Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Angkor Who?

Angkor Wat is the most well known landmark in Cambodia, and also the biggest draw for foreign tourism. I had the following conversation at least eight times:

Japanese coworker: Emily, are you going back to America for New Year's?
Me: No.. I'm, um, going to Cambodia instead.
Japanese coworker: Cambodia?! Whatever for?
Me: Um.. well, Angkor Wat..?
Japanese coworker: Ah, of course! Angkor Wat, how cool.

It was a little different with the people who had seen my poster/whom I had begged for money for our required PEPY donation. So you're going down there to volunteer? Well, not exactly... But it seemed too complicated to explain in that mid-hallway standing situation that voluntourism is lately coming under criticism and there are other ways to help. That patching a school's roof or repainting it in a weekend between touring Angkor Wat and getting cheap massages is not the most effective aid to education in a developing place.

But I digress. All I mean is, "Angkor Wat" were the two words (Angkor means city, and Wat means temple) that launched my mysterious winter vacation trip out of the realm of ridiculous/altruistic and into the more comfortable vein of tourism. Add in the fact that I majored in classics, love ancient things, and spent one of my best semesters in college exploring ancient (often temple) ruins in Roma, and we've got ourselves a deal.

Sunrise was sort of a group decision, not something I would have come up with on my own, but which is apparently a familiar notion to locals. At Aqua (the bar) the night before, when we said "we've got an early morning," we were met with knowing nods and "sunrise at Angkor Wat eh?" Which was only frustrating because we kind of thought we were special.

So much for that
But once again, we were up in the dark, this time whisked through the early morning chill by tuk-tuk to the ruins site, where Yut lit our path with a little flashlight and helped us find a great spot to wait on the steps of the ancient 'library.'

On the library steps

  So here's Angkor Wat as revealed by the sunrise. It actually was kind of cool, since we'd never seen it before, to have it slowly emerge out of the pitch dark.

Break for jumping picture (we kind of look like the towers, here)
Back to reflection pool

And then some more jumping.

The library roof.
After the sun was well and truly up over the temple, Yut took us to get breakfast, and then we set off for Angkor Thom, the bridge to which is lined on one side with gods and the other with demons. Both teams hold one long Naga serpent. 

Gods at left, demons to the right
Next was Bayon (which is within the walls of Angkor Thom, if I understand properly), the smiling faces temple, where Yut pointed out various features and then let us explore the area and climb on things. We got to touch noses with the ancient kings. The four faces each pointing in a different direction is symbolic of four qualities a king should possess to be a good monarch.
Eskimo kisses with kings
Baphuon was next, also in Angkor Thom; we climbed up that too. I think that might have been where the king had to go be with a goddess in the form of a serpent. Yut taught us a lot of things, but I can't remember many of them now. It was a little frustrating to be on sites that felt so historical and meaningful and to not be already steeped in knowledge of what their significance was (to contrast with my exploration of ruins on the Centro program, even if I didn't know about a place, I had a much better grasp on the context, and if you said when it was built or used, or by whom, or for what, I could easily get my head around it and therefore retain it). But I tried (and to some surprise, succeeded) to just not worry about that and simply enjoy the day!
On top of Baphuon with the friends I made by saying one word of Japanese

After this, we took a break for some coconuts (which will cure what ails you, perhaps even broken hearts, should you drink enough of them), then moved on to Ta Prohm. This one is particularly famous nowadays for being the location of some of the Tomb Raider movie footage. It also has some seriously gnarly cheese trees eating up the old stones.

Group photo by the Tomb Raider door

One thing I DO remember is this guy:

  Yut said he is Time, the Destroyer, and they put him over doorways because nothing will escape his jaws. Not even the stones, apparently, escape time's destruction.

After Ta Prohm, we stopped for lunch, and played silly word games, and passed stories around. Yut even shared a thing or two about his childhood and family. It's at this point that I'd like to say something about Yut, because he spent six days with us, and his guidance and presence (well, on top of a bangarang itineraty put together by the PEPY team) is what made our trip what it was, and after speaking with a few others who spent a day or two or four in Cambodia and who were, by the end, just so ready to get the hell out once they were done, I know that the.. something else about this trip, the important thing that I keep thinking I somehow (by writing about all the things of all the days we were there) will be able to express through a blog, that had a lot to do with Yut as well.

I like to catch people off guard with my camera.
 Maybe because you filter a little of what you take in through those with whom you surround yourself, and maybe because that happens even more markedly in a foreign place, where you don't know much, where you are uncertain. Our group loved Yut (we kept talking about him in Laos once we left), and I think we were special to him too. As a professionally licensed guide (he even had to wear a special uniform on days we went into the Angkor temple areas), he is of course knowledgeable in the details of historical import. But that something else isn't from that.

I'm a pretty skeptical and defensive traveler. Whenever someone tries to sell me something, my initial response is always, no, why would I need that. I don't want to hire someone to do what I can probably do myself with a good informative book and lots of research time. I don't like being sold things. And I'm not a very good salesperson. What I'm trying to say is, I don't hope to convince you of anything, I'm just telling you the things of which I've become convinced.

He managed to make us feel more like he was sharing Cambodia with us than anything else. He was the guide, yes, but he also asked questions, and shared his enthusiasm and curiosity. Yut has spent ten years (that's one-third of his life) as a Buddhist monk, studying in temples, so when he shared the "Way of the Day" (we learned about one or two of Buddhism's Eight Ways each day), it was always from a very genuine place. He was always friendly, not only to us, but to anyone and everyone we passed. He speaks English fluently, and of course Khmer (Khmai), but somehow knows not only how to say hello in a ton of other languages, but also when to use them (that is, he can tell if a tourist is German, French, Japanese, etc.). While we were looking at carvings on the wall of Angkor Wat, some guide-less travelers asked him a question about on particular figure in the whole wide wall of figures, he explained it happily. He also disarmed every person that approached us, seeing only rich, pale, tourists (partly by not looking like us, I guess). He exchanged greetings with the children, gave us recommendations on when we could find items cheaper somewhere else.

I guess the best way I can describe Yut is genuine, although while discussing him, Kam and I tossed back and forth words like "inspiring," and "so funny," also with that special Cambodian smile. Yut is a good guy. If  you are going to Cambodia and want to meet him, he can be found at, and he comes with our highest recommendations. I am aware that part of how well our group got along with him has to do with our group as well, but I'm sold; if you can't get Yut because he's booked, get a good one, because it does make a huge difference in your experience.

That library again
After lunch, we went back for the big one, Angkor Wat, and walked around inside. Dress code is enforced (shoulders and knees covered for both women and men). Angkor Wat is, I believe, Yut’s bread and butter, and he explained the carvings, reliefs, statues (some present, some missing), pools and stones, bullet holes, and all. Again I wished I were more aware of the history of things, that I could recognize the names of the kings being said to me, but I had to settle for recognizing them from previous talks and references during the day and the trip.

I think he got used to hearing me pipe up from wherever I was lingering back from the group (caught on some carved picture or other), “Yut! Question!” But eventually I was satisfied with the amount of information absorbed.

Not our best jumping photo. But Angkor Wat! 
Something about the color of the sky in all my photos makes them look a tad fake. 

 Aaaand finally, it was time to go back and take a nap and get ready for the evening. Because our Angkor Wat day was also New Year’s Eve!

Yut is the last one standing.

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