Just after 5 am our alarm clock went off for the second time. Siem Reap was slumbering as we stepped onto the balcony to survey the star studded night sky. There was not a hint of the sunrise we had risen so early to see, but today, fighting off the urge to stay in bed we were determined to walk 20 km around the temples of Angkor.
After a cold and consequently quick shower, we got dressed hurriedly, and descended into the darkness of the alley that led to our guesthouse clutching the baked treats we had bought the night before. Once out on the dusty street, a succession of bleary-eyed tuk-tuk and moto drivers approached us. A few unsuccessful negotiations ensued before we were able to find a tuk-tuk driver who was willing to just take us to the ticket gate at Angkor. Finally, we were on our way chugging towards the gates of Angkor in the cool dawn.
After paying for our 3-day passes, we began walking the 4 km to Angkor Wat; as the only pedestrians on the road through the forest, we were in a race against the rising sun as we marched towards our goal. Coaches, cars, taxis and motorbikes sped past us, but we arrived just in time to see the first rays of sunlight peek over the horizon, climaxing in the warm glow of the burning orb, which quickly rose into the sky bathing everything in its subtle light.
After sunrise at Angkor Wat, we hot-footed it to Angkor Tom and the Bayon to beat the crowd of tourists snapping photos of Angkor and purchasing breakfast from the cafes which had been set up inside the complex to meet the needs of the captive audience. From there, we headed over a bridge, which was bordered on either side with figures tugging a mythical Naga. Some of the figures’ heads had been removed, and reportedly sold on the black market to so-called “collectors”, but many were still intact.
At the Bayon, we saw a much cruder, starker and less ornate style of decoration and came face-to-face with the famous carved heads, which make one feel surrounded.
Later we visited Ta Prom, better known as the setting for Tomb Raider. I had visited Ta Prom on my last visit, and was saddened to see that it lacked much of the magic it had had when I first saw it. Gone was the lush grass underfoot – it had been walked away by the steady stream of tourists; so bad was the erosion that ugly wooden walkways had been introduced throughout. Much of the overgrown forest seemed to have been cut back so that restoration work could be completed. The complex was no longer the ‘secret garden’ I remembered. It was impossible to find a quiet spot to just lie back and relax in peace because guided tour groups crowded every available space.
This made us reflect on the negative effects of tourism and the fact we were also part of the problem. After all, we had paid for our three day ticket and made the pilgrimage to Siem Reap specifically for Angkor. Do the positive effects of tourism e.g. employment, preservation of cultural heritage etc outweigh the negative impacts of pollution from tour busses, inflation of prices, foreign investment or damage of the very ruins which attracted tourists in the first place? Would quotas need to be introduced as they have on the Inca Trail in Peru or at the Potala Palace in Tibet?
How the capital of Cambodia has changed in the last decade! It is surprising to see how the city has mushroomed; SUVs are everywhere, crowding roads and hogging pavements. Western-style supermarkets have sprung up, where NGO employees, diplomatic staff and tourists can shop in air-conditioned comfort for imported goods from all over the globe. We even saw a Mango (the Spanish clothing retailer) shop being built! Yet it became increasingly clear that the ‘trickle down effect’, which should theoretically accompany this newfound wealth (from tourism, donations from foreign charities and NGOs), is not being felt by all.
In the backstreets of the city, about 10 minutes from the main bus station and the shining new shopping mall, which is too expensive for many locals (we only saw expats and a couple of nuns wearing the blue-trimmed white robes favoured by Mother Teresa), we were confronted with the grim reality of life for the street children of the capital.
A group of boys were huddled together, sheltering from the sun, like a pack of mangy dogs, sniffing glue from plastic bags. They were absolutely filthy and so lethargic between sniffs of glue that they did not even attempt to approach us or beg for money. They seemed resigned to their fate. On another corner more boys were trawling through huge piles of fetid rubbish, looking for whatever that they could salvage.
In Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, beggars seemed to be everywhere. Given the huge number of NGOs in Cambodia, which claim to be doing everything from supporting women to increasing literacy, rehabilitating prostitutes and employing amputees, it was hard to understand why there were so many people still going without.
Was it the result of corruption or misappropriation of funds? Was the sheer number of people in need so large that charities could not cope? Were all of the beggars genuine? Probably not. But every evening dinner was punctuated by constant requests to give money, buy postcards and purchase trinkets. Over time it became frustratingly difficult to distinguish the needy from the greedy. Was the best policy to give nothing, no matter who was asking, or should one make a snap judgment based on how disheveled the beggar looked? Should one buy postcards from the school girl in a grubby uniform, or the child in a tattered T-shirt with matted hair? What about the man crawling on the floor, who has had all but one limb amputated?