My soul has been drawn to, beckoned by, yearning for Cambodia for years. Sometimes when you answer such a call, it can be disappointing; my week in Siem Reap was anything but.
The poverty in Cambodia is pretty in-your-face, and seeing as Siem Reap is a major tourist destination, the competition for tourism dollars is fierce. Beggars, peddlers, everyone hawking something: fried spiders, knock-off North Face jackets, books on Cambodia’s genocide, lotus flowers.
It’s easy to turn down the knock-off North Face, but this face? Impossible.
Our first day in town, Katelyn and I walked past tuk-tuk driver after tuk-tuk driver asking if we needed a ride right now, or maybe to the temples tomorrow. After politely turning down about 20 drivers, I finally elaborated on that “no” to the most recent man trying to make a living, telling him we had a driver with our hotel.
It was the wrong thing to say. It launched this man onto his soapbox: that’s one of the problems, see, because if you know the right people you can work for a hotel and then you get all of the jobs, and the rich just keep getting richer while the poor get poorer. If you are coming from the countryside to the city, you don’t know any of the hotel owners, so you need to beg for riders on the streets, and people just say no. Plus, drivers connected to a hotel will charge $15, and the hotel gets $5 and the driver only gets $10. I will only charge you $10, no commission to the hotel at all, and also many hotels make drivers pay them first to be associated with the hotel so very few drivers can do it. And you see how many tuk-tuks are out here; it’s so difficult to get a job.
And on and on he went while a mini-parade of schoolchildren passed by, not quite complaining, but more monologuing his daily battle to earn his daily bread.
So I told him that we hadn’t yet agreed to use our hotel’s driver; maybe I could get his phone number and call him?
He did a double take, blinked his eyes a few times, like he was waking up from a conversation with himself, and then a giant grin overtook his face. With copious thank you’s, he gave me his name and number.
Of course, we called him. Sarath was thrilled to pick us up at 5 am, suggest the best places to see the sunrise (which was anti-climactic, as it was far too cloudy), and cart us around the large circuit of temples for 10 hours. And he did only charge us $10 for the entire day.
We called him multiple times throughout the week, and while his motorcycle’s unreliable engine meant we sometimes had to use someone else, he was our absolute favorite. We bartered with random drivers to bring us back to our hotel for $1, but we willingly threw $3 at Sarath for bringing us the same distance. Partly because he shared his tragic story with us, partly because he was so knowledgable, mostly because he was genuine. When he brought us home our last night in Siem Reap, he thanked us profusely and said, “I knew from the first day I saw you — I felt it in my heart –” and he didn’t need to finish his sentence, because we knew in our hearts too.
Sarath may have been the highlight of the trip, but he had some steep competition. The temples, of course, were beyond what I imagined. Some were impressive for their sheer magnitude, others for the way the light danced between stones, still others for the views of the park from their tallest peaks. We walked among many, dodging large tour groups as best we could, and a few are worth singling out.
Like Phnom Philay, which we reached by walking through the deserted woods behind Angkor Thom, across a miniature river, and beneath a canopy of tree branches. The temple is tiny, with a stone wall surrounding it, and lichen and moss crawling up its rubble. The soft early afternoon light melted on it, and the silence muted everything, imbuing it with a palpable magic.
And Ta Prohm, arguably the most stunning display of nature’s power, with giant roots growing into (out of?) the ruins. I kept seeing images of how deep my roots go, how connected we all are. Closing my eyes, I could feel the stones, the trees, the moss, the memories. I am yet again reminded of something I read by Jonathan Safran Foer, how an experience is beyond our five senses. We don’t just ask how something tastes or looks. We also ask how it remembers. At Ta Prohm, I could understand how it remembers, how the depth of my own roots help me to remember, to continue to draw energy from things I cannot see but only feel as they sustain me.
Centuries ago, Preah Neak Prean was used as healing pools for pilgrims visiting Angkor. A long wooden boardwalk stretches across the water, and it was believed that the mere act of walking over the water to the holy pools cleansed you of sins. Modern-day travelers walked while local kids took turns diving off and pushing each other into the lake, the joy of playing just as cleansing.
The journey to the far-away temple, Banteay Srey, took us through local neighborhoods. We witnessed people going through the motions of every day life: bathing in a sarong, eating in the kitchen area underneath the rest of the house lifted by stilts, playing volleyball, working in the rice fields or the pastures or the small corner store. By the time we arrived at the temple known as the Citadel of Women, the pinkish sandstone nearly glowed gold under the late afternoon sun.
We frolicked through other temples too, greeting monkeys and monks alike, reading stories on the walls from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, climbing countless stairs.
Monks at Angkor Wat
View from inside Angkor Wat
Siem Reap River, outside of the East entrance to Angkor Tom
One of many Buddha faces at Bayon
Afternoon light at Tommanon
Breathing Room buddies at Bayon
We spent a few days enjoying what the rest of Siem Reap has to offer as well. My saffron-stained fingers offer evidence of our two hours in a cooking class with Chef Si Noun. Prior to cooking, we ventured through the market to purchase our fare. Markets are lively and beautiful and interesting places, until you walk through the meats. Then it turns into a brutal visual and olfactory assault.
Fish being filleted on short wooden tables, with live fish desperately trying to swim in trays of water that just barely fit them and their unlucky brethren and definitely did not leave room for splashing around. Crabs making a break for it, crawling across shrimp towards freedom. Skinned frogs in a pile, with organs shining through translucent skin. Chicken livers in one pile, dark and loamy, with feet in another and beaks in a third.
After that walk, the zen-like act of chopping up banana flowers and turmeric and lemongrass was necessary.
Final dish: Khmer amok with banana leaf flower salad
And the Cambodian circus! The circus is like a small-scale Cirque du Soleil, with insanely talented folks performing feats that defy gravity. A non-profit arts school in the countryside of Cambodia trains young people — some orphans, some former street children, some recovering from awful abuses and crimes committed against them, all learning a skill or a trade they market in order to support themselves and their families — and puts on a nightly show to raise more money for the school.
We were blown away by their talent, and equally smitten with Pholla, the fabulous boutique manager who offered to be our “wing” after we shared giggles about the cutest of the performers. He convinced us to return a second night, and really did try to be our wing, running backstage three times. Their meeting with their teachers lasted beyond our agreed upon time to meet Sarath for our ride home, so we bid our new friend (and our dreams of running away with a Cambodian circus performer) farewell.
One week in Siem Reap was not enough to quench my thirst for Cambodia. Some places feel like a perfect fit, and for so many reasons, this is one of them.