From the stairs of the bus I could see through the open air diner to the muddy river meandering on the other side. A silver pot the size of a washtub sat on a bucket of glowing coals belching steam. Bunches of greenish-yellow bananas shared a table with a mound of coconuts and a massive machete. The deck was shaded by young stalks of green bamboo that barely reached the palm fronds woven into the roof. This was our lunch break, the halfway point between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. If Gilligan’s Island had a bus-stop it would look a lot like this one.
The coarsely built wooden tables covering the deck filled quickly with the first wave of travelers, chatty gap year students and overwhelmed parents with too many children and too few hands. That first wave burst from the bus as if it was on fire and someone had yelled ‘it’s going to blow’. The second wave was more thickly built with hints of grey in their chin stubble and moved with less abandon. They knew the bus wasn’t going to blow and they weren’t going to starve, so they sauntered to the bathroom.
By the time I made my way to the deck all the tables were taken.
To a man with thinning hair and a fleshy body I asked, “Mind if I join you?”,
His response traveled at a leisurely pace from its origin on the left side of his brain to his tongue. The casual response was in keeping with his relaxed posture. The Irishman wasn’t bothered by me joining him or that the menu was unreadable or that the waiter didn’t speak English. He’d been on the road long enough to see such events as the norm and with a warm confident smile and some pointing he ordered lunch.
“How long are you traveling for?” I asked.
“I’ve been gone 9 months, I’ll be back at work in five weeks.”
We talked about the pleasure of traveling solo without a schedule and the sense of accomplishment you feel when you alone solve all the transportation, lodging, language, and other problems that arise while wandering. We laughed about the bad decisions we made and being saved by strangers, but neither of us mentioned the loneliness and fatigue that sometimes accompanies solo travel. Or maybe only I experience that.
“How’d you manage to get ten months off?”
“I have traveled like this all my life. I work long and hard for a while then I go traveling. My boss knows that. I don’t have money. I’ll be working till I die. It only makes sense that I travel now while I can.”
The dusty road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was bordered by parched fields and an occasional barnyard which housed the boniest cattle I have ever seen. Siem Reap is the town that feeds, houses and entertains the 2.6 million tourists that visit the Temples of Angkor Wat each year. About a mile from the town center our driver downshifted and I readied my pack. Moments later I stepped into the gauntlet of barking tuk-tuk drivers. In America you’re seldom pandered to with such determination. In the more desperate parts of the world a swarm of faces crowd around you guaranteeing a “special deal” on T-shirts, transportation, a bowl of curry chicken or whatever they can scrape together.
And if you’re a single white male eventually an attractive woman will slip her arm in yours and say, “Where you from handsome?”.
Of course you know you’re not that handsome. You’re overweight, haven’t shaved in a week, you’re coated in sweat and road grim and you’re old enough to be that child’s grandpa. And she really doesn’t care where you’re from.
All I wanted to buy was a lift into town. I chose a young driver with earnest eyes. He appeared delighted to drive me to the hostel and as we bounced along in the sunshine he asked if I was going to visit Angkor Wat. Of course I was. That’s the main reason (probably only reason) anyone travels to Northern Cambodia.
When the tuk-tuk stopped in front of the hostel the driver turned to me and said, “This is my business. This is how I feed my children. I will like to take you to the temples tomorrow. I will pick you up early to see sunrise. Very beautiful. I will drive you all day.”
The price was $18 for the whole day, fuel included. It was difficult to imagine I could have someone chauffeur me around all day for next to nothing . A full days’ wages, $18. Most Americans make that in an hour.
“Ok,” I said.
“I will pick you up at 4:30. You will see sunrise. Very beautiful. Famous. I will be here.”
After passing dozens of homes that appeared too dilapidated to be inhabitable the lofty glass and steel hostel looked decadent and out of place. A foreign structure filled with foreigners. My roommates were fair-skinned westerners representing Canada, Australia, and Portugal. They had all graduated from college a few years earlier. The congenial Canadian just spent five years working at a bank in Calgary which was long enough to learn he didn’t want to be a banker.
The Australian woman had just completed two years teaching at a school in Thailand.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “I feel socially isolated. The Thai teachers are friendly but they spend all their time with family. I mean they never want to go shopping or to a movie. The money’s good and it’s nice to live on the beach but I have to get out of there. I’m going to travel for a while and figure out what to do next.”
The two Portuguese fellas seemed pretty content with their jobs and were ready to return home after 4 weeks on holiday.
I woke at 3:45, slipped my camera and a bottle of water into my daypack and walked down the broad staircase to the ground floor, a huge open space surrounded by glass walls. Music videos played on a large screen TV in a raised area encircled by sofas. A dozen sleepy eyed travelers leaned heavily on their elbows and chugged coffee. We were all going to see sun rise over Angkor Wat. “Very beautiful.”
At 4:30 sharp I walked out into the cool morning air. Light spilled from the hostel’s glass walls onto the sidewalk where tuk-tuk drivers paced, anxious to collect their fares. I scanned all the faces but didn’t see my driver.
I was about to open the door to the hostel when a voice behind me said, “Are you Tom?”.
“I am Sopaul. My brother sent me to drive you. His daughter is sick.”
Sopaul was thirty something and his English was noticeably rougher than his younger sibling’s. Everything he said may have been true, but it didn’t feel true. It felt more like the earnest faced baby brother with excellent English was the front man. He worked the bus stop and once he had a committed customer he handed them off to his big brother. I would have preferred someone I could more easily speak with but it didn’t really matter. Even if it did what would I do? Complain to the tuk-tuk ethics committee?
Compared to Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia seems more Wild-West-like. Children as well as adults hawk wares and services, day and night. They sell from dirty street corners, animal drawn carts, and even on the jungle paths of Angkor Wat. Most seem to be just surviving.
Sopaul opened his cooler and said proudly, “I have water for you. I will drive you today, tomorrow or more. How long you stay in Siem Reap?”
I had been in SE Asia for over a month and never knew the tropical air could feel so wonderful. It was the black of morning. The time before birds wake. The jungle trees were shadows in a bluish-black world and a cooling breeze buffeted my face as we drove along. That pre-dawn ride was the most physically enjoyable hour of my entire SE Asia visit.
The Temples of Angkor are 12th century but the ticket center is 21st. With a ticket embedded with the digitized image of my face we continued our journey into the jungle. Sopaul’s route brought us into the park gently with minimal contact with others, but as we neared the parking lot headlights burst out of the dark from all directions. Sopaul pointed to our rendezvous spot then hunkered down in the tuk-tuk for a nap. I followed the bouncing headlamps and flashlights across a floating bridge. From there a trail cut through the darkness to a shallow lake at the base of Angkor Wat. (Wat means temple or monastery.)
Hundreds of tourists and photographers jockeyed for that famous image of the temple at sunrise. I was one of the earlier ones to lineup, too early really. After 15 minutes of waiting in the expanding army of shutterbugs I became restless. In the woods left of the pond shopkeepers were busy setting up their wares in the golden light of fires and lamps. Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful but I prefer photographing people. I left my coveted position and drifted toward the market. Along the way I took photos of the tourists, security guards, a hole in the ancient stone wall that nicely framed the temple towers, as well as the waking market. When the sun finally rose clouds prevented the capture of that postcard perfect image. Or maybe I didn’t capture that iconic image because it wasn’t in me. They say photographs are made not taken. You have to see the image in your mind before you can create it with your camera. I didn’t see it.
Shortly after sunrise the security guards let us enter the temple. The light changed rapidly, stone walls began lobbing long shadows into the dank hallways. Finely carved balusters anchored cobwebs that filtered the morning sun like lace curtains in a kitchen. It’s hard to imagine 12th century man built such grand structures and took the time to etch elaborate designs into pillars and chisel images of women into stone. The carved goddesses have oversized ears, pencil thin waists, wide almond eyes, thick lips, and disproportionally large round breasts. The carvings support the theory that man has had a distorted view of women since the 12th century. Some say longer.
On the far side of the temple a metal gate opens to a tan path of clay and pebbles that weaves below the low hanging limbs of round squat trees. The long lane reminded me of the final scene in “Gone with the Wind” where Rhett Butler strides away and Ms Scarlett shares her philosophy on life with the audience, “tomorrow is another day”.
I followed the path through the trees to an area over looking a lake. The clouds had burned off and the air carried the scent of dried earth. I watched a local woman bicycle up from the lake and didn’t look above me until someone shouted, “Watch out!”
Swinging rapidly down the tree was a curious monkey. He was just an arm’s reach away when I jumped back. He paused, squawked, peeled his lips back and gave a threatening toothy grin. He had the petite body and long tail and of a stuffed animal and the simple minded stare of a rabid dog. Of course for a wild monkey that may have been a sexy smile, but I wasn’t interested in starting a relationship.
Sopaul drove on. Sometimes he’d drop me off in front of a temple complex and I’d wander in and out and meet him back at the starting point. Other times he’d leave me at one end of a stretch of temples and I’d walk the mile or two through jungle and ruins to join him at the other end. Some temples towered high above the jungle. Looking down all you could see were treetops and tuk-tuks the size of ants hiding in the shade. Many drivers strung hammocks diagonally across their vehicles and napped while their customers explored. My assumption was driving a tuk-tuk was a job for the less educated. According to Sopaul I was wrong.
“Like me, most drivers have been to university,” Sopaul said with frustration in his voice. “There are no jobs in Cambodia. Driving is all you can get. You must leave Cambodia to find better job. To use your degree.”
Sopaul didn’t want to leave his family or his country.
The Angkor Wat Complex is 400 hundred acres of jungle dotted with a thousand stone ruins. The jungle and temples have been battling each other for 900 years. Massive stone structures weighing hundreds of tons have been pushed aside or smothered by roots, trunks and limbs. Some temples have trees living in their hallways and rising from their towers. To preserve Cambodias greatest national treasure a small band of men climb the temple walls and balance on their slippery, crumbling stones. They slash, burn and pull invading seedlings and on occasion the shoeless gardeners lose their footing and fall to their death. The jungle is relentless and it appears to be winning the war.
As much as I marvel at what man has created with little more than bare hands, eight hours of hiking through, around, and over temple ruins was enough for me. Reluctantly Sopaul returned me to the hostel.
Fantastic essay, Tom, really a treat to experience the sounds, sights, and aromas of this Angkor Wat day with you. Your writing is mesmerizing and engaging as you figured out the scam, accepted it, and hiked through the jungle and ruins. Enjoyed hearing about Sopaul and his services, too.
Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Your thoughts are so kind I’m going to have to buy a larger hat. As you know this writing thing is fairly new to me and your enthusiasm really helps. It’s difficult for me to imagine writing stories as long and complex as the ones you write. I truly respect work and opinion. Thanks again and best wishes.
Excellent story (and pictures.) Well written, and a nice departure from the typical touristy “this is the way to do Angkor Wat, dude.”
Hey, Dave! It was an interest place, a blend of ancient history and tourist trap. But it was worth the visit. Thanks Dave for taking the time to read my 2 cents and commenting. Happy travels.