I don’t talk much about Bucket Lists, mainly because I think they’re morbid, but don’t we all have a few vague plans which we know we’ll regret never doing if we neglect them? I do, and plenty of them are harboured by enough other western 20somethings to be considered cliches but after working my through a Pinterest board of Indian landmarks I have decided that Bucket List Cliches are cliches for a reason. The Hawa Mahal was no less beautiful for being surrounded by fake silk stalls and cow pats, sunset over the Keralan backwaters made me feel grateful to be alive and the Taj Mahal inspired me to write poetry for heavens’ sake, even though there were hundreds of other people there and the weather was abysmal. So what I’m trying to say is that I enjoyed today, and although it makes my photos look less good, I’m not bothered that hundreds of other people showed up to enjoy it, too. Good on ’em. It’s not like anyone has a monopoly on Breathtaking Moments.
What I did today is known in touristy parlance as the small circuit: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and the ‘tomb raider temple’, Ta Phrong, and we also saw the sunset at Phnom Bakheng.
The first place our bus did a tour of was Siem Reap as we picked up group members from various hotels and headed to the ticket office. A one-day pass to Siem Reap is $20, a 3-day pass is $40 and I don’t know how much a 7-day pass is but it’s laminated (oooh, fancy!). I plumped for the one-day pass, having decided that the only thing I’d be returning the next day for would be the sunrise, and $20 is rather a steep price for a new facebook cover picture.
If the pass prices sound expensive, I can only say that the day is as expensive as you want it to be. Obviously, you have to buy an entry pass, but if my bus from the hostel to the temples hadn’t been included in my Bamba Pass, I’d probably have hired a bike and cycled there, since plenty of other people were doing it and making it look fun enough for me to be jealous. It’s a fairly flat 7KM from Siem Reap to the temples, and of course if you didn’t have a guide you’d need a map of the temples and maybe a guidebook to get the most out of the experience, but you’d be able to pick and choose your temples, take things at your own pace and sweat off a few deep-fried spring rolls. Talking of spring rolls, the other big money saver would be to bring your own food; lots of stalls in Siem Reap will make and wrap baguettes for you for only a couple of dollars.
Our guide gave us a generous hour in Angkor Wat and explained all kinds of things to us, from the carvings of the bloody battle which Siem Reap takes its name from (The town’s name means Victory over Siam, referring to a bloody battle with Thailand in the 16th Century where the Cambodian army literally took no prisoners), to injuries inflicted on the temples by the Khmer Rouge, both directly and indirectly. Having originally been a temple for the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat was converted into a Bhuddist temple some centuries later, but now many of the thousands of Bhudda statues in the temple are missing heads. Our guide told us that, under the Khmer Rouge, people were too poor to buy food, and one solution had been to cart the Bhudda heads to the Thai border to sell. This, of course, wasn’t hundreds of years ago, but in the 1970s. The decade which gave us Glastonbury festival, Led Zepplin and the world’s first test tube baby was also the one in which people had to sell bits of statues in order to eat.
I still can’t really get my head round that.
Finally, after loosing myself among shadows and pillars and wading my way through an army of selfie-sticks:
Yes, lots of people were doing the jumping picture. Yes, if I’d been with a friend, I probably would have done too.
Next up was the much smaller Angkor Thom. It might be less famous but it’s still pretty cool. It won my affection mainly by having loads of faces. Some were happy, some were sad. It was something to do with if the King’s people aren’t happy, then the King isn’t happy, but to be honest I was staring and thinking more than I was listening by this point.
Next stop was lunch, where our group made tentative conversation. It’s been six weeks and the whole ‘What do you do?’/ ‘Oh, you know, nothing, I’m just spending six months travelling while my student loan languishes at the taxpayers’ expense. You?’ conversation is still pretty cringeworthy for me. I thought that the majority of people I met would be on the kind of trip I’m on, but the majority of people are actually teachers or ‘in’ something, like PR, or recruitment, or IT, and therefore want to kill me as soon as we have this conversation. As lovely as my group all seemed, I was relieved when we had paid (far too much) and got back on our minibus. I am really going to need a line up my sleeve for these grown up conversations!
After lunch we headed to the ‘tomb raider’ temple, Ta Phrom. I haven’t seen the tomb raider films, so my fascination with Ta Phrom stemmed (no pun intended) from pictures I’d seen in guide books and online. It’s basically a ruined temple with trees growing out of it, and it’s also interesting because it’s still in the process of being restored, which a lot of the other temples already have been. India are footing the bill for that little project, but the workers are Cambodian, our guide told me with a smile. So India looks good, Ta Phrom looks good and the dollar stays in Cambodia. Happy days all round.
Here our guide left us, because he had to go to class. Yes, that’s right. He works every day with only 2 days off in a month and twice a week, he studies international relations for 4 hours. He wants to be a politician.
One of the best things about travelling is how it is constantly reminding me to be appreciative. Back home I had this ‘middle class guilt’ thing going on, and I still kind of do but…guilt isn’t productive. It’s a total waste of time, actually. Being appreciative however — well, it’s nice because it reminds you how good life is, not just the round-the-world trips but the simple things like, you know, not having parents who force you to beg instead of going to school, or having a tap and a toilet inside your house. But being appreciative is also nice because it motivates you. I know I may be speaking too soon because I’ve had plenty of bursts of motivation in the past that came to nothing much but…I’ve seen some amazing people in Asia. Rice-pickers and chai-wallahs and brick-makers in their 80s, even, who work harder than many people my age for much less reward. (There’s no privacy in Asia. When someone asked our tour guide in India what the approximate salary for a farmer was, he asked the farmer, then told us). And I don’t want to peddle this ‘honest, simple folk’ rubbish. I know they work that hard because they have little choice. I know that there’s awful things, like the fact that women STILL don’t have equal pay in India for example. But in circumstances I would find intolerable, people work with dedication and every time I find that one of these people is educating themselves/their child on the side I think, ‘If they can do it, so can I, if you really truly want something, you can go hell for leather for it and get it.’ It’s an empowering thought, and not one I’ve had before. I still strongly believe that 80 year olds should be enjoying their retirement on a pension if they so choose, not hauling bundles of rice or clay all over the place on their heads. But. If it’s necessary, human beings are capable of all sorts. Mind boggling, really.