We've been in Cambodia for almost a week now. We've been in Siem Reap, in the north of the country, in order to visit the Angkor Wat heritage area. After so many days on the road (in frankly pretty gross accommodation), we decided to check into a hotel with a pool which, considering the soaring humidity and heat, has been a welcome addition. This is my current view:
(Pro tip: it looks weird when the photo sound goes off on your iPad and its pointed at a random child in the swimming pool)
I will tell you all about the temples we visited, but this post is more a pondering on a few things that we've seen/talked about/experienced over here.
First, the temples though. We chose to book a guide for 2 days who picked us up in his car (with air con and cold water! BRILLIANT!) and took us to 10 temples in total over the 2 days. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things temple and all things Cambodia. Alex asked if people were happy to discuss the Khmer Rouge or if it was off limits, and he received a year-by-year account of the political changes from 1975 to 1990! It didn't quite answer Alex's original question but it does show how much Boray knows about Cambodian history.
The temples were really very beautiful and, because we left the hotel at 7am both mornings, we got to see them before most of the crowds arrived (apart from Angkor Wat…the temple rather than the area… which was absolutely crammed with tourists!). Alex and I both preferred the quieter, more overgrown temples and, luckily, Boray was happy to tailor our visits so we could see more of them rather than the big tourist traps! Here are a couple of my photos (Alex's are still transferring to our shared photo stream but the Internet is rubbish here so they won't be ready to use for ages!):
Now the pondering…! Firstly, we have had a lot of chats about the street sellers here. We have been incessantly heckled, cajoled and practically bullied by street sellers to buy scarves, tshirts, paintings, weird flute things, cold drinks, the shirts off their own backs…pretty much anything and everything. While we both understand that, for these people, every tourist is an opportunity to make a sale, and they have to seize each opportunity with both hands, it has become more than tiring; it's become a source of irritation and weariness. Each time another person approaches us at the temple entrances or around Pub Street (the main tourist drag here), with the cry of “you buy something, lady? A scarf? For your mum? For a friend? For a souvenir? In your way back? You buy from me?”, its hard not to sigh with frustration as you launch in to your repetition of “no thank you, no thank you, no thank you”. It's almost as if they don't hear your response. It's completely futile. We have got to the point where we merely ignore the women calling out to us or the gaggle of children tugging at our sleeves while mumbling “you buy 10 postcard for 1 dollar? 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 for 1 dollar” like a small chorus. It begins to make you feel callous and unsympathetic but there's only so many times you can fork out for tat you really don't want or need, just to appease your conscience. Also, the sellers are more than insistent, they are bordering on abusive and aggressive. I have been accused of being a liar by one beggar child and Alex had an argument with another child who shouted “no, you listen! You buy or I don't go away!”
The other thing I have had a long and hard think about, and Alex and I have discussed at length, is the belief in karma. Boray cheerily told me that handicapped people are “not liked” in Cambodia because it is believed that they were bad people in their past lives and deserve the handicap they now live with. As you can imagine, that's a bitter pill for me to swallow. I had previously thought of Buddhist countries as sympathetic towards those less fortunate (as the Thai are to the lady boys who, they believe, should be pitied to an extent rather than persecuted. While pity is still not the blanket acceptance that should happen, it's better than outright disgust or vilifying.); however, I now regard the Cambodians as cruel following my conversation with Boray. This belief that karma is the reason people have disabilities extends to those who are mutilated by the remaining landmines. These people are left with next to no support from the government or their community as it is believed they deserved it. We have seen a number of these people trying desperately to carve a career for themselves besides begging. They try to sell books instead so they can then hold their heads high.
It seems to me that people who place too much emphasis on religion, including the Buddhist belief in karma, are too focused on the next life and do not make the most of the one they are currently living. Also, to me, it seems that “being good” to gain good karma and, therefore, a better life after reincarnation is self-serving and selfish. I know I am coming from an atheist point of view but it seems to be a pretty obvious line of thought…to me at least.
We have one more day left here in Siem Reap and then will return to Phnom Penh on the world's most disco-themed bus (black light decorations across the ceilings! Groovy!) so that Alex can fly back to the UK to start his 5 week shift at work. I am already pretty nervous about him leaving but, together, we've booked my flight to Thailand and made a vague plan for what I'll do in the immediate days after he leaves.
Sorry. This hasn't been too cheery as posts go! We really are having a great time and are really enjoying ourselves!! 🙂 the people here are, also, generally smiley and helpful…! Here are some more colourful, lovey-dovey pictures to show you it's not all doom-and-gloom and existential soul searching!