Saturday, November 20, 2010

Visiting Angkor Wat

ANGKOR WAT, Cambodia — No matter what you may have read or heard, nothing really quite prepares you for Angkor Wat.

In reality, Angkor Wat is a single city temple in a 60-square-mile complex of temples built by 25,000 workers over a 37-year period during the 12th century.

When you enter the grounds of the complex the first temple city you see is Angkor Wat, across a moat. My first view was softened by a morning mist.

Ken Fritz in front of Angkor Wat.
Our group of Vietnamese tourists, fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot Ken Fritz and I drove past the moat to another walled city temple, named Angkor Thom.

As we departed our small bus, we were greeted with cries of: "Buy your book here, Sir." Women waved books from in front of carts they operated near the passenger drop-off. Ken wandered over to one of the women, examined a book she had for sale and handed her money. I did the same.

We then walked across an ancient stone bridge to a gate that opened into Angkor Thom.

As the day progressed, we drove from one city temple to another, surprised we weren't jaded from the ruins we had visited earlier.

The trip is a short hop from Siem Reap, more than a half day's drive north of Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh.

After touring the temples in the morning and afternoon, we returned to our hotel. Then, at 3 p.m., we boarded the bus to tour Angkor Wat at sunset. With its 5 towers and enormous size, Angkor Wat seems to rise from the ground.

It took almost an hour to walk through the streets, corridors and stair steps of the temple. Then we walked back through the temple to examine its exquisite carvings of celestial dancers.

The grounds were bustling with visitors from throughout Asia, Australia and Western Europe. There were relatively few Americans.

As you enter the area of the temples, you are swarmed by children of all ages offering items for sale. The youngest sell wooden bracelets. As they get older, the children move on to T-shirts, table runners, and then on to carved wood replicas of the faces on the temples.

Many of the children work for mothers who operate open-front shops in the areas where buses stop to let passengers disembark.

The children have a working knowledge of English. "Please, Sir. Buy one of these for $3." After some bartering and bantering, the price begins to drop. However, once you purchase an item, you are marked. Other child vendors swarm around you. "Buy from me, now," is a frequent refrain.

One girl of about 5 told me, "Please buy. I need money to go to school."

The girl followed me for 15 minutes, trying to hawk 5 wooden bracelets for $1. I had to admire her persistence. Eventually, I handed her $1, not sure what to do with the bracelets. As other children moved in with their merchandise and incessant, "Buy from me, too," the young girl moved to the back of the herd and grinned.

Disengaging from a child merchant can be difficult. I thought I had a surefire solution. "My father told me I can't buy this," I told a girl of about 10, nodding toward Ken, who is several years younger than me, with no gray hair like mine. "He's not old enough to be your father," the girl told me. So much for that excuse.

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