Not many of the world’s great attractions live up to the hype, but the Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap is one that does. In fact, it exceeds expectations; I have yet to meet anyone who wasn’t impressed by the size and scope of the sprawling ancient city ruins. I also haven’t met anyone who wasn’t at least a little annoyed with the army of pint-size touts who work the site. Surprisingly—surprising to anyone who’s read at least a page of my blog, at least—I don’t count myself among them.
A constant stream of children demanding money or trying to sell me useless crap seems like the kind of thing that would annoy me, but in this case it didn’t. And I’m not even really sure why. I think it was probably largely due to an incredibly boring tuk tuk driver and the weather. It was raining pretty much the whole day I spent at Angkor and I really only had two options to try and keep my camera dry during the especially hard downpours: sit in the tuk tuk or take shelter under a large tree or a ruin. I tried the tuk tuk the first time the skies opened up, but the coma-inducing conversation of my driver kept me from considering that option again. Nice guy, but he’d make a better mute.
For the rest of the day, every time the rain picked up, I ducked underneath the nearest large tree or temple or archway or anything else that would keep me dry. And I was never alone. No matter where I took shelter, even in the most remote corner of Angkor with no other tourists in sight, at least one of the little mini touts somehow always seemed to find me.
They’d pop up out of the rain suddenly with a high-pitched “Mister, where from?” and proceed to tempt me with a cheap umbrella, apparently choosing to ignore the umbrella already in my hand or a pouch of postcards, pointing out that my own photos would likely be crap, given the weather (they were right about that one, it turns out) or any number of other useless little knickknacks. No matter what they were trying to sell me though, the conversation always began with a “Where from?”
The first two times I answered “Germany” and they fired back with some German phrase and when I answered, they answered back, all in German. Naturally, they could do the same in English. Since it was obvious I would be spending a large part of the day staying dry and entertaining tiny salespeople, I decided to entertain myself a bit, too. So I started to lie.
I told them I was from Spain or France or Japan or China or any country where I could speak a few words of the language. No matter what I answered, they knew how to say something in that language and for all but five languages, they knew more words than I did. It quickly turned into a game where they would try to one-up me and find languages where I would run out of words before they did. I’m sad to say, they won every time.
On a positive note, thanks to all the fun they were having with our little game, they always completely forget that they were actually trying to sell me stuff. As they were walking away, high-fiving each other and celebrating their victory, there always came a point where they suddenly stopped short as they realized that they’d gotten completely distracted from their objective. They never came back though. I guess by then it didn’t seem right, as they’d had a good time and I think they knew I wasn’t going to buy anything anyway. So off they went to find another victim.
And before you feel bad for the kids, I did actually help out a few of them. Whenever I wanted to buy something to eat or drink throughout the day, I’d simply send one of my little multilingual friends to the nearest stall to buy it for me. I gave them whatever amount of money it would’ve cost me anyway and just let them keep the change, since I knew they’d be able to get it for much cheaper than I could. And yes, I know any money they make ends up in the hands of the local crime bosses and by extension, the local police force, but whatever. I wish there was something I could do about that, but there isn’t.
One girl even came back with my water and returned all the change, shyly asking if she could keep a few coins for her efforts. That surprised me. When I told her she could keep it all, it was her turn to be surprised and she was so thrilled, she gave me one of the straw bracelets she was flogging. I have absolutely no use for it, but I’m pretty sure it’s still buried in my suitcase somewhere. If I had paid for it, there’s no way I would have kept it.
Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to the Angkor temple complex and I have to admit, I did not expect that. I realized from the first glimpse of the main temple, Angkor Wat, that the whole complex was far larger and far more impressive than I ever could have imagined, but even then, I was expecting to quickly get annoyed with the crowds and the touts. Add to that the lovely tropical rainstorms that somehow manage to make you feel like a vegetable in a steamer, while simultaneously dousing you in a torrent of water, so that you both shiver and sweat at the same time and I figured I would soon be directing my driver toward the exit.
Ironically, both the rain and the young touts actually helped make my time more enjoyable; the rain by keeping away the crowds and the easily-distracted sales force by helping me pass the time, whenever I had to wait out a downpour. And of course by fetching my food and water throughout the day. Finally, even my boring tuk tuk driver helped make my visit more enjoyable, simply by existing; because if I had spent the day pedaling myself around the gigantic complex on a bike like so many visitors do, I can guarantee you, I would not remember my time exploring the ruins quite so fondly.