Sorry about the radio silence, but the last few days have been physically exhausting–touring the Angkor temples. (The temple complex is generically called Angkor Wat, after the largest temples, but technically there are 38-odd temples in the area.) I’ve now taken over 200 photos, but since I haven’t been able to connect up my laptop or digital camera, and have been too exhausted to update the website anyway, you’re going to have to wait for a few more days–probably until I make it to Phnom Penh, the capital.
Cambodia is much hotter than Thailand, or else more humid, or *something*–I’ve successfully adjusted to Thai temperatures (mostly) but am really struggling here–sweating like a pig and worrying a lot about heatstroke. (Fortunately I almost dehydrated on Day 6 of AIDS Lifecycle–so I’m familiar with the symptoms.) The sun is much more intense here than in Thailand–really too hot to be out around midday, even though my pocket thermometer thinks it’s only 85-90 degrees. So we are touring the temples from 8am-11am each day, going back to the hotel from 11-3, then coming back to the temples in late afternoon.
I’ve also been suffering from acute culture shock, and a certain degree of pure frustration. Cambodians react to a solo Western traveler about the same way that male Caltech students behave around single women: latch on, hang on, and use every emotionally manipulative trick in the book to make sure that *they* are the ones who wind up with you. The good news is that once they’ve already got you, they’re generally quite friendly and helpful, i.e. you can basically trust anyone you’re already employing. Otherwise, assume anyone being friendly/helpful is setting you up for emotional blackmail. On the other hand, vendors generally set their prices fairly, and are fairly easy to spot when they don’t. so it’s almost the exact opposite of Thailand, where people are generally warm, friendly, and helpful, but in business dealings will happily overcharge you by vast sums without your knowing.
Anyway, having discarded the nice clueless-farang-please-help-me persona that worked in Thailand, and reverted to the suspicious Caltech-female (“Hi!” “Whaddya want from me?”) persona, I’m doing much better. It’s not a better or worse way of dealing with people, exactly–it’s just different. I think one of the hardest parts of traveling is that in every area, the cultural pitfalls/expectations are different–so the first few days in a new culture are sheer hell as your danger signals go crazy and you run into the unexpected.
It’s been particularly tough for me because I’m getting the worst of all worlds–I’m a Western traveler (therefore a good “mark”), but also an Asian female, therefore quiet/submissive/a good target for bullying–which is to say that beggars, moto drivers, etc. are two or three times more aggressive towards me than, say, the German guy I’m touring the temples with. Cambodia is also heavily male-dominated–waiters won’t speak to me, for example; if a man’s at the table, they ask him for my order, and so on. (I’m not sure if that’s related to being Asian–they do seem to notice/talk to Caucasian women. I wonder if they think I’m a prostitute, now that I think of it. They certainly present him with the bill.)
Anyway, whatever the reason, I’m getting pretty frustrated with the whole thing–if this keeps up, I swear I’m going to kick one of these fuckers in the balls. I’m getting very tired of being “leaned on” continuously by guys who expect me to cave in because I’m Asian and female. For Christmas, all I want is a T-shirt reading “WESTERN FEMINIST BITCH”.
(No, that is *not* a chip on my shoulder. It’s a fucking BRICK, and I’m about to brain you with it. Sweet and pretty Japanese tourist lady turns into Ramba. Thank goodness I had eight years in mathematics–not to mention self-defense–to toughen up for it. Good gods.)
At any rate, having re-set my expectations, I’m doing a good bit better than I was two days ago. I have a guide, and am touring the ruins with three German tourists–our guide speaks very good english and I’ve asked him to take me to some of the rural weaving villages after the ruins tour. (No, we’re not going into the forest looking at dyeplants and such–Siem Reap area was heavily landmined, and although temples and villages are safe, you don’t want to be in the outback.) I’ve learned how to deal with the amputee beggars and the kids that mob every vehicle wanting to sell you postcards, T-shirts, etc.–they’re largely harmless (not pickpockets), and actually very cute (I took a photo of Frank, the German guy, getting mobbed by some). As long as you don’t get into conversations with any vendors, you’ll be fine.
Now, about the ruins…
The Angkor Wat region contains some really amazing temples–Angkor Wat itself is absolutely stunning, about 1.3 kilometers on a side, with a giant moat around the entire complex. (We are not talking a little moat, as is common for European castles. When I first saw the Angkor moat, I thought it was a lake (!). It’s HUGE.) The complex itself is enormous, with five levels (I think), almost every square inch of which is covered with elaborate (and beautiful) stone carvings, from the Angkar sigil (repeated on every door and window) to bas-reliefs of various historical and mythological events (almost the entire outside wall), and apsaras (divine maidens) everywhere.
It’s impossible to convey it in words–there isn’t any modern work the SIZE of Angkor, let alone with the beautiful stonework. If you took the Pentagon (please! 😉 ), transformed it into an elaborately architected cathedral, and then covered every inch (and I really do mean every inch) in gorgeous stonecarvings, you might come close, but I still don’t think it would capture the sight. It’s beautiful.
And it’s only one of the many temples in the area–not even the central one. Almost all the temples are similarly impressive, in one way or another–the Bayon has 54 towers, each with 4 giant stone faces carved into it (each head maybe 2-3 meters across), the “Jungle Temple” is filled with giant trees growing out of the ruins, and the other temple we visited this morning (I forget the name; it was a tribute to the king’s teacher) sported what our guide described as a “swimming pool”.
Okay, it’s a swimming pool. It’s just about the size of, oh, four or five football fields….500 meters by 300 meters, the size of a small lake. About ten feet deep originally. Dug out by HAND, about 800 years ago. Ye gods.
*That* is the scale of Angkor.
I’m running out of time, as I have to get lunch before going back to the temples this afternoon–I’ll try to write a little more about the experience of touring the ruins tonight, but not sure if I’ll get to it; the heat is exhausting and I’m also enjoying hanging out with my fellow tourists, so there isn’t much time in the evenings. Tonight we may go to Le Bayon, one of the best restaurants in Siem Reap, per my guide.
I’ll probably hang around in Siem Reap for a day or two after I’m done touring, both to write stuff up and to take a day “off” from traveling. Phnom Penh has better connectivity, but I really need a break.