East Baray covered too large of an area to have its banks identified by a naked eye without the surface of the water guiding it. Even though built for a completely different purpose, Neak Pean is kind of like a mini East Mebon as it is also a temple built on an artificial island which was erected in the middle of an artificial pond and was back in the day surrounded by water.
Constructed by the great Khmer King Jayavarman VII, Neak Pean was designed to serve the medical purpose and was built to symbolize Anavatapta – the sacred lake in the Himalayas with healing powers – or at least so the scholar speculate. Many houses of healing (hospitals) were built during the reign of Jayavarman VII, but this one stands out. The pond (an inscription suggests it was named Jayatataka) serves as a central water source which distributes water to the four connecting ponds – similar to lake Anavatapta sourcing four great rivers. The rivers were said to issue water through the mouth of a Lion, an Elephant, a Horse and an Ox and so were the connecting ponds believed to represent Water, Earth, Fire and Wind.
What’s even more impressive is that the entire Neak Pean area was originally an island of its own. Like East Baray, the water reservoir of Preah Khan once covered a large area of its own with an artificial island in the middle. The 300 meter square artificial island, housed the 70 meter square main pond, with four 25 meter square adjacent ponds at each of the main pond’s cardinal points. And in the centre of the main pond, King Jayavarman VII had a circular island of 14 meters in diameter built and used it as a base on which to erect what we know today as Neak Pean. The Neak Pean Temple is in other words a temple built on an artificial island which was built on an artificial island.
The pond in the middle of which the Neak Pean Temple is located is now dry, however it sometimes does fill with a bit of water after a heavy rain. My visit to Angkor was during rainy season and I ended up putting the visit off for over a week because it rained every day, however after three days without rain, there was not a drop of water to be seen anywhere in the main or surrounding four ponds. If you can time your visit to Neak Pean to be after the rain, you will get a chance to take pictures which look much better than mine. Not only does the ancient stone gain richer hues after rain, the little pool that builds up at the base of the pond will reflect the tower of the central temple offering superior photo opportunities.
If you do like I did and take the Grand Circuit of Angkor in the counter-clockwise direction, you’ll get to Prasat Ta Som after visiting Pre Rup and East Mebon temples respectively. And if you start roughly at the same time as I did and do a thorough exploration of each ruin you pay a visit to, by the time you get to Ta Som the noon hour will be upon you and you’ll be sweating out of every pore on your body, including those you didn’t think contained any sweat glands. I provided myself with self propelled transportation, so when I reached Ta Som, I was ready to throw the clothes I was wearing in a garbage bin. Even my underwear was drenched in sweat to a point of drip marking my every step.
Ta Som Temple was built at the end of the 12th century by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII (the great builder king who also built Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Bayon, among others), which makes it one of the younger temples on the Grand Circuit. Because of its location (it is the most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, meaning that it is furthest away from other temples than any other ancient temple in the main area of Angkor) and great state of ruin, it doesn’t attract very many visitors. Being a single tier temple, Ta Som doesn’t have any stairways to climb making for a less challenging exploration however because of almost completely collapsed rooftops, the temple offers no real places to hide so a visitor gets pretty heavy beating by the merciless Cambodian sun rays.
There are three sets of walls surrounding the central sanctuary which in itself doesn’t look like much due to lacking restoration funds, however there are some well preserved carvings to be seen. Ta Som was one of the last bigger temples in Angkor Archaeological Park to be added to the World Monuments Fund (WMF) restoration program but the work so far has mostly only consisted of securing the structures to remove an immediate threat of collapse while visitors are around.
As is the case with many other Angkorian temples, centuries of neglect resulted in jungle overgrowth with huge fig and silk trees growing on top of the collapsing stone walls. The presence of the trees as well as an architectonic style of the temple which is similar to that of her more famous sibling has earned the temple a name of Mini Ta Prohm. Entrance gopuras in the outer enclosure are crowned with four faces similar to those found in Bayon. The main entrance gate used by everyone who visits Ta Som looked much like the South Gate of Angkor Thom, only smaller and more crumbled up. The state of Ta Som’s collapse seems to get worse with each enclosure you step within. Since outer gate still stands in a pretty decent shape, it is patrolled by aggressive child touts who wait in its shade for a sun beat tourist to walk right into their arms like a fly into a jar of honey.
Stone causeway which once served as a bridge over a moat is located inside the outer enclosure, rather than outside of it which implies that the outer wall was a later date addition to the temple. The causeway is decorated on both sides with serpents and Garudas, however they are broken into pieces and miss large parts which is the price the temples paid after greedy locals discovered that they could loot the temples and sell their ancient art for personal profit. What’s truly amazing is that despite looting and decay through neglect and time, many carvings and reliefs throughout Ta Som are in a remarkably good shape and are remarkably well carved for a late 12th century temple. These fine carvings of Apsaras and Devatas more than make up for a disappointing sight offered by a largely collapsed central sanctuary.
That Pre Rup gets no attention from visitors to Angkor Archaeological Park was evident right away from the fact that there were no actively operating touts. I found it strangely intriguing since Pre Rup is much larger and offers much more to see than many other temple ruins along the Grand Circuit, yet many of those other temples had stalls with souvenirs sold by the locals set up at their entrance gates – signifying that there must be traffic worthy of the effort going through this gate – but not at Pre Rup – again, signifying that the hassle of setting up the stalls and spending whole day there would not pay for itself as the temple simply did not attract any visitors. Worked for me – the less “competition” I have in form of other tourists getting in the view of my camera and the more peace I get in lack of pestering kids who aggressively follow you around and talk till your head explodes, the happier I am. Handling the breezeless heat of the sun at Angkor is difficult enough on its own so any chance to battle it without extra difficulties is an uplifting bonus…
The Only Pre Rup Tout
Still, when I reached Pre Rup, I was not alone. Little boy looking after his family’s water buffalo feeding off of a grassy plane surrounding Pre Rup became my company and even though all he could speak in English were two words, he instantly put them to use as soon as I made myself reachable: “One Dolla!” said the boy as his beaming big eyes twinkled with joy staring once at his stretched out palm and once at me. Since I took pictures of his water buffalo, he made me feel obliged to give him that dollar and kept following me around with his hand beg-stretched until I shelled out. That wasn’t necessarily a good idea as he felt encouraged and kept insisting on more. Giving a Cambodian a finger is a sure fire way to entice them into going after whole hand.
It was early morning yet and I had just started the day with Pre Rup as my first temple ahead of a whole slew of them scheduled to visit that day, but as was shown to me again – there is no supply of energy that can stand up to the power of the sun in Cambodia. I was dripping with sweat, whatever layer of sun block I had applied had long been washed away, my fabric hat looked like a rug pulled out of a sewage drain yet the day has just begun. Midday heat was still hours away so when I realized that the insanity I’m experiencing right now is in fact a mild morning, I instantly knew I was gonna have to grab at every opportunity to buy a coconut and a fresh bottle of water I would come across, if I were to make it. Plus of course there was this realization that I’m heat beat already and I didn’t even have to waste energy on battles with the touts. I did not look forward to what it was going to be like when the heat of the day reaches its peak and hoards of them vultures descend upon me to suck out every bit of life juice I may still have within. And with that, my money – of course.
Why Is Pre Rup So Rarely Visited?
While I was walking among the walls of Pre Rup, absorbing the heat these giant piles of stone radiate, I noticed several foreigners passing by in tuk tuks. Perhaps the demise of Pre Rup lays in the fact that the Grand Circuit road goes right by it and you only spot it in the last moment – especially if you’re in a tuk tuk or a taxi. Riding a bicycle comes with a major disadvantage of not being able to catch any breeze between the temples to have the sweat washed away, but since you move around slowly and don’t have to ask anyone to stop when you see something – not knowing yet whether it’s worth a stop or not – you get to see things people in tuk tuks don’t get to see. Pre Rup temple is one of them.
I can imagine the vast majority of tourists who passed by Pre Rup on a tuk tuk didn’t even notice it was there. They were too worn out from previous temples and were glad they were moving at a decent speed to catch some breeze to pay attention to some random pile of rocks alongside the road. And those who did notice the ruins were just too exhausted from the heat to even ask the tuk tuk driver what the heck it was they just passed by so they simply assumed it was nothing worthwhile and continued on until the tuk tuk driver stopped again. Don’t forget that Cambodia runs vastly on a commission based trade system. Tuk tuk drivers will not take you anywhere out of their own initiative unless there is a kick back in it for them. Regardless of how they present themselves to you, Cambodians never act helpful to help YOU – they are only interested in helping themselves. If what it takes is for them to paint with honey over your face, they will do it. If you can’t read between the lines (most people can’t), you will think Cambodians are the nicest, the most helpful people in the whole wild universe, even though behind your back, without you realizing, they are screwing you right in the arse with no lube.
Pre Rup Temple Mountain
Pre Rup is believed to be the last temple-mountain constructed by the Angkorian civilization. Nearby East Mebon was constructed following the same temple-mountain style but was built a few years prior. The construction works on Pre Rup temple commenced during the rule of Khmer king Rajendravarman II in 961 – after the capital city returned back to Angkor following its temporary move to Koh Ker between 921 and 944.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why Cambodians refer to Pre Rup as being a funerary temple given that none of the historical records suggest it being the case. The temple is known by its current name because that’s what modern day Cambodians call it as in their language it means “to turn the body”, which was a rite used during cremation.
Pre Rup is in a great state of ruin. Gopuras (entrance gates) can be found on each side of the outer enclosure, but it’s the best to take the one which has a dirt road leading to it from the main road. There isn’t much left of the gopura, however a guardian lion similar to those found at Bayon still stands at the crumbling stairway.
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.
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.
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 Neak Leang
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.
While I was chatting it away at Banteay Kdei temple as part of my break from the sun, something happened that made me break my #1 rule of not supporting the culture of handouts. Saly, Sarein and Kai kept sharing stories of the village life with me when loudish, argument like screaming came out of the temple gate and one little girl walked out of there in tears.
I’ve had many children approach me with fake tears during the course of my stay in Cambodia, but this one was different. This girl was not faking it to trick anyone into giving her money, this girl was sincerely hurting. Everyone, including Saly, Sarein and Kai as well as everyone else who was around completely ignored the child as if it was nobody else’s, but her own business to get over it.
I was appalled and wanted to at least know the reason why she was crying so I could attempt to make her feel better. Everybody was telling me that it was nothing and that she’d be over it right away but I wanted her to tell me what it was that made her cry so much. Through endless sobbing, she eventually let me know that one of the other child slaves managed to make a foreigner buy postcards from her, a foreigner whom, as she said, she was the first to talk to.
Child slaves who are summoned by their parents to bother tourists at Angkor Temples are instructed to say certain things that are proven to maximize their chances of selling. Because foreigners are accosted on every step of their way at Angkor, they impulsively reject every attempt at being sold something as they would have had a million and one chances to buy the same stuff from hundreds of previous touts they were jumped by along the way so far, if they had any intention to own any of the junk.
Common responses to impulsive rejection include the “Where Are You From?” question the purpose of which is to get the foreigner engaged in a conversation so they eventually feel connection with the tout and agree to buying something because of that. If that fails and there is no stopping the foreigner from exiting the territory in which the touts is allowed to operate, the touts will utilize the last resort phrase by saying something like: “I’ll wait for you on your way back, OK? When you come back you buy from me!”
This is obviously what the heartbroken girl told the tourist as he was walking inside the temple where she was not allowed to harass anyone, but then when he was walking outside and already had his set of postcards purchased from some other tout, she felt betrayed by whoever the successful tout was and that made her cry and get in an argument with that other girl.
It felt as though the sale of that pack of postcards was a “must happen” for her that day. Perhaps she was threatened by her parents who control her that if she doesn’t sell anything today, she would not get anything to eat or worse. Why otherwise would a 7 year old girl cry like that over an unsuccessful sale? Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter to me at the time. I was right there and at that very moment there was one devastated little girl who was this close to making one sale but someone else ended up with the score.
Sadly, Cambodians draw great pleasure from other people’s suffering. Nothing makes them happier than seeing someone else get in a tight spot. Everyone around, especially the other little girl touts were laughing their asses off and so were the rest of the locals who were nearby. I found this behaviour absolutely atrocious and because there is no stopping of Cambodians who have themselves a good time because they see someone else suffer, I told the girl to follow me so I could withdraw her from this abuse and mockery.
I walked with her across the road where shops are lined up and told her that I would buy that pack of postcards from her. I had no need for any of her postcards – as a matter of fact, I could not possibly consider buying anything as when you are on the road for a long time, wasting money on useless junk is not a smart option but most of all – there is only so much room you have in your backpack and even if you stick with mere necessities, hauling it around on your back over and over will make you understand that you’re not gonna add to it unless it’s really important.
There was absolutely nothing any of the relentless touts could possibly say to make me buy anything from them. Yet in this very moment, all of my personal reasons and beliefs dwindled aside and gave way to making the difference in a life of one single person. The pack of 10 postcards she was trying to sell was of absolutely no use to me. But the one dollar she would make would mean everything to her.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any one dollar bills on me so I took a five dollar bill to Saly and asked her if she could break it for me so I can buy the postcards from that little girl. And Saly did exactly what I should have expected – she took my money and came back with two one dollar bills and a Bayon t-shirt she said was worth $3 and I had just bought it. Well damn!
The premise of not buying anything you don’t need when you’re on the road is a big one. If I were to buy a t-shirt from every place I visit, I’d quickly need another backpack. This was simply not an option. I had just enough t-shirts to get by and the only way I’d buy a new one would be if I needed to replace one I had worn out. I wash my clothes by hand and wear them in all imaginable situations, including crazy adventures so when a piece of garment wears out, then I’ll buy a new one – to replace it, but not until there is such need.
Saly made a decision for me about this t-shirt, though. I ended up with a t-shirt I didn’t even like and a set of 10 postcards I had nobody to send to (I live in a digital age. Old school snail mail is not for me. Instead of postcards, I send my family and friends digital pictures I took via email). But that’s what I get for making friends with touts.
I wasn’t mad though. I ended up with more junk to haul around, but I thought it turned out being a wonderful day so in the end, it was all worth it. I didn’t want the t-shirt so I donated it right away and the postcards – yeah, I actually did haul them around until my return back to Canada in December.
I had to face a lot of rage from other child touts after the purchase of those postcards, though. Each of them wanted me to buy from them and I gave each of them a firm “No” so when they found out I had eventually bought the postcards despite previous claims that I couldn’t buy any, it gave them the reason to blame me. Honour is not a virtue that’s commonly found in Cambodia. Touts are used to lying – they’ve been lying every day of their lives since they could talk. Expecting any form of honour from a person whose life is based on lies would be foolish. As a result, any villager I didn’t buy from would treat me as an unwanted intruder during my 2 months long stay in the village.
While I was taking a break and chatting away with girls at Banteay Kdei temple, someone pointed out a stick insect that was sitting there idly on the side of the garbage bin and started taking pictures of it. I didn’t even see it it was so well camouflaged. Since I haven’t seen one before with my own eyes, I also didn’t realize they were this big.
This stick insect was just sitting there, minding his own business and didn’t get disturbed not even after we’ve taken notice of him and caused commotion trying to take picture of it. Just as it was with Praying Mantis, I didn’t have good lens to take a decent picture of it, but since stick insects are not particularly known for being vicious predators, I was not as apprehensive trying to get closer to it.
Its overall size also made it easier to compose the picture. It was yet another first for me in one day. The sun was killing me, the touts were driving me insane, but the wildlife made up for it. Stick insects for the win.
Below is a small photo gallery of stick insect pictures:
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.
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.