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There is just no way I can even attempt to explain or interpret Angkor Wat and the many other equally impressive temples of Angkor that we visited in Siem Reap, so I’m not going to try – I’m just going to put up a few photos of our first day around Angkor to give you a very basic sense of what we saw.

We took a guide, Mr. San Park, for that first day, which was a mixed blessing. Mark and I really got a lot out of having him along; Chloe got a little something out of it; and Ciaran was mostly annoyed that on top of being hauled around from boring temple to boring temple, now he was also being asked to stand still and listen to reams of information about things he wasn’t really all that interested in even looking at in the first place.

To be fair to Ciaran, it was rather a lot of information to take in, much of it about complicated Hindu epics and myths that can be difficult to follow if you aren’t already familiar with them, and more so when you’re listening to a guide who, despite his comparatively excellent English, nonetheless speaks with an accent that requires you to pay quite close attention to each word. The kids did enjoy scrabbling and climbing all over the ruins, especially those at Ta Prohm, where the jungle is slowly reclaiming what the Khmers worked so hard to create a thousand years ago. Massive trees have grown all over the remains of the temple, and their thick, sinewy roots, which reminded us of flash-frozen lava, look to be slowly squeezing the sandstone to death. This is where the Angelina Jolie film, Tomb Raider, was filmed. She is reported to have arrived near Angkor Wat via helicopter, where apparently she stepped out and immediately borrowed a cell phone from a nearby monk!


To get to Angkor from our guesthouse, we took a tuk-tuk driven by Mr. Marom, who helps out around the guesthouse when he’s not busy driving. This seems to be a mutually beneficial arrangement he has with the guesthouse: in exchange for his “free” help, Marom has informal access to its guests and can readily pick up work that way, since virtually everyone coming here is planning one or more visits to Angkor. We left at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get back until nearly 4 or 5 p.m., so it was a long—and very hot—day for everyone.


While Angkor was fascinating and awe-inspiring, I was equally interested in the stories of the two men who spent the day with us. Mr. Marom, for example, earns a maximum of $15 (on a regular day) to $40 (on rare occasions when clients want to travel to very remote temples) per day. He has two children, both of whom go to public school for half the day. He sends them to private school for the other half so they can learn English. This costs him $800 a month. When times are lean, he simply takes them out of private school for a while. (It is normal for Cambodian kids to go to school for just half a day—they either go in the morning from 7 to 11 a.m., or in the afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. This makes the greatest possible use of both teachers and facilities.)

We were sitting there doing the math – even if he made the rare $40 per day all the time, and worked all seven days of the week, he would still only earn $1,120 a month, leaving him about $300 for the entire family to live on after school fees. From that, deduct the cost of gas (at a steep $1.25 per litre) and maintenance to his motorcycle and tuk-tuk. I’m not sure how much would be left, but it seems very little.

That said, it would still be a pretty tidy sum by Cambodian standards. Police officers, we were told, earn about $35 a month, which goes a long way towards explaining the rampant corruption. As an example of corruption, consider the interesting fact that just 2 per cent of Cambodian drivers have valid licenses—which goes a long way towards explaining the traffic patterns. The cost of a license for one year is $35, while the fine for being caught without one is $3, and less if you negotiate well. So you’d have to get caught without a license (or with an expired one) at least a dozen times in a year to even make the purchase (or renewal) of one worthwhile.

Most teachers at public schools make more a paltry $55 a month, which is why many “public” schools ask their students to pay $5 a week towards their teachers’ salaries.

Then there’s our guide, Mr. San Park, who charges $25 per day. That would seem a kingly sum by local standards, but he is completely freelance, so often goes days without pay, and when clients book him through their hotel, the hotel keeps a healthy proportion. Still, it’s a better living than many he’s had in the past.

Now 38 and with two children, he remembers his father being conscripted by the Khmer Rouge when he was just four years old. As a young adult after the war, he got a job on a farm. Finding the work difficult and exhausting, he moved on to Siem Reap, where he worked in construction. He would work all day, then study English in the evenings. Eventually his English became good enough for him to get a job with a demining company, where his task was to report daily on where land mines were being found and what progress was being made with regards to dismantling them. (According to estimates, there are still two or three million scattered about the country.) After taking a one-month training course, he eventually became a deminer himself, and did this job for another six years or so, until the company was found to be stealing money from the NGO that was funding the work, and was disbanded, putting 3,000 deminers out of work. That was when he became a tuk-tuk driver, a job that offered him better opportunities to practice his English. When he felt his English was good enough, he became a guide, a job he says he’s happy with.

We learned all of this (and much more) from Mr. San Park during a lunch break in between temples, and I’d have to say that talking to him about his life and the impact of war on it was at least as interesting as visiting the temples of Angkor.

Here are a few other photos from the day.


Posted by The Rymans 07:01 Archived in Cambodia Tagged family_travel

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