Monday, September 20, 2010

Angkor Wat: The Macchu Picchu of Southeast Asia

A lifetime ago, when a copious supply of toilet paper was available in every bathroom and I didn't eat rice three times a day, i.e. when I was living in the United States and thinking about traveling, I assumed I would visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  I knew barely anything about Cambodia, only a little about the country's turbulent political history, nothing about the language or the cuisine, but I sure knew about Angkor Wat.  Everyone knows about Angkor Wat!  Even teenage boys--yeah, that's where Lara Croft did something-or-other in the Tomb Raider movies.  Angkor Wat is the Grand Canyon of the United States...  the Macchu Picchu of South America...  the Great Egyptian Pyramids of the African continent.

And here I am:

Hands down, my favorite parts of the park have been as much natural as manmade.  This is a tree-lovers paradise!  Various species of tree have grown on top of, into, and around various ruins.  The shapes are stunning:  a juxtaposition of man's straight lines with nature's curves.

As I wandered around, I reflected on impermanence.  When these monuments were created, they were so solid.  At the time, it must have seemed like the construction would last forever.  Even now, the ruins have an eternal feeling to them.  But everything that is built will eventually crumble.  Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not this millenium, but eventually it will change and fade away.  That's just the law of nature.

Speaking of nature, I also sensed how everything that arises from nature goes back to nature.  Humans borrowed these stones and piled them up.  Now, nature is taking back what was always hers.

On a less dreamy note, the problem with everyone knowing about Angkor Archaeological Park is, well, everyone knows about it!  After the jump, a little rant about mass tourism and a few suggestions for future visitors...

Masses of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese on package tours walk behind bored Cambodian guides like unruly children behind their exasperated public school teacher.  But I'm not going to rip on the package tourists.  Individually, they're just looking for a nice vacation with their friends and family.  Nothing wrong with that.

Considering the sheer volume of people that trample around the site 364 days a year, the park has done a great job handling waste and transport issues, preserving the monuments, and managing logistics.  Hats off to them.  But the masses of clueless, wealthy tourists have led to something at least as distasteful as a pile of trash or graffiti on a 1,000 year old wall:  Angkor Archaeological Park is home to the most intensely aggressive hawking and hassling that I've encountered in all three months in Southeast Asia.

A typical encounter goes like this:
  • I pull up to the parking area on my bicycle, dismount, and begin to lock up the bike.  A young woman runs up to me.
  • "Laaadeeee, colll water?" she brays.
  • "No thank you," I say firmly.  I don't make eye contact. 
  • "You park here free, laadeee, I watch your bike," she brays.  "But you buy colll water.  Two dolla."
  • "No, thank you," I repeat.  I know I can park for free, and I don't need her to watch my bike.
  • "Noo, laaadeeee, you BUY colll water NOW," as she gets near my bike.
  • "No."  I'm getting a bit shorter with her.
  • "Only two dolla!" she screeches.  That bottled water goes for fifty cents in Siem Reap, and that's a tourist price for a tourist town.
  • "No." This will be my last response to her, I decide.
  • "LAAADEEE, YOU BUY WATER NOW," she tries one last time as she sees I'm about to walking away.
  • I ignore her and strap on my backpack.
  • "Ok, you visit temple, buy collll water when you get back.  I watch your bike.  ONLY TWO DOLLA, LAAADEEE!!!"  Now she's hovering over me and my bike.
  • I walk away.
  • (At this point in the non-transaction, one self-aware young lady snidely remarked, "Ok, laaadeee, you give me two dolla for nothing."  I'll admit, she got a smirk out of me.  Unfortunately, one of her handlers rebuked her in Cambodian, and she returned to half-heartedly hassle us until we were out of earshot.)
So, if that incident happens once, it's not too bad.  Even if it happens a few times in a day, that's quite manageable.  Everyone's got to make a living, right?  But when it happens each and every single time I get off my bicycle, which is about 15-20 times a day, and when multiple young, screechy women are going at their sales pitch all at once, plus an occasional young man hawking guidebooks, and when 30% of the time, the hawker will actually follow you for a while as you walk away, and when you've got little kids approaching you to try the heartstrings angle, oh and it's 90 degrees F with 95% humidity and you just biked your 15th mile on a fixed gear monster, it will wear on your patience.  I promise.

The sad part is that it's changed how I look at street sellers in the Park.  On the first morning, I thought it was annoying, but still kind of funny.  By the afternoon of the last day, I had realized that, to the hawkers, I am the same as every other tourist in the park.  They don't know, and they don't care, that I've already declined the offers of bottled water, guidebooks, and postcards from 30-35 other aggressive, underaged hawkers so far today.  All they know is that I've got the disposable cash to get myself from some country far away to here, and I've paid at least USD$20 and maybe even USD$60 to be in the park, so therefore I'm a wallet with legs.  And likewise, after I've been approached by the 36th hawker in one day, all those slightly too thin, slightly too dirty Cambodian faces start too look the same.  I stop caring whether they've earned enough for dinner tonight.  I certainly no longer care about their stories or their voices.  They all become the same:  just another obnoxious Third World hassle.  Ouch.

I've decided to be as truthful as I can be regarding my experience.  I'm certainly not proud of my attitude, and I know it takes a lot of privilege to be frustrated by someone who earns a few dollars a day.  But I think it's important for readers to understand that the worst parts of mass tourism turn human beings, even well-intentioned ones, against each other.  And that's been the truth of my experience so far.  Wherever you are, and this includes your hometown, never fear to wander off the beaten path, and always accept an opportunity to make your own adventure!

Even despite this little rant, Davo and I are having a great time in Siem Reap.  Impromptu cooking demonstrations... exploring the countryside on bicycle... and a chance encounter in a temple that might turn into something more.  Nothing recommended by Lonely Planet, unsurprisingly, and nothing as "spectacular" as Angkor Park, but I'll remember Cambodia fondly.  More stories to come; stay tuned!

But first, here are a few suggestions for future Angkor Archaeological Park visitors:
  • If you're into trees, visit Ta Prohm multiple times at different times of the day.  There is one really beautiful tree at Ta Som at the far back of the temple.  The trees at Preah Palilay have been cut down, but there is new growth sprouting from their tops, which is awesome!  Finally, don't skip Spean Thma.  Everyone does.  You'll have it to yourself, except for the occasional tuk-tuk, which won't stay more than a few minutes.
  • Have a sense of humor about the hawkers.  You'll be better off if you say "No" once, very firmly, and then ignore their attempts thereafter.  You'll feel like a jerk at first, but they'll leave you alone more quickly as they'll know they should focus their attention on someone else to make a sale.  Getting upset, or even continuing to say "No," is a bad idea--you're giving the signs that you might give in.  Finally, keep a sense of humor.  You're well-off enough to be the tourist, not the tout.  Life could be worse, eh?
  • If you're young and fit, consider renting bicycles to visit the temples.  The terrain is flat, and it will take only about 30-35 minutes to bike from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat/ Angkor Thom.  You can go at your own pace, stopping when you want.  Plus, you get some exercise, which is tough on the road!  Make sure you check the tires and brakes before you ride off.  If the tire seems a litle flat, it might have a slow leak--choose another bike.
  • Especially if you're going to bike, make sure you have enough water.  Two liters is a minimum; I would recommend three.  Also, bring an umbrella to keep the sun off your body...  you won't get as tired as quickly.  Finally, buy your fried rice or fried noodle lunch in Siem Reap.  Food in the park itself is at least twice as expensive and at most half as good as what you can find in Siem Reap.
The rest of the Angkor pictures are here:

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