Entertaining Angkor’s Army of Miniature Touts

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.

Angkor Temple Ruin

One of Angkor’s less crowded ruins.

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.

Angkor Temple With Tree

And a much more popular ruin—I waited a long time to get a photo with no tourists

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.

Angkor Temple Covered in Moss

This served as one of my many rain shelters throughout the day

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.

Treen Growing in Angkor Temple

This was another hard shot to get, given the near constant stream of people posing here

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.


  1. says

    After reading the post i had so many memories coming back to me! I loved Cambodia, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat…but. But…the heat was unbearable. Seriously. I am originally from a very hot country,so i’m used to survive at 40 degrees. But there…oh my, i was about to faint a couple of times! I asked the tuck tuck driver to drive me around just to get some air blowing on my face :) I’ve never been such a mess. And there were so many things to see. I tried to go early in the morning and for 1 hour i enjoyed the tour and the little kids too! I actually started a conversation with a couple of them and they are very friendly. Many people just get annoyed because they don’t take time to talk to them.
    Oh by the way, your pictures are AMAZING. Seriously. I wish i took them! What camera do you use? Mine are taken in the worst possible light and i’m very disappointed, but yours…wow!
    kle recently contributed to world literature by posting..“Indiana Jones and the cursed House”: Surviving an Insect Apocalypse in ThailandMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks, but unfortunately, those are pretty much the only four out of several hundred that somewhat turned out. More importantly, they’re the only ones for which I still had the RAW files, so I could go back and reprocess them. With the constant rain, having to shoot from under an umbrella, the poor lighting and the sky that, despite the cloud cover, still managed to be way too bright and ruin every picture it was in, I did not end up with many decent photos.
      I use a Canon EOS 450D.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Bullying Goats and Dive-Bombing VulturesMy Profile

  2. Chubby Chatterbox says

    Going to Cambodia in February to see this vast complex. Looking forward to it.

    • says

      My number one tip: hire a driver. People will fill your head with romantic images of pedaling around the ancient ruins, but those images are far from the reality: the complex is gigantic (around 1,200 square miles or the size of Los Angeles), the heat and humidity are oppressive and all bike seats are modeled after medieval torture devices.

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