2006: Cambodia: The Other Side of Angkor Wat

Click above to see the photos, read the blog posts below.

Click above to see the photos, read the blog posts below.

[2013 Editor’s note: even after seven years I still love this adventure best of all my SEA travels. I had so much fun with Stall #2, and love that I handed Pee my camera to take pictures without any worry of anything bad happening. To me this story is why one goes on a slow travel adventure, to sit down a few days in a row and actually meet people.]

This is not about me.

This is about them: Pee, Pah, Srey-La, the kids, the drivers, and all the Cambodians making a living off the temples of Angkor. I just happened to get involved for a few days.

Pee and Pah have deep guttural laughs which they use frequently. My new friends would laugh at just about anything. Pee might say, “Tony, look, you’re wife,” pointing to an over-weight Korean tourist. Or someone might get bit by an ant, “OY!” Laughter. Clip a barrette to a goat-tee? Shrieks of laughter.

Laughter is a universal language. It travels well.

At each temple in the complex of Angkor they allow families to sell food, drinks, books, souvenirs, and whatnot. In many cases this is a family operation, they rent the stands by the month and everyone sells stuff, including the children who actually sell the most because it’s heartbreaking to say no to four year olds holding up a packet of ten postcards saying “one dollah, mister.” The fathers might be tuktuk drivers, or guides, or laborers; it’s mostly women and children who work the stands.

It was my second day touring Angkor temples. Why I stopped at Stand #2 at the base of the hill to Phnom Bakeng I don’t know, it was just a lucky decision. Phnom Bakeng temple sits on top of a big hill and commands a sweeping view of the valley and temples below it, including, given the right conditions, a wonderful sunset over Tonlé Sap lake. Since sunset is so popular with the tourists, there are as many as 30 or more stands across the street from the entrance to Phnom Bakeng. There were a lot of options, but something called me to Stand #2. Maybe it was Pah, but I think it was just the wheel of Fortuna.

Pee sells books, all of them with printed color covers, and photocopied content. All the kids sell the same set of books either Lonely Planet Cambodia, or the history of Angkor Wat; a few are about the Killing Fields. A man sells the books wholesale to the Cambodians out of his trunk. Tourists actually buy the books, but not many. Pee might sell one or two a day. She carries them around all day, walking with tourists as they enter and exit the temples, offering them “good price.” She’s on her feet most of the day, in the heat and rain.

Pah works the stand selling drinks. I sat down to have a beer and stayed for three. The competition to sell goods is fierce and there is only a small rope on the ground dividing each of the stands, though they set chairs back to back to give each stand some identity. Since there are so many stands, the vendors try to out yell each other to get the attention of the tourists. They all seem know a tiny bit of English, Japanese, and Korean, enough to say, “Mister! Water! Good price! I discount for you!” One day I gave selling a try (oh, the laughter) and actually got one guy to stop and have a beer. He was this wacky kid from Pittsburgh who was getting his exercise running up and down the temple hill. (He may actually be reading this right now.) In the photos, he’s the guy with the crazy beard Pah is pulling on. But that was Day 3 I think.*

It may have been Pah who got me to stop at Stand #2, she’s beautiful, though claims otherwise. I was to go to a small temple near Phnom Bakeng, but the day was long and hot and a cold beer sounded more to my taste. After a day and a half of full-on “templing”, I thought I could pass one up for an ice cold Angkor Beer. We were almost immediately laughing that first day. Sry-La, Pee and Pah’s little cousin, was all smiles and giggles and we played peek-a-boo for a while, her blackened milk-teeth shining brightly. Often when traveling I have no idea who is related to whom, as was the case here, but it didn’t matter, all I knew was these were cool kids getting by and I was happy to help buying a beer or two.

After sunset we chatted some more as they closed up shop. Pee’s flip-flops were pretty worn down and we laughed about that. Pah had on dirty socks with half sandals and I heckled her about it, she laughed and said the socks were white on the inside and black on the outside. Saying goodbye it wasn’t clear if I’d see them again.

That evening walking down a side street I saw a large pile of flip-flops for sale. There was a small pair exactly the same as Pee’s worn ones, so I bought them. No big deal, about $1.25.

The next day I told my motodriver I wanted to go back to Stand #2, but he had other plans for me, however for one reason or another (Fortuna?) we found ourselves back at Stand #2 for sunset. For a farang to give a gift, however small is a big deal. So many tourists don’t even “see” these kids, or if they only as a nusance, so having a white person pay some attention to them seems to be a welcomed change in routine. In fact, many Cambodian and Loas I have met pull out old business cards or passport photos of farang friends. “My friend. He back home in Sydney now.”

They smiled as I pulled up, and my motodriver said something to Pee which made her blush, possible “he likes you.” Pah turned and I realized there was too much tension in the moment and handed Pee her sandals and fled the scene. People around were a flutter and I just took off not wanting to be the center of so much attention.

Releasing my moto driver on the fourth day of my time at Angkor, I wanted to be able to come and go on my own terms. I took the day off from “templing”, but made a point of going to Stand #2 that afternoon. I had my three beers and many laughs with the girls. I came up with the catch phrase “Stand #2 is # 1!” and they loved that. Pee and I started talking about boys and kissing and she mentioned she had never kissed a boy before and wouldn’t until she was married; she’s 20, Pah is 23. I said things were very different in America. The girls would need a chaperone to be with a boy, and boys and girls (young men and women) do not touch. Being in Cambodia so close to the new year was fun watching groups of kids being allowed to play games (think Simon says) at night, which doesn’t happen any other time of the year.

With the dating conversation behind us we started talking about plans for the next day and some how go onto a discussion about lunch and before I knew it she invited me to have lunch with her and her family. It was a welcomed invitation. My traveling goals are mostly about access to cultures and people behind the scenes.

DAY 4 (What turned out to be my birthday a day early)
The following morning I woke anxious about what to bring as an offering (thank you Jamie Marks!). I passed a vendor selling large and small beetles, a favorite snack of theirs. Then I got some lychee and finally some sugar cane cubes. Pee clapped and got excited when she saw me arrive on my bike at Angkor Wat and we hopped onto her motobike for the ride to her village. She immediately started taking heat about her new “boyfriend” and she just laughed that deep laugh and smiled, embarrassed. Of course the temperature of the razzing shot up as we pulled into the village with everyone watching and commenting.

They said her family had lived in a hut on that spot for 100 years. The huts change, but the tiny bit of land they “own” has been in the family for years, I imagine it was not blown up during the war because of the Geneva rules of 1961 which stated that no bombs were to be dropped within 1km of a temple. The father had fought in the war, but was not killed (not sure how), and by my calculations they would have had several young children during the worst of the fighting with the Khmer Rouge. That’s all speculation.

In typical countryside living, the social room is really the area under the house, which sits on stilts and is made of wood and thatched bamboo. Pah did the cooking, while Pee and I laughed and smiled with the parents and other folks: neighbors, sisters, brothers, Srey-La, her sister Lok, other kids, chickens, puppies maybe a week old and being mangled by the children. The father and maybe a brother—who stared at me so intently, but passively it was unsettling—chain smoked cheap cigarettes, while the mother and sister chewed leaves with betel nut which makes their mouth and teeth light red. Eventually the teeth of the elder women are stained a permanent black, which is a point of pride and beauty in some of the hill tribes. The betel nut is a light stimulant and gives them a small amount of pleasure while passing the time in the shade.

Lunch was great, very Cambodian with several types of fried fish, sticky rice, spicy papaya salad, and fresh cabbage to roll it all in. Then dip that a fiery chile/garlic sauce. There was also a lemongrass fish soup and fruit for dessert. It was so good!

The parents have eight children, Pee being the youngest. Sry-La’s mother (who’s name I never learned) is their older sister, and the others work in Siem Reap or elsewhere. The three sisters Pee, Pah and Sry-La’s mom work the stand, and Sry-La and her 10 year old sister Lok sell postcards. Srey-La doesn’t like to sell, and tries to play as much as possible, but gets scolded for not wanting to work. She’s 4. Her favorite expression to me was “one dollah” which is what ten postcards, or a scarf, or a bamboo flute, or ten bamboo bracelets. There is limited schooling available, but most of the kids I talked to don’t go, claiming it’s too expensive, but it may be that they need to work instead.

One girl got seriously scolded for not working while I was hanging out (laughing) with a group of them. She was maybe 12, and her mother came up and yelled at her, pointing to the temple. Everyone grew quiet and I didn’t have to ask what was up.

Pee and Pah don’t have any schooling and admit they don’t know how to write very well. Their prospects are fairly bleak given the options are so limited. In addition, Pah had taken some English classes but couldn’t afford them after a while and admits she was lazy and didn’t want to work hard at it. I said she could pay for lessons and then teach Pee what she learned, but it sounded like too much work for them. Of the Cambodians I met (and Loas and Thai for that matter) drive is a very big motivator for success. But drive I think it dependent on vision and reality. Will it make a difference if I take these classes? What will I do with this knowledge? It all plays a part in getting out of an oppressive environment.

[Side note: In Siem Reap there is a guest house (Shadow Guest House) run by an amazing 17 year old girl. She manages the entire place while her parents travel between Cambodia and Thailand. Yes she was born into an upper middle class family, but she has tremendous drive and I hope she becomes whatever she wasn’t to be, which right now is a news anchorwoman. She may, in fact, be reading this right now. (“Hi Kim!”) Shadow also serves the best amok, a Cambodian fish curry which I eat, no lie, 6 out of 7 days while in Siem Reap. It’s that good, and Shadow’s is the best serving theirs in a fresh coconut.]

I asked if maybe the girls would find nice Cambodian boys to marry but Pah said, “I’m poor, who would want to marry a poor girl?” She is so lovely, and so quick witted, and yet her options and goals are so limited. Again, how to help?

After lunch we sat around in the shade for a few hours. Then abruptly Pee said “we go” and off we went. At the turn-off to their village, which is on the grounds of the main Angkor complex, she asked if I wanted to go to Ta Prohm, the famous temple where banyon trees grow through the temple walls. It was my favorite site. I said I would have no way back, since she was my ride, but she indicated she wanted to go to the temple with me. I was all for that, and as we approached she said she had never been to the temple before. (!?) It was great to go with her, even as she took more heat about her new “boyfriend.” She enjoyed the temple and I loved being her tour guide, since it was my third time there. It was also fun to walk past the vendors as she talked to them since they didn’t hound me to buy chachka.

An hour later we headed back to the stalls across from Angkor Wat where Pee works until 3pm. The day was hot and the tourists few, so we sat and talked and joked with about ten other young girls at a fruit stand. There were about 10 Cambodian girls, ranging in age from 4 to 20, all laughing and teasing me, calling me “Prime Minister Tony Blair” and fanning each other with wide-brimmed hats. After a while it was time to head to Stand #2 and have a cold beer and play with Sry-La and her sister Lok.

It was on this day I decided I wanted to document the people working at the temples. Some of the kids, who are very wise and street smart, asked me why I was taking pictures of them. I told them that they were very special and while most tourists only take pictures of the temples, the Cambodians working there were an important part of the Angkor experience. They were an important story to be told to my friends. They would agree and then would ask me “You want postcard? One dollah!”

[Side note: See below on the rest of this glorious pre-birthday with a new friend Srey Loeum.]

Even hung over on Red Wrestler Wine, I managed to get to stand #2, but for just a short time. I drank some water but nothing special stands out in my memory of the day.

On my last day I brought Pee some nail polish, and had a small envelope with a funny picture of me from the elephant camp and some cash in it (about $100). Later someone asked “where do you start” in reference to helping the Cambodian people and all I could say was “one family at a time?” I spent most of the day around the outside of a few temples near Stand #2.  At one point I was hanging out with Pee and thought I might finally buy some post cards,  so I was immediately  surrounded by no less than 30 kids all clamoring for me to buy one of their trinkets, with Pee shooting pictures and laughing. I wish I had had a bag of candy to piñata and make a clean break, but I didn’t so things actually got a little wild for a minute or two. Fleeing the scene, I took off for Stand #2. It was sad, saying goodbye to these friends. I gave Pee the envelope and said it was a gift for the entire family to be opened on new years (April 14), I’m not sure she understood, but I just didn’t want to be there when the envelope was opened.

At the end I started biking away and Sry-La, obviously not aware of the sadness of the moment, not aware that the odds are we will never see each other again, was screaming “Bye bye Tony! Bye bye Tony” across the whole row of stands. Her yells were not sad, they were happy and had a tone of “we’ll play again tomorrow” in them. Choking on tears I wondered if I was being selfish. Is my need for travel, my desire to see new things and meet new people a good and healthy thing for those people who will never have a chance to say “I leave for Laos tomorrow?” Am I just bringing them more sorrow and further assurance that nothing can be good for very long? Or am I just melodramatic?

But this is not about me. This is about them, and their laughter through adversity. The small hopes and dreams they have and the little things we can do to help. This is about Srey-La and Pee and Pah. This is about six days of making new friends and being welcomed into a family.

This is about them.

(Side note: Since this is being posted weeks after the events above, I’m happy to say that I got email from Pee and Pah wishing me a happy new year and thanking me for the gift! I was excited to hear from them and hopeful I may be able to communicate with them from time to time.)

Later that day… (Blog post 2 from this set)
After my lovely lunch and three beers with the girls of Stand #2 I headed back to Siem Reap for supper.

I had my amok curry (five nights in a row now!), but it was not as good at the new place I tried the night before. Without much of a plan, I went back to the Temple Bar where I had met a cute waitress named Srey Loeum. When I had asked her name she nearly fainted; I don’t think any westerner has spoken to her besides to order food. She’s really quite shy and since there are working girls in the back bar, she doesn’t get a lot of attention. I’ve found that many travelers don’t look at or even feel the presence of some of the kids who work in Thailand and Cambodia. I think Srey Loeum just blends in with the menus and tables and napkins. Except I have always enjoyed giving attention to shy kids. 

She was cute, huge smile, super short, a little baby fat. So I’m in the bar and we say “hi” and she smiles and remembers me and nearly collapses in hysterics. A little later she comes up to me and says later there is a party. A little confusion, I couldn’t figure out if she said she had been to a party at 1pm, or was going to a party at 1am. Turns out there was a party later that night at 1am. Now, my birthday was at midnight, so I figure, “let’s go tribal!” I stuck around the bar, and after a bit Srey Loeum passes me a note asking if I was going to “go with one of the bar girls.” I wrote I was not, I was waiting to go to the party with her. She, like, can’t believe it. We continue to pass notes through the night, she apologizes in each of her installments: sorry for writing these notes. Sorry for saying sorry. 

It was fun to wait with purpose, as the bar girls were all flirting with me, and rubbing against me, but I played pool and chilled, comfortable in my determination to go to the party (and not “boom boom”). Finally, Srey Loeum was given permission to leave, her boss getting the stink-eye from me when he kept telling her to stay. (He came to the party later and brought all the booze, so he wasn’t a totally bad guy.)

We headed to her house, about 1km away, a clean, simple home, open wide in front, slate floor, two rooms, one sleeping three teenage girls, the other sleeping a young guy and his wife and their baby. Turns out it’s the young guy’s birthday that day as well! By this time it was 2:30am or so and I was dead tired. There was papaya salad out and BBQ, but no one was eating. I was about a hair away from leaving when the boss showed up (he was a young guy) with booze and Coke. They proceed to make a punch with this liquor, a sort of cheap wine, called, I shit you not: WRESTLER RED WINE, complete with a picture of a wrestler on the bottle. They mixed it with Coke, and it was god awful. If anyone in Schwank finds out I drank 8 glasses of that swill I’d be banished to Ibiza for a year of hard labor.

With the boss there and the drinks made we finally sat down in a huge circle and eat BBQ and drank the “punch.” Srey Loeum feds me some food and doted on me a bit, which was cute. Along about 4am, they brought out a cake and sang happy birthday (the “happy birthday” song) to me and the other guy! Too rich.

Srey Loeum, like Pee and Pah, has never gotten close to a boy, but we fell asleep pretty near each other (how salacious!) since there were no adults in the house. Here I am, it’s like 6am, they’ve made me chug about 8 of those punch drinks and I’m playing the palm tickle game with a 19 year old Cambodian virgin. Happy 39! I could only laugh and start thinking about writing this post. [Note for those trying to read between the lines: NOTHING sexual happened or was going to happen!]

Sleep comes hard on the tile floor in a hot room, so I woke and fanned Srey Loeum as she slept which was really quite romantic. Later she did the same for me. I left at noon and Srey Loeum gave me a much needed hat for the blazing sun. I headed back to my hotel for sleep, in a proper bed.

Good day, that.

(Later, when I returned the sun hat, I gave her a nice pair of ear rings and she almost fell over. We’ve shared some emails, and she is sad I’m not around, but loves the ear rings. It was all good, innocent fun.)