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Day 48 – Blog Post of the Leper King (Temples in Review)

April 20, 2010

Dateline: Siem Riep and outer temples of Angkor, Cambodia – Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Today I’m going to let the pictures do most of the talking. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and hopped on the back of my driver’s motorbike to see Angkor Wat at dawn.

Angkor Wat at dawn was much more appealing than when I first saw it four days ago. I got my peaceful, spiritual experience. Though I didn’t wander into the complex itself, the sight of the sun cresting over the temple was something special. Or, I’m just resolving some major cognitive dissonance since my ass was up before the roosters. Whatever. I liked it.

Then my driver and I headed off to revisit Bayon (Temple with Many Faces) and the Terrace of the Leper King. I wanted a second shot at seeing the place since the first time had been near noon, therefore (1) it was hotter than a stolen Maserati in Vegas in July and (2) the sun was high in the sky making for some terrible picture taking.

Apparently I wasn’t alone on the latter. I thought I’d seen photodorks before but it was nothing compared to this morning. They were working in teams. Two Chinese guys with tripods, multiple cameras, and a suitcase of gear were shooting the easterly view of Bayon. When I hit the upper terrace, I saw my first female photographer. She was set up under one of the faces with a tripod taking pictures of the morning light falling across its face. Further along, I found a younger German with an oversized camera shooting away while his girlfriend/wife wandered after with her tiny point and shoot. Mind you it was 6 a.m. That’s true love, baby.

If I had to do this part of the trip over, I’d try to see the temples near Siem Riep at dawn then at around 9:30 a.m. head back into town to avoid the heat and nap. At around 3 p.m., I’d head back into the complex to see a second set of temples just as the day cooled. Sounds crazy, but trust me, it’d be better. I found my enjoyment of places was greatly affected by how much shade there was and how hot it happened to be. I even have statistical proof: I took more pictures of places I saw during the early morning and afternoon than those I saw in the hottest parts of the day.

I got my own photo fix along with my fellow hobbyists and we headed to the outer temples.

We’re not on a tuk tuk today. Instead of being dragged around in a cart attached to a motorbike, I was on the motorbike itself. That’s because taking the tuk tuk would have been much slower. The temples are 35 km out of town, which doesn’t sound like much until you remember that the tuk tuk tops out at 25 km/h while the motorbike without attachments can hit a whopping 40km/h. It’s the difference between one hour and twenty minutes in the sun and just under an hour. No small thing when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

First stop was Kbal Spean, a holy place that’s situated along the banks of a river and waterfall. Or so they tell me. It’s dry season so there’s almost no water. Looking at the carvings though, I can imagine that this place would be pretty cool (both literally and figuratively) when there’s water.

It’s a 1.5 kilometer hike up through the jungle. The oldest reliefs carved into the rocks in and around the river date back to the 11th Century. It looks like they were carved in the dry season, then best experienced when the river fills up in the wet.

I haven’t talked about this much, but scattered throughout the temples of Angkor are linga and yoni. Linga are phallic symbols and yoni are the female equivalent. There’s a picture of a yoni in yesterday’s photoset. I bring it up here because today my impromptu guide at Kbal Spean pointed at a linga about two feet in diameter and said, “Need big yoni.” Since I’m juvenile, I thought this was funny.

The floor of the riverbed is mostly rock. The ancients carved these up, too. I’d think it has a neat effect when there’s water running over it.

Next up was Banteay Srei, one of the best examples of Khmer art in the Angkor area. The amount of detail carved into this temple is amazing. They also used warm colored and porous rocks so there are some neat lighting effects. It looks like the whole place is charred black by fire. A series of monkey statues used to guard the temple. Because of a combination of looting and attempts to preserve the artifacts, there are no longer any originals on-site. The ones you see in the pictures are recreations.

When we got back to the hostel and I’d had a nap, I decided to settle up my bill for the tuk tuk driver. The hostel guy at the front desk said I could pay him. He quoted me a price that was 10 bucks more than I expected. I started to get the feeling I was getting played. Lai had first quoted me $15 a day, but settled on $9 a day because I’d told him, thanks to Darrel (the Chinese climber I bunked with in Railay) I had a number for a guy who’d charge me $10. I’d later agreed to pay $25 bucks for the long trip out to the outer temples. That put my bill at $43. They wanted $50. I rang up Lai and he said the charge would be $10 for the first day, $15 for the Grand Circuit day, and $25 as agreed.

Now, I’m usually pretty laid back, but after days and days of having people try to squeeze money out of me, I was a little pissed. I argued that he hadn’t told me that the price had changed. He was adamant: Small Circuit was $10, but the Big Circuit cost $15. Something about gas and making a profit, which is total bullshit since gas only costs $1 for a full tank and we only ever filled up once. No dice.

I had to spend one more night in this place, so I decided to go peaceably. No sense in riling up the locals and getting my stuff stolen. I paid the $50, but didn’t give a tip. The front desk dude noted this. I told him that no one had told me about the changing prices.

Not tipping may not seem like a big deal, but for me it’s a sign that Cambodia’s “hardening” me to sob stories. I’m adopting the attitude of my British traveling companions: everyone’s playing games, looking for ways to get at your money. I’m starting to get the feeling that if I accidentally handed someone a $100 bill instead of a ten, they’d walk away without correcting my mistake.

I am a generous tipper. If someone has done good work, I consider it no big thing to toss in a few extra dollars to show my appreciation. I consider it good karma. Also, I don’t give money to bums on the street so I make up for this by giving a little extra to people who I know are doing good work. The driver himself, Mr. Poley, was good, but I felt cheated. No tip.

It’s silly. I’m sure a more confrontational person would have yelled and stomped their feet and threatened to do this or that (I’ve seen people do this before), but that’s not my style. For now, I’ll resort to these baby steps. Maybe tomorrow I’ll give someone a dirty look. Regardless, I need to start steeling up because I’ve heard that Vietnam is twenty times shadier than Cambodia.

After the yin of the tuk tuk bill, the world offered me a little yang to balance it all out. I found a Khmer dish that I really liked: friend onion with pork. You read that right, the onion is the main ingredient. The cook takes a large, white onion, chops it up, stir fries it so the onion’s still crunchy, then adds whatever meat you order. It had a nice bite to the flavor and I enjoyed the crispness of the onion. It also had me thinking that Thailand still’s messed me up—the only flavor that I enjoy is that of a nearly raw onion? My taste buds have truly been desensitized.

I had my onion at a gritty little street side restaurant. The dish cost one dollar and included rice. I celebrated with a 75 cent lagan shake. Best tasting meal so far in Cambodia.

Tomorrow I ditch the tourist flytrap that is Siem Riep and head for Phnom Pehn. I’ve heard there’s a bit less hustle in the capital, if nothing else because it’s more than just a tourist destination. I hope so. Much as I hate to admit it, it’s wearing me a bit thin.

Wow! This gallery of photos practically sells itself!

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