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"You travel together? You friends?" asks a dour-faced Cambodian official in full parade regalia, the last of five border officials sitting behind a long counter at Siem Reap's one-room International Airport. His doubting glare fixes on Nicci beside me.
"Yes, this is my wife," I reply. From the expression on his face, I don't think he believes me. We are on our honeymoon, as unlikely as that may seem, and, of course, our last names don't yet match on our passports.
He glances down and back up at us again, comparing our smiling faces to those on our passports, and with a scowl and a few words in Khmer to the officer on his right, he passes my wife's passport back up the line of officials for further scrutiny. It has only taken about five minutes for the five border officials to inspect my passport and issue me a tourist visa, each one alternately flipping through its pages, stamping a page and scribbling a signature or date or code. Half of the remaining passengers from Bangkok will have their visas and be on their way before Nicci's finally makes it through this gauntlet of bureaucracy, a post-communist legacy I'm certain.
The fact that Nicci's US passport states that she was born in Binh Hoa, Vietnam must have something to do with the extra scrutiny she is receiving. We will learn that many Cambodians have no great love of the Vietnamese, their historical enemy neighbors.
I had heard stories of how Nicci's mother instructed her family to slip five dollar bills into their passports in order to clear passport control in Vietnam without harassment on their past trips there. As we watch the officials argue about Nicci's passport and visa, I'm actually beginning to think that maybe a small bribe might have helped here as well. But finally, after much debate by our hosts, her visa is stamped, signed and stapled to a page in her passport and it is grudgingly handed over to her. We're on our way at last.
It's dark now and we're riding along a terribly bumpy road in a (thankfully) air-conditioned Toyota, courtesy of our hotel, the Angkor Village. I note huge piles of gravel spaced every fifty yards or so along the shoulders of the road as we weave past bicycles, mopeds and oxcarts. The Japanese government is paying to pave this road, our driver informs us. Soon we are passing huge, luxury resort hotels, most still under construction. It won't be until daylight that the strange juxtaposition of poverty and decay with gleaming, ostentatious wealth and comfort becomes apparent. It seems Siem Reap is in the early stages of a tourist boom.
We've come here primarily to visit the ancient and magnificent temple complex of Angkor, only a few miles outside of the town of Siem Reap. The literally dozens of new luxury hotels under development are a testament to the wonder of Angkor. Nothing short of these amazing ruins could bring enough wealthy travelers to this steaming, grungy backwater of a town. We won't be staying at the Grand Hotel D'Angkor at $400 a night, though. The Angkor Village is pleasant enough, with Khmer-style teak wood cottages around a pretty pond with water lilies and flowers, though at $70 a night the rooms are considerably smaller and sparer than those we had been enjoying in Thailand the prior week.
Our room has a wall-mounted air conditioner, but it only works when the room key is inserted into a slot next to the door, and right now it is quite hot and sticky. So we decide to take a quick, cold shower before bed to cool us down. We've arranged at the front desk to hire a car, driver and guide tomorrow to visit Angkor and we've been urged to arrive by sunrise to experience the full, awe-inspiring effect. An added benefit of rising so early will be that we can take a long break back at the hotel pool during the blisteringly hot midday hours.
A wake-up call at 4:30 am rouses us to a frigid room, the air conditioner still on high from the night before. We meet our guide, Ben, at 4:45 am. Ben’s real, Khmer name is so multisyllabic and difficult for Westerners to pronounce that he usually just uses a nickname, which is fine with us. Our fees for a day of traipsing around the Angkor ruins are US$20 for Ben, $20 for our car and driver (Ben, like most of the official Angkor guides, doesn't have a car), and $20 per person for a one-day pass to the Angkor temple complex. This may not sound like so much to spend for a full day of guided sight-seeing, but considering the relatively expensive restaurant meals in Siem Reap (a shock after our dirt-cheap, but fantastic, meals in Thailand the week before), the hotel bill and the $280 per person, 45 minute round-trip flight from Bangkok, we will spend as much during our two days in Cambodia as we had spent the entire previous week in Thailand. After experiencing Angkor, though, I'd have to say that it was definitely worth the expense.
Motoring along the highway toward Angkor in the pre-dawn twilight we pass by an amazing assortment of animals and people on the road. The early rising locals are driving ox carts, mopeds, motorbikes and trucks, and hauling everything from firewood to hogs. Small Japanese pickup trucks serve as taxis and are overloaded with dozens of people in the back. Moped taxis shuttle beautifully dressed and pretty, young women from their countryside homes to work at the posh new resorts in town. Other bikes and mopeds are impossibly loaded down with huge bundles of firewood or carry entire families down the bumpy road - mother, father, son and baby daughter.
We arrive at Angkor Wat, the largest and most well preserved of the Angkor temples, just before dawn. Stepping out of the car we are immediately set upon by three or four children wanting to sell us post cards, guide books and handicrafts. Ben tells us that they are known as the Angkor Children, and throughout the day we will meet them by the dozens. For now, we politely decline their offers and head for the temple entrance to catch the imminent sunrise.
We've arrived just in time. The sun is not quite above the horizon and the towers of Angkor Wat appear silhouetted before the brightening, pink sky. Even a half-mile away, the massive scale of the temple is awe inspiring. Fortunately for us, few others have dragged themselves out of bed to witness the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately for me, however, I've left my thoroughly chilled camera in its insulated case during the ride from the hotel. Cold metal and glass plus warm, humid air equals condensation. I spend the next twenty minutes wiping down the fogged front lens filter and viewfinder window before every shot of the glorious Angkor sunrise. Being the photography nut I am, I've brought an assortment of lenses in my bag today, but I don't dare change lenses until the camera has warmed up to the ambient air temperature for fear of condensation forming inside the camera.
Despite some ruined shots due to the fogged lens, I manage to get a few good frames of the sunrise as we slowly make our way from the crumbling entrance gate toward the temple proper. Cows lazily wander the grounds grazing among the ruins. The ancient towers of Angkor Wat rise higher and higher as we approach, taller than the surrounding jungle trees. As the warm light solidifies and the temperature begins to rise, the intricate stonework of the temple begins to resolve itself before us. Soon we are passing through the main entrance and walking along the columned perimeter galleries of Angkor Wat. Massive stone statues of Vishnu, draped in orange and gold Buddhist robes, smile down on us. This temple, built during the first half of the 12th century, was a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu.
Ben is a wealth of history and information about the temples. He rattles off the names of long-dead Angkor kings - Indravarman I, Suryavarman I, Jaravarman VI - and tells us about the endless skirmishes and wars these kings fought with the Cham people, who occupied much of what is now Vietnam. He explains the scenes depicted in the massive relief murals carved into the long outer galleries of Angkor Wat. And he points out details like the numerous bullet holes in the stonework at certain locations, Khmer Rouge vandalism.
The Angkor temples have suffered much in recent times. Aside from damage done by Khmer Rouge guns and land mines, looters have stolen countless statues and relief carvings, often only taking the heads of larger statues, to sell on the international art market. Cambodia and Angkor have been open to tourism since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh in 1991, but it hasn't been until the last few years, in fact, that the Cambodian government has had the means and motivation to preserve and protect the Angkor temples. Today we see gray-uniformed minders posted throughout the complex, their main duty to prevent looting and vandalism. Ben tells us that many of them are former KR military personnel.
Actually, Ben himself was forced to serve in a KR unit as a teenager. My curiosity and questions about his former life as a KR grunt prompts him to tell us the sad tale. His father and uncle were murdered by KR soldiers and to avoid being killed himself, he was obliged to take up arms and join them, spending several years with his unit in the jungle guarding the Thai border. Much of the time they were poorly supplied and had little to eat other than bugs and lizards or an occasional monkey. It's obvious that his new profession as a tour guide is infinitely preferable to him.
As we wander through the ruins of several Angkor temples, we are periodically surrounded by groups of Angkor Children hawking their wares. Early on, while we're still at Angkor Wat, we haggle with one young salesman and buy a guidebook. The price starts at US $20, and we tell him this is way too much.
"You pay $30 from anyone else!" is his reply, "I give it to you for $18."
This is still too much, and Ben agrees, so we politely decline his offer. Rather than let us walk away, which we literally do, he starts calling out numbers in a rapid descent. Ten yards away from him he's already down to $5 and I stop to fish my money belt out.
Before I can even turn around and buy the book for $5, he yells "Four dollars!" What a deal! As I count out the four dollars the boy smiles and says, "I give you end-of-day price."
Ben explains the difference between the "morning prices" versus the "end-of-day prices". New visitors, those who haven't been to Angkor before and haven't encountered the throngs of Angkor Children yet, often pay the much inflated "morning prices". The boy has essentially congratulated us for whittling him down to his "end-of-day" price on the book, the price the savvy tourist pays after seeing the dozens and dozens of kids selling the same things for ever lower prices throughout the day. We feel pretty smug about this particular purchase until, as we are heading for the car at the end of the day, we are mobbed by a group of kids selling the same book for one dollar.
Watching and listening to the Angkor Children, one realizes an amazing fact. Even though they are largely orphans and don't regularly attend school, most of these kids speak articulately in American-accented English, and we witness quite a few of them speaking four or five other languages as well. We decline to buy any woven reed bracelets from one group of well-spoken girls, since Nicci had already bought a few earlier, and we watch in awe as they turn around to proposition a group of Japanese tourists behind us in what we can only assume, from the dialog that ensues, is perfectly intelligible Japanese!
Later, an adorably cute little girl walks up to Nicci as we are heading for a quick breakfast at one of the restaurants in the park and asks if she'd like to buy some silk sarongs or handbags (all imported from Thailand, by the way). "No thank-you, I already bought a lot of those," replies Nicci.
"Well, you go eat and think about it for a while, and if you decide you want some, I'll be over here when you finish," the girl offers. Watching the girl walk away, I'm embarrassed to admit that I can only say a few words and phrases in broken German and Italian, virtually nothing in Khmer. These kids can converse fluently in my language and probably three or four others as well. I suppose they have to learn these skills to survive here.
For breakfast, we have big bowls of noodle soup with bits of meat, cilantro, bean sprouts, chilies and fish sauce, similar to the Vietnamese breakfast favorite known as pho. Ben and the driver eat also, but curiously decline our offer to eat with us at our table. At the time, we couldn't understand why our affable guide didn't want to eat with us. We had hoped that Ben would help us explore the menu and chat with us, but he seemed visibly uncomfortable when we invited him to join us. When they again refuse to join us at lunch in Siem Reap, I catch on to his dilemma. I notice that all the menus we've seen have prices in US dollars. In fact, everything that is marketed to tourists here is priced in dollars. The few Cambodians eating at restaurants, however, seem to be paying their bills in riel, the local currency. After another segregated meal at lunch I ask Ben if his menu was priced in riel rather than in dollars, and he sheepishly admits that it was. The fact that he and the driver were paying a fraction of what we were paying for the same meal was why he didn't want to sit with us. There is a dual economy here with one set of prices for locals, and another set of prices, much inflated and always in dollars, for tourists. One good thing about this system, I suppose, is that one needn't exchange any hard cash for riel when arriving in Cambodia. Besides, there are no ATM machines in Siem Reap, and only a couple banks will exchange foreign currencies. Everyone here gladly accepts dollars, though not coins, and if any change is due it is given in riel, the exchange rate during our visit being about 4,000 riel to the dollar. At least those extra riel come in handy when making donations at the various shrines at Angkor.
After a much-needed swim in the pool at the Angkor Village, we are back at the temples. Ben has brought us to the Buddhist temples of Bayon and Angkor Thom, built during a later period than Angkor Wat. Huge Buddha heads sit atop the towers of Bayon with four smiling faces gazing out in the four cardinal directions. The ubiquitous Apsaras, female divinities or celestial nymphs, adorn the walls and towers of these ruins as they do elsewhere at Angkor. They dance across the stone or simply stand, smiling beatifically like the Buddha. In fantastic bas-relief carvings, Khmer kings ride elephants, shaded by royal parasols and leading their armies into battle with the Cham. We are amazed not just by the massive scale of construction here, but also by the intricacy and beauty of the artwork rendered in stone. Even in their overgrown and crumbling state, these temples inspire awe and reverence of the people who built them.
There are dozens of temples in various states of decay throughout the Angkor complex, but since we were leaving the next evening for Bangkok, we chose only one more major temple to visit the next morning: Ta Phrom. Some may actually recognize the ruins of Ta Phrom since it was used as a location for the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. What makes this temple unique among those we visited, is that it was left largely untouched since the time of its rediscovery by French archaeologists. Over the centuries since it was abandoned, Ta Phrom has been swallowed up by the jungle. Massive banyan and balsa trees have entwined their roots among the stones, some seeming to melt over walls and galleries like giant candles. The shade provided by all the surrounding vegetation has allowed mosses and lichen to cover the ruins in brilliant shades of blue and green. We've arrived early again to avoid the heat and crowds, but the steamy fog that hangs low over the temple is burning off quickly. We are the only people here this morning and the only sounds are the squawking of parakeets in the jungle canopy. We can almost imagine that we are those French archaeologists who first came upon these forsaken ruins years ago.
After an hour of exploring Ta Phrom alone, the spell is broken by the unmistakeable sounds of people speaking Italian. We round the corner of a tower and come upon a group of twenty or so Italian tourists and their Italian-speaking, Khmer guide. Having just been married in Florence, Italy before starting our honeymoon in Thailand and Cambodia, Nicci and I have a keen ear for the lilting tones of Italian. We strike up a conversation with them in broken Italian and English and we find out that these people are on a package tour from Rome. One of the ladies in the group is originally from Florence and she even knows of the estate the wedding party stayed at in the hills south of the city and she knows the castle where we were married. I'm thinking it's a very small world!