I thought I would do a single day exploration of the Angkor temples, thinking it was just one or two piles of rocks I'd be looking at, but I needed a three day pass to see all of them and I still don't think I spent enough time. The sun was beating down hard and climbing the insanely steep stairs of each temple was exhausting with the heavy camera equipment bag stuck to my sweat-soaked back. There is one hundred or so temples that were built between the ninth and fourteenth centuries and left for the jungle to swallow and for people to pilfer. Some of the temples have massive trees that have grown around and through the stone and now support some of the structures. It's fascinating to see the thick web of roots cascading down over the walls of the carved stones. Piles of rubble that used to be roofs lay everywhere and make me think, should I be walking under that unstable looking stone roof that hasn't collapsed yet? Some of the stone walls are leaning so far over that walking beside them is frightening. The movie 'Tomb Raider' was filmed in one of the temples, a guide that works there told me, just before he asked for fifteen dollars for twenty minutes of showing me the best spots to take my pictures. After each drive to the next set of temples, I would climb out of the car and was greeted by numerous vendors, all coveting the valuable American notes I was hiding in my pockets. "You need cold drink man?", "come eat here, I know your driver", and "you buy book?" were repeated to me a thousand times. Shoeless three foot tall kids with souvenirs strapped to their bodies ran over and blocked my passage to the temples, trying to convince me to buy their wares. It has become humourous and I've started to enjoy the attention, especially when the ladies yell "I love you". They absolutely get my business for putting in that kind of effort and commitment into their selling. Everyone is so poor in Cambodia and everyone struggles to get the tourists' money. I never haggle with any kid or vendor - what's the point? Anything you buy is so cheap, why not put a bit of extra money in their empty pockets. I find it strange when other tourists advise me to haggle and not pay full price for merchandise because I'm getting ripped off. But if I buy the same shirt in Canada it will be twenty times more expensive for the same quality. Shouldn't we be haggling in North America where we are really being screwed? I don't understand.
While I'm alone enjoying the magnificence of one of the many temples, a policeman walks up to me, looks around, and opens his badge so I can see the chrome star gleam in the sunlight. He then asks me for money. What the hell I'm I supposed to do in this situation? I don't have enough time to bury his body after wanting to beat him to death with his shiny badge, so I told him "sorry, I never carry any money with me", hoping this will make him go away. With his silly badge still open, he repeats his request and I repeat my answer about three more times. I finally get mad, turn around and walk to the exit of the temple without saying anything else. I look back a couple of times and he is nowhere in sight. I don't mind kids or homeless people asking me for money, but a policeman who gets paid regularly trying to scare me into giving him cash, that's nutty.
After the second night of sore knees from clambering up stone stairs, my Siem Reap guide, Mr. David, takes me to a Cambodian dance club, where I'm the only Caucasian strutting my stuff. When I first arrive, at least ten girls rush over and jam laminated cards with pictures of beer bottles right up against my face, so close I can almost taste the plastic. They start yelling the names of the beer they are trying to sell me. I get confused and feel like the elephant man cowering away from the advancing women. I start to laugh because it is so absurd the way they are all in a frenzy, pushing each others cards from in front of my eyes. I pull back and try to focus on what they are holding and I finally see, and point to, a familiar bottle of Thai beer that I enjoyed in Bangkok. The other girls leave in disgust, their obsession for me didn't last long. After I'm pickled enough, I get off my chair and dance. I even stay on the dance floor to do a traditional Cambodian dance, and two girls join me and help me with the steps. Round and round we go for about ten minutes while people are watching my ineptitude at mimicking the girls' movements. Mr. David and I sat down after the music changed to lovey-dovey slow dance time and to my surprise a beer wench sitting beside me was eating bugs from a bag. I was repulsed and fascinated at the sight of her munching on the black cockroaches like they were potato chips. I think they were cockroaches - they were certainly substantial in size and resembled them in the dark. She tore off the legs and wings and passed me one. I studied it for a few minutes, turning it over and over in my fingers and then the girl started giggling at me. She probably thought I wasn't going to eat it, so I popped it in my mouth and started chewing. Mmmmm... salty. Tastes like cold steak. She passed me another and this one was crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle. She passed me a third, but I proved I'm a manly man who can eat bugs so I didn't need anymore. Afterwards, with my head spinning, my ears ringing, and insect innards stuck between my teeth, Mr. David loads me in his car without telling me the destination. The sign is written in Cambodian, and even though I'm plastered I still can't read it. I realize moments after we enter that he has driven me to a brothel. The rows of emotionless girls behind the glass with numbers on their shirts sort of gave it away. Sure, number eleven was cute but I could be her great-grandfather. Mr. David was a little disappointed in me when I said I didn't want anything to do with prostitution. He drove me to my hotel quickly so he could get back before another male chose the girl he had his eye on. Oh Mr. David ... bad, bad, bad ... and I bet that's not your real name.
Photo credits: Ron Sumners.