After a good night’s rest, we were ready to go at 7:30am on Sunday when our driver came to collect us for the Grand Tour. When he introduced himself, he said that he knew a little about the temples and we could ask him questions if we wanted to. This turned out to be good because in my effort to make sure our packs were as light as possible, I inadvertently left the guidebook at the hotel. As it turns out, most of the temples we would see were more in ruins and didn’t have as many detailed carvings as Angkor Wat, so it wasn’t as crucial to have a guidebook. With the brief info from our driver, we did OK. (Of course, there is a lot to learn about each temple, but from a strictly “what are we looking at?” point of view, it was fine.)
According to Lonely Planet, one of the temples with the most intricate and beautiful carvings is Banteay Srei- about an hour or so outside of Siem Reap. We had decided this was not to be missed, so this was the extra temple we tacked on. We settled into our tuk tuk for the ride out there and enjoyed a much different picture of Cambodia than we had seen so far. While I wouldn’t call Siem Reap a bustling metropolis, it definitely had small city qualities. Driving outside of Siem Reap, we drove through some rural areas. It was actually really nice to get this picture of life outside a tourist zone. Another interesting thing is that the Communist party still participates in government. We saw a lot of their offices scattered in neighborhoods, we assume as some kind of community center that also disseminates propaganda. In fact, they had loud speakers on posts, broadcasting something. It could have been a weather report or the latest football scores for all we know, but it’s more fun (in a Cold War sense) to think of it as propaganda.
Another reason we love our GoPro! Here’s video from driving through the countryside on our way to (and from) Banteay Srei. Also available on our YouTube channel.
When we arrived at Banteay Srei, there was almost no one there. It was idyllic. About 5 minutes later, a tour bus pulled up. Great. I try to take a cultural relativist view (this other culture that I do not fully understand is not weird/good/bad, just different from mine), and overall I think I mostly do a good job. As with most cultural rules, some of the “how to act in tourist settings” rules are very different depending on your home culture. And it can be infuriating when those rules collide, no matter how entrenched in cultural relativist ideology you are! There were two big examples of this at the temple. Before the bus unloaded, the half dozen or so tourists who were already there were nicely taking turns taking pictures in front of the temple while the rest of us stepped out of the way. There was even some camera sharing so couples could have their picture taken together, rather than each person by themselves. As soon as the bus-full got to where we were, all of this nice turn taking stopped. People were standing where ever, without any regard for whose pictures they might be in or whether they had walked in front of a camera. Micah and I patiently waited a few minutes, but it was clear that nothing was going to get better. After a few minutes, Micah just hopped up to the place he wanted to stand, which happened to be a few feet from a woman who had been having her picture taken for 5 minutes in different poses…the same woman who had originally deposed Micah from that spot. She said, “Hey!” and glared at him, but we both just glared back and said something to the effect of “We have been waiting since before you got here.” We took our pictures and went on our way. I’m sure she thinks we are incredibly rude. I’ve decided I don’t care.
The other “tourist behavior” clash that I had a hard time with was the noise level. At the entrance to each temple, where you show your pass to the guard, there is a big sign about the rules. One of them is to speak quietly to honor the reverence of the temple environment. This makes sense; ancient temples are not the appropriate venue for a dance party. Many of the tourists coming off the bus, however, had music playing through iPod speakers, quite loudly! First, the temples don’t need a pop music sound track. Second, why would you assume that the rest of us want to hear your music?! It was very frustrating. Fortunately for us, these first few minutes at this temple were the only major “tourist behavior” clashes for the weekend and the rest of the day was just fine.
Lonely Planet describes Banteay Srei as “one of the smallest sites at Angkor, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in stature.” We definitely found this to be true. The carvings were so detailed; the amount of work that went into them was phenomenal.
When we were done at this temple, we thought we would be on our way to do the Grand Tour of the Angkor complex. Turns out, our driver had another plan. He took us to Banteay Samre. Banteay Samre is from the same period as Angkor Wat, while Banteay Srei was earlier. Sweet, bonus temple!
The next two temples, Pre Rup and Eastern Mabon, were both built as crematoria. They were both relatively small & not a lot of details remaining. Pre Rup had a lot of stairs going to the top level, where there were amazing views and a nice breeze. The stair treads were narrow and uneven, and at 19 weeks pregnant I had my first “I need help” moment. (I hate admitting I can’t do something, so actually asking for help was a big step for me.) I didn’t trust my balance on the way down and made Micah walk in front of me and hold my hand. Totally worth the “indignity” for the view and experience though!
Many of the temples had lions for guardians. Eastern Mabon also had elephants! This really tickled me, for some reason. I really loved the elephants. Maybe because it was something different, but also elephants are just really neat.
Next we went to Ta Som, which was another jungle temple. It also had the huge heads that Bayon had. It was (temperature) cool thanks to the trees. Our driver had told us to walk all the way through because there is a tree that grows over the door. We didn’t really understand what he meant, but we followed his instructions. Sure enough, on the back side of the temple there was a tree growing on top of the door while the roots came around the sides of it! It was neat to see!
All of the temples have “vendors” outside. Many of them are selling fresh fruit or other snacks and water, and we patronized quite a few of them. But there are also “vendors” that we might call peddlers in the States. Often times they are kids, some of them quite young. Tourists are advised not to buy anything because it encourages them to not go to school. And they all have the same postcard packet and key chains anyway. At Ta Som, I was standing to the side while Micah was taking pictures. I had Ranger Duck in my hand so he would be ready for his close up, as it were, and a little girl approached me with her tray of junk. I would guess she was about 7. After I told her no thank you, she stood by me and kept asking questions: “Where are you from?” and she showed off her impressive knowledge that the capitol of the U.S. is Washington D.C. A fact that she had likely memorized by rote instead of learning in any kind of context. I complimented her and told her she was very smart. She pulled the biggest puppy dog pout I had ever seen because I still didn’t want to buy her postcards. (It almost worked.) Then she saw Ranger Duck in my hand and her face totally changed, “What’s that?” I explained how we take pictures of him in funny places and she giggled a little. I walked away at this point, because I was pretty sure I would have bought all of her postcards and/or given away Ranger Duck if she had asked. Both of which were unacceptable outcomes.
Coming Up: The Grand Tour Continued! The finale of the Cambodia series.