“Here, then back home,” the driver said, ignoring the calls of “Hey lady, postcard! You want postcard?”
Back home? Dan and I were thinking. It was barely 11 o'clock! We still had hours of temple seeing in us.
We struggled our way through the sellers as politely as possible:
“No thank you. No, no I don't want any cold drinks. Yes, your scarves are beautiful but I don't want one. Thank you. Yes, that is cheap, but I don't need any wooden wind instruments right now. No thank you. I'm from America. Yes, the capital is Washington, D.C. No, he's from Australia. That's right, Canberra. No, he doesn't speak Japanese. You speak Japanese? How old are you? Well, you're a very clever 9-year-old. No, I don't want a tee-shirt. I'm wearing a tee-shirt, see? I have no money to give you to go to school. Sorry. Sorry, no. Yes, OK, if I want a cold drink, I'll look for you. Okay. Thank you! Bye!”
Eventually, at the blue-shirted ticket checker, the gaggle of underage touts diverted to another pair of tourists and we were able to look around. We were at the Rolous Group, Angkor Wat's oldest temples.
Ninth century Lolei was in disrepair—some wooden scaffolding indicated an attempt to keep its bricks from falling apart altogether. However, it was a nice visit because it is still a working temple—a modern Buddhist temple and a school for monks have been built around it, so the site is still used for worship. We noticed little piles of rocks and a few offerings around most of the temples and contemporary Buddha statues in the big ones, but this was the first one that looked like it was in everyday use as a religious site.
Preah Ko was in a better state, though still more rubble than standing bits. Its carvings were good, and it showed the origins of the later Angkor temples. This was the last temple, our driver had informed us, so we took our time in the grassy bits between the reddish rocks that had once been pillars and doorways a millennium ago.
And then, back home.
Both of us had misunderstood the driver—we weren't going back to the guesthouse, not yet! Instead, to the crown of the Rolous Group, the temple-mountain of Bakong. While Lolei and Preah Ko had been smaller than the other Angkorian temples we'd seen, the towering Bakong, surrounded by a large moat, was built to impress. From here, it was easy to see how the ancient Khmer kings had worked their way up to building ginormous Angkor Wat.
* * *
For this, the last day of our three day ticket to the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, we had chosen to go to some of the outlying temples. That morning, we had gotten a different tuk tuk driver, one with a more genuine smile, and set off for Banteay Srei, 37 kilometers away.
We rode through little spread-out villages, along rice paddies and under coconut palms, past white, grazing brahmin cows and speeding boys on bicycles. Every few hundred yards we saw a small store selling drinks for tourists, rattan baskets, or gasoline in glass Pepsi and Sprite bottles.
Then, we arrived at Banteay Srei, or as I started to call it, DisneyWat.
Throngs of tourists wearing identical brightly-colored hats pushed past us, on their way to the bathroom, the exposition hall, the temple entrance. I heard tours go by in a dozen languages and tried to pick pieces up. It sounded like this: En cet porta zai xiamian you peut ver oden hou zi. Okay, using five languages, I got that there was a monkey carved somewhere by the door. But why? I listened further but Japanese, Korean and Polish threw me off.
Angkor Wat is a huge, huge complex, made up of perhaps 70 or more temples. While there were a lot of people out to watch the sunrise at the main Angkor temple, we were always able to have a quiet visit in the other temples. But not at Banteay Srei that morning. This temple, from the late 900s, is notable in the Angkor group because of it's exquisite carvings, particularly around the doorways, but we hadn't realized just how famous it was.
Because Banteay Srei is farther from the main groups of temples, it's a more expensive tuk tuk ride, so I had surmised the opposite--that there would be a few less people. I had underestimated the power of the tour bus.
However, the temple's fame has brought it one thing that made it a better visiting experience than the other temples—it has an interpretive center with pictures and explanations describing what the different carvings represent, comparing it to other temples and time periods, and giving some history about the excavation of the site. This is something the other temples could use, but, with ongoing excavation and projects overseen by a dozen different governments through UNESCO, the realization of that is probably a long way off.
Unlike the tourists being herded back and forth from the buses, though, we had all day to look at Banteay Srei if we wished, so we walked through it twice, once to eavesdrop on the tours and once to look at the carvings we missed when the crowds pushed us through.
Because we had a long time before we had to go back home.