The Temples of Angkor in Cambodia by Tom Czaban
It was just a short ride from the centre of Siem Reap, but vendors assaulted the bus windows the entire way. They rapped their dirty knuckles on the wet glass to sell fruit, baguettes and foreign newspapers. But I wasn’t there for food or newspapers; I had come to see the Eighth Wonder of the World.
On the bus, there was a simultaneous gasp when Angkor Wat’s magnificent turrets appeared. I’d seen many temples in the previous weeks, but Angkor was special. Its ruins rose out of the dust like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.
I followed the umbrellas off of the bus and toward the complex; it grew in size and magnificence with each soggy step. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet and author, once wrote: “Architecture is frozen music.”
And, at Angkor, it really is.
Etched into the crumbling walls were pictures from everyday Khmer life. I had seen these scenes before: Not in books or history programs, but in the Cambodian villages I had just left behind. People danced beneath the sun; men fished in rivers; and girls rested in their mother’s laps after a long day.
All around me, tourists in anoraks pondered the ruins. Their luminous umbrellas made it even more beautiful — enlivening the grey buildings with dazzling colour. The rain drove down upon us, the smell of hot soil filled the air, everyone was soaked but didn’t seem to mind.
Amongst the tourists, I noticed an old English couple. English people try hard not to say the wrong thing, but often end up doing exactly that. On this occasion, the friendly English woman patted her Cambodian guide and gestured to a scene on the wall.
“Wow monkeys!” she exclaimed.
Her guide looked at her with confusion; her face fell as she studied the etchings again.
“Oh dear. I do apologise. They’re not monkeys; they’re people.” She added, “I beg your pardon,” then shuffled off in embarrassment.
A few hours later, the rain stopped but the umbrellas remained open to deflect the sun. Astonishingly, tourists were permitted to clamber over the ruins. In Europe, everything is roped off — with signs warning visitors to keep out. But here, the only signs warned tourists to take care of themselves.
“Do not walk this way. Sorry if this is an inconvenience.”
For some reason it seemed sarcastic; it wasn’t what the sign said, but more the way it said it.
At the top of Bayon temple, I passed an elderly American. His bones looked as brittle as the stones beneath his feet, but he skipped along them with the energy of a child.
“This is worth a million dollars!” he shouted, pulling his camera from his pocket. “My God! Look how they built the roof!”
His wife just nodded.
“You will help me get down, won’t you?” she fretted. “I’m OK getting up; it’s the getting down I don’t like.”
“Yeah of course,” he shot back, still looking through his viewfinder.
I sat down on a wall and watched a group of monks walk the top tier. One of them was taking photos as if his life (lives?) depended on it. They ignored the other tourists and made a beeline for me. For some reason, monks like me. Perhaps it's my shaved head?
“Hello?” said the monk with the camera, “Can I speak with you to practice my English?”
“Sure,” I replied, already wishing I’d declined because a crowd had gathered to watch.
“Please excuse me,” the monk continued. “My English is very bad, so don’t mind if it is impolite or incorrect.”
“It’s fine,” I replied.
“Thank you for your understanding. Now, can I ask? What is your name?”
“Good. And Tom, how many people are there in your family?”
Embarrassed, I began to tell him about myself. Most of the spectators had cameras in their hands and desperately tried to find a shot without me in it.
The monks were visiting from Southern Cambodia, and were excited as they never had been here before. We all agreed the temples were amazing — and that speaking English is hard.
Then they asked to take a photo with me. Reluctantly, I agreed.
“Ok,” barked the monk. “You come here! Now! Get up!”
He was very bossy, especially for a monk.
“Alright, I’m coming,” I said.
“Quickly!” he urged. “Hurry up!”
I couldn’t understand the rush. I thought we were all going to get reborn anyway?
When he’d finished directing the photo shoot, I left them to it. There was a collective sigh of relief from the other tourists, swiftly followed by a flurry of camera flashes.
Soon it was time to return to the bus, which once again was surrounded by vendors. One of them wouldn’t leave me alone; she followed me right up to the bus door.
“I have book, with map,” she said.
“I don’t need it, thank you.”
“Do you want cold drink? I have Coke.”
“No thank you. I don’t need it.”
“Do you want hot drink? I have tea.”
“No thank you. I don’t need it.”
“So tell me, what do you need?”
“Nothing,” I told her.
I assumed that would be the end of it. I was wrong.
“Ok,” she said. “I will sell you nothing, for two dollars.”
I couldn't help but smile.
This must have been how the Khmers conceived and built this staggering complex — intelligence and persistence.
That was what I was thinking... as I bought the overpriced Coke.