When Awe Becomes Overload

We met Oun Kosal at Backpacker’s Guesthouse in Siem Reap. His sister and he run the day-to-day operations while the owner drops in every once in a while to check on business and collect dues. It’s a fairly quiet, 4 storey operation with a decent selection of rooms and much cheaper than the first place we decided to crash when we go into town.

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They were very friendly from the beginning and it soon became apparent that Oun operated a tuk-tuk, chilling outside of the guesthouse waiting for a fare in the morning.

We’d heard of several ways to tour Angkor. Our most ideal being, obviously, the much-sought-after motorbike. Unfortunately, we discovered that officials in Siem Reap severely limit the opportunity for tourists to rent motorbikes, in essence forcing them to use local transportation operators in their various form. I did see a few travelers riding on bicycles but they were flimsy little one-speeds and we knew we would have miles to travel on some days.

Another option was to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take us around to a prearranged list of places for a fee, in addition to the entrance fee required to get into the grounds themselves. These guys aren’t all bad by any means, but we’d certainly met our fair share of shady drivers quoting ridiculous prices to us. Oun, on the other hand, came across as very polite and someone worthy of our trust and we were very happy when we found out he owned his own tuk-tuk. We agreed to take us around to all the places we had on our list and we were more than happy to hook him up for it. The adventure began again.

I doubt that there’s much to be said about Angkor Wat that’s new and original, at least when it comes to the aesthetic appeal and all-around magnificence of its architecture. And that’s Angkor Wat itself, not to mention the dozens of other wats and ruins in the miles surrounding it. I could go on and on illustrating how it made me cry tears of joy at the sheer brilliance of what the human mind is capable of conjuring up. It’s true, we loved every bit of it. But by the end, we were as templed-out as we could’ve been. To frame it: my commendable but non-brilliant mind couldn’t fully absorb the magnitude of what we had the pleasure to witness on such an immense scale, but it sure as hell tried. And despite the utter respect for this creation and the enjoyment we got out of it, by the end we were ready to not see temples for a long time.

We opted to visit as many of the surrounding temples and monuments as possible over a 3 day span, the last day featuring a sunrise behind Angkor Wat. Each and every site has something special, or memorable, from massive trees engrained in the very stone used to construct a buttress to cold, dark caverns that can provoke the imagination and incite thought to the inner workings of kingdom’s past. We were practically dragging our jaws across the rough ground everywhere we went because we couldn’t believe what the Khmer managed to accomplish and that we were here to see it.

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But of course, it’s hard to focus solely on the historical reverence and awe, even that initial wave of “WOW!” because there is certainly more to this frequently-visited tourist attraction than its inherent beauty.

Every place Oun took us to, the first thing that would happen is we would be swarmed by children and local merchants either trying to sell us tokens, souvenirs, food, or just asking for money. One of the running lines that the kids would say is: “Where are you from?” Us: “Canada.” Kids: “Canada…capital Ottawa.” It happened so frequently from so many different kids that by the end, I was saying the last line out loud before they could even get it out. I have to admit that it’s impressive that every kid we came across seemed to know so many different capital cities of so many different countries. It got old really fast though. It’s one thing to ask for money, and I fully understand that no one asking us for it here was rolling in it. But it’s another thing to come up with a preplanned act that’s meant to target the affections of a certain kind of traveler; it really rubbed me the wrong way and got extremely annoying after the tenth time, especially when all we came to do was to witness the phenomenal stonework in peace.

The cherry on top was the woman who insisted that we buy her newborn child off of her for $100. I swear on my life she was not joking. She was younger than both myself and Teresa and surrounded by kids between maybe 8 and 12 years old. These same kids bothered us to no ends, following us around, demanding we buy their souvenirs. We finally managed to shake them off, and when we came back around to return to Oun and his tuk-tuk, they swarmed us again, claiming that we promised them we’d buy something and doing everything in their power to make us feel guilty that we weren’t. I stop feeling bad for people at that point; it’s not a gracious way to conduct yourself no matter where you come from and what your circumstances are. Oun opted to disengage himself from these situations, not wanting to get between the locals who I’m sure he feels loyal and akin to, and new friends who I’m equally sure he didn’t want to make things less enjoyable for.

Those kinds of situations are the extent of any grievance I may have, and it comes with the territory. Southeast Asia has opened up like never before, and the more travelers a location brings, the more locals will be there to jump on each and every business opportunity that arises. The way that some of that business is conducted could use a bit of work, but it’s also a great chance for locals to earn extra income for their families which, at the end of the day, is all most people are trying to do in most places in the world. It just can’t be allowed to get to the point where the work of art itself, in this case Angkor Wat, is devalued because of certain business practices.

The same goes for the conduct of travelers. I can’t believe how much we witnessed people littering, throwing all kinds of shit on the ground because they were too lazy to find a garbage bin. That’s one thing that really gets under my skin is people littering when there are garbage bins EVERYWHERE. Like, what are you doing? This place was constructed almost one thousand years ago and you’re throwing half-empty plastic bottles between the crevices of a temple wall? Respect is a necessity from all points of the spectrum. As foreign visitors, we all need to conduct ourselves with the utmost courteousness and keep in mind that we represent where we come from. It’s not always easy for a local to differentiate between the backgrounds of travelers, especially if that local is from a country where the majority of the population is the same ethnicity, like in Vietnam or Japan. To many, we are all just “Westerners”. So if someone from Canada, say, is acting like an asshole, or littering, or getting belligerently wasted like we saw many people doing on Khao San Road in Bangkok, that person could be unwittingly representative of a large chunk of the world, whether they care or not.

What does this have to do with Angkor Wat? Sorry, I went off on a bit of a tangent, but these are real thoughts and feelings I had throughout this experience. Angkor Wat has a high concentration of travelers, as well as locals who are responding to our presence in various ways. The temples left us in awe, and at the end, we definitely felt a bit of overload for many reasons. That’s the beginning and the end of our Angkor Wat journey. Next time, I’ll bring you right into the middle of it, the bulk of our enjoyment and the surprising multiplicity of adventure we were privileged to be a part of.

P.S. Oun and his sister also had 2 dogs with 3 of the cutest puppies ever! “Lightning” was the most energetic.

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7 thoughts on “When Awe Becomes Overload

  1. I found the temples of Angkor Wat amazing as well. It is touristy in a specific Cambodian way, but the guide I hung out with was nice, and I heartily recommend the experience to anyone.

    As always, more people should be courteous travelers!

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  2. It can be really disappointing how many tourists do not seem to care about their behavior by littering places. I Specially in China I have seen it and to lesser degree in Europe. Even when there is a trash bin just few meters away they just throw their trash wherever they want …

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  3. Loving all your Cambodia posts … and I liked your rant about responsible traveler behavior. I’m sure you read about the heathens who recently wrote on the Colosseum walls and took selfies of it – appalling! Looks like your trip was fantastic!

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