Karma in Cambodia

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It’s an exciting time to travel to Cambodia and visit its ancient cities. Recently discovered under the jungle is a huge metro area that researchers believe is larger than Phnom Phen, Cambodia’s capital of just over 2 million people. When uncovered, this ancient Khmer city will have been part of the largest empire on earth in the 12th century. Before the modern archeological scanning method, using lasers and helicopters, researchers wondered where all the people who worshiped at the temples around Tonle Sap Lake lived. Not only did they discover the existence of a huge city, but they know that this culture had advanced water systems including canals and dams, and are hopeful that through excavation, they will be able to understand the collapse of the area. Now archeologists from all over the world, and the bank accounts of friendly governments are pouring in support and resources to continue archaeological research and excavation. 

But, I am not going to write about Angkor Wat or any of the ancient cities in the Siem Reap area, because lots of bloggers before me have already done a great job with that tale. There’s It’s A Creekmore World who share some temple history in digestible bits, great tips from Everywhere Once and Lonely Planet has all the deets. I’m going to write about the tourists.

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Besides enjoying the temples and excavations, I find people watching entirely alluring. I can’t keep my eyes, interest and sometimes disgust cast aside. I suppose this is where I might leave a disclaimer – a warning of sorts. If you tend away from criticizing our fellow human, you might want to stop reading now, because while the ruins were fascinating, tourists and their odd behaviors were much more intriguing for a lover of all things social! And the fact that it is hotter than hell here makes me a little testy. Beware!

img_5984img_6027The first thing that caught my attention was the en masse posing and selfie action. In my family, we tend to be a little shy about bringing out a camera in public at all, let alone using it to take pictures of ourselves, so I am always shocked by tourists and their very blatant photographic endeavors of self-admiration. But, selfies and selfie sticks are the rage here on the Banana Pancake Trail, so I’ve tried to join the fun a bit to Max’s great chagrin! Here’s what I came up with.

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The tourist dance move that really got my goat was when we were walking up narrow steps into the temples and somebody would stop to take a photo leaving the one hundred plus people behind them unable to move forward. To encourage even more animosity, the stopping place always involved a bit of shade leaving those of us waiting behind left to simmer in the scalding hot sun. So self-centered and unaware it seems to me.

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I get that photographers really want to make sure their picture is just right, but I stand in firm belief that they should be as unobtrusive as possible. The lady on the left was asking some tourists resting in the shade if they could move so she could take a shot from that spot! The guy on the right was shooing people out of his view and asking them to stop while he took A LOOONG series of images. Just a little audacious, no?

img_5985img_5994The most spectacularly fun and not irritating people watching of the day was a guy on horseback who I saw just as we entered the main gate at Angkor Wat. When you enter the site, there is a very long raised stone causeway that leads to the temple. On both sides of the walkway are grounds – grass fields with ponds and trees dotting the humungous area.

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Notice the ladies in matching white shirts and brightly patterned pants? The reverent outfit can be purchased at the temple gate. Hundreds of people wore the same costume meant to cover exposed skin.

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Off to my right was this tourist on horseback being led by a man walking holding the reigns across the Angkor Wat plain. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the archeology, I just couldn’t pull away from the vision and nearly tripped a few times in the process. The more I watched him and took it all in, the stranger it became. Perched atop a horse (that seemed a bit small for his stature), he held his phone up in video pose watching the ruins approach him through the screen of the camera. Sadly I failed to get a photo but loved watching in disbelief. I pointed him out to Max who in his teenage glory replied, “Cringe.” I know what happens when one assumes, but still, I would think the average adult would be far too embarrassed to ever imagine that sitting atop a small horse to be led across a large yard with thousands of watchers could somehow be fun. Perhaps he was filming his own version of “Tomb Raider” and rather than filming the ruins he approached, he was actually filming himself. If he were a little kid or holding his 2-year-old we would have thought it cute. But he was at least 50 and alone. And, yes, he had both legs and could walk. I stand accused; judgemental, indeed!

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Catching a lot of looks was the lady in lotus pose and sacred hand position on one of the Buddha platforms at Bayon Temple with her white skirts spread around her like a flashing light in the dark of night. Not accustomed to witnessing such a gesture to the temple dieties, I was certainly curious as were others.

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Temple fashion was also fun to observe. As there is supposedly a bit of a visitor dress code for modesty and reverence, many of the temple guests made hasty changes to their wardrobe upon arrival. Fearing his shorts may be a bit less than sacrosanct, the man below donned a sarong in an attempt to respectfully cover himself above the knees. Another man, didn’t think his excessive show of leg would at all insult the gods and was quite content to cover his tank top with wild chevron. Also popular were brightly colored pantaloons sold by street vendors outside the temples with bold images if Siam elephants and tigers. It seemed odd that so many women wore the same pants until I saw the vendors, but it didn’t really catch my attention until I saw men also wearing the britches. The Zubaz craze had found its way to Cambodia! Sorry, no clandestine photo available of that image, but you remember the hideous look. Sorry, gentlemen of Zubaz appeal, I know your argument is that they are comfortable, but the look is terrible. Truth be told.

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Incongruous is this attempt to be pious while all over the temples, ancient carvings and stone sculptures show naked midriffs, phallic icons ejaculating light rays and a huge “free the nipple” campaign over 800 years old! Oh, now look who’s being sacrilegious!

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This wise guy was in charge of watching over those who disobeyed the sanctity of the posted rules. Ironic that “Do Not Climb” signs were everywhere, yet climb they did…all in the name of the perfect photo. I would think that karma may show that action has a consequence, and either in this life or the next it will catch up with them. I may be a convert to Buddhism after all these temples – eternally damned for criticism of temple visitors and likely to be reborn as one of the Ta Phom bats condemned to watch over the tourists into my every afterlife.

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img_5990Besides the standard manner of traveling via tuk-tuk through the vast areas of these ancient city-states and temples, we saw helicopters giving tours overhead, lots of folks on bikes and this – a hot air balloon hovering above the great temple at Angkor Wat. This place attracts some of the world’s wealthiest people as well as young backpackers, so hotels, restaurants, and mode of transport run the gamut of the financial ladder. The per capita income for Cambodians is just a little over $1,000 per year.
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It’s easy to criticize other tourists because there is some unwritten rule about us not talking to each other. Perhaps we all want to feel that we are the only ones, the special ones. But, the Cambodians are friendly and can often be heard yelling out a big, “Hello!” as they pass. As kids left school today, they rode by on their bikes shouting greetings and I scored this cute picture! No backpack, no homework, just free for the day!

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Of course, like all of our visits to historical sites, we tend to fly on the fast track. I could have learned a lot more about the ruins if we had hired a tour guide, but it was much too fun staring at the oddities of the visitors, and I wouldn’t want to be singled out or spotted. As a traveler right now, I really struggle with the feeling that I/we are imposing too much of ourselves on the world, and prefer to tread as lightly as possible. I want to be able to quietly sneak in, take a peek and leave. Carrying this attitude I suppose, makes the “loudness” of others easy to critique.

The ruins and different temples were fascinating. We loved each of them for their own distinctions. It will be exciting for the world to watch over the next couple of generations the excavation and preservation of the colossal cities of worshippers found on the mountain beneath Mount Kulen called Mehendraparvata. I suspect the annual income of Cambodians to rise as tourism will continue to bring strange oddities with pockets full of money to the area. I just hope they come with good manners and quiet ways. But who am I to say what’s right!
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7 thoughts on “Karma in Cambodia

  1. Totally appreciate your people watching observations! And, temple dress is fascinating. I heard there were reports of tourists taking photos in the nude in the temples last season… Such is the obsession with the perfect photo, I suppose!

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  2. Hi Sarah –

    I love reading this blog! People-watching really should get more ink. People certainly are weird creatures. I notice most people carry phones constantly and click plenty of photos. Maybe it’s my imagination but I think the Asian people take most of the selfies in Ithaca, and travel with selfie sticks.

    One of Ithaca’s homeless guys was taking a break from the rain under a canopy with a cup of coffee. A woman walking with a phone passed by him then slowly elevated her phone above her head taking backward selfie photos of the dude. I thought he might giver the finger … She would be a good tourist for you to observe.

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