Yesterday and today are our “free days” in Siem Reap. We finished our Saturday through Monday three day tour of the temples early Monday afternoon. I think the high point of the Temple Tour was stopping at a Buddhist Temple near Buphuon Temple. The Buddha was one of the largest we had seen and dated from the late 19th Century. That this beautiful statue had survived Pol Pot was miraculous. The elderly women, three nuns and a laywoman, had also managed to survive those terrible years, too. I paid tribute to the Buddha and laid a few dollars where other’s had given offerings. I’m not one of these women who seek out that woo-woo metaphysical Power of Womyn. I think the whole “Goddess Within” movement is, frankly, a bunch of BS and a bastardization of several cultures. But the feminine energy. The Woman Energy I felt at this temple was palpable. After I paid tribute to Buddha: I turned to walk away and one of the nun’s, ancient with Betel stained teeth, grinned widely at me and motioned for me to approach the alter again and she waved The Girl up as well. We both bowed before them and the women gathered around us: bowing, waving incense and chanting joyful sounding sing song verses over us. It was easily one of the most sacred moments I have experienced in many years. When they were finished they tied red yarn bracelets to our right wrists. Our guide told us they offered us prayers of peace, prosperity and joy. I was extremely touched they allowed us, both Western and Christian, to partake in such blessings. I think Tida–our guide–was moved we were interested in doing such a thing. She has a sense of reverence for the stories each temple tells and touches her own spirituality each time she visits. Sharing the temples is something she wants to do and the temples still take Tida’s breath away. I was even more proud of my red yarn bracelet after she told us this.
Tida’s story unfolded over the course of three days and I think she is easily one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met. Her father had been a physician and lied to the Khmer Rouge: told them he was just an assistant and then refused to go to the “retraining” school (aka The Killing Fields) but would gladly become a farmer. Her elder brother and sister didn’t fare so well. They were professionals and were disappeared when she was very young. We aren’t quite sure how Tida managed but she resisted her mother’s pleas to quit school at 16 and marry like the other girls in her village. Tida managed to make enough money to finish twelve years of school and learn English. She put her self through three years of university and trained to be a licensed guide through UNESCO. She did marry but is divorced with a daughter who lives with her parents, a day’s journey away. Tida has no interest in marrying again: “I can go anywhere and do what I want if I’m not married.” Her next goal is to learn yet another language. I have no doubt she will accomplish this. The Girl and I were amused Tida was a favorite with all the young men working at the Angkor complex. You could hear their hearts speed up when she spoke to them. Our driver Kriss is hopelessly in love with her and watching the two of them was a Rom Com waiting to happen but Tida is not budging so they’ve only met cute and disagree cute and haven’t arrived to the hook up cute place.
It’s a well known fact I like to watch people and there are certainly lots of different people to watch. The children at each temple with their pleas to buy a scarf, cold drink, bracelets, books, flutes, puppets and other what-not are all very sweet and extremely incessant. A few of them try to tug at the old heart strings: “Buy from me so I can go to school. . .” We happened to know school is free when you are eight so this didn’t work with us. I imagine it works with many people. There were so many of them I felt like if I did buy from one of them I would be swarmed and never heard from again, buried under flutes and scarves and puppets and cold bottles of water. So you ran the gauntlet and waved them off with “no thank you’s” and “not today” sorts of replies.
We did have additional guides at the first temple we toured: Beng Mealea, an example of a temple that hasn’t been rebuilt. The young boys greeted us in the center of the temple and led us on a “special” tour, oblivious to our advanced ages and well used knees. But it was worth it, they knew were all the good stuff was: bas relief fragments, tree root sculptures and things our guide hadn’t seen before. All of this was done free of charge: they were just killing time exploring and practicing their English before afternoon school. This was their home, their kingdom and their playground. They could rehearse the history because they had spent so much time hearing the history in several different languages. The oldest boasted he spoke a little German and French as well as English. It was a lovely welcome into the Khmer culture, people who have welcomed us each step of the way.
The other tourists aren’t too dreadful; the usual American Frat Boy hijinks in Pub Street, beautiful young Western women, scantily clad and then upset when they garner leers and catcalls (WTF did they expect?) ; middle-aged folks like us somewhere between cruise ship and intrepid mentality; young families from Australia and certainly NOT America because the tuk-tuks don‘t have care seats and the little precious dears might eat something with dirt on it or have a less than pristine experience. There are a couple of billboards around town reminding people–Western men specifically–if they abuse a child not only will they be arrested in Cambodia but they will be turned over to their home governments. We’ve only seen one blatant example of this sort of “tourist”. He was outside of Bayon and was trying to gain the attention of a young woman: “You really should untie your hair, it’s too beautiful to be hidden.” was his oily, British come on. It made my stomach turn and I will go to my grave kicking myself for not marching up to him and demanding he bugger off or I would alert the officials. I did notice an older woman was hovering close by. But this young woman was obviously uncomfortable. Later, at the temple, while I was being blessed I prayed for forgiveness and protection for the girls Sir Perv was coming in contact with. And yeah, I confess I later whispered a beggy evil prayer that I would see him again and step on his toe or spit on him because I’m not quite to the level of Buddha and Jesus and don’t walk the path of peace when it comes to people exploiting other human beings.
Fortunately we haven’t exploited our gastrointestinal systems with the “local fry”. Yet. Buddha knows I’ve tried: iced tea, iced coffee and every flavor of amok available from the dodgiest of market stalls to Air Con luxurious restaurants. But the best food we’ve had was at this restaurant outside the last temple we toured. Of course I don’t remember the name of it and can’t find the picture of the menu but trust me it was an Anthony Bourdain meal: interesting but straightforward “Local Fry” made especially for us by a woman and her two eldest daughters while the younger girls played quietly and tormented their baby brother. Ahhh the international language of siblings. Nice to know in a place so foreign to me some things remain same-same.