The International Writers Magazine:South-Asia Travel Experiences
Road to Siem Reap
smiling boys formed a lined in orderly fashion, and waited patiently
for their turn to punch me in the stomach. There were about five
of them, but luckily the oldest was probably only about twelve.
Me next! Shouted one boy, he reached back so far,
on preparation for the knockout blow, that he almost fell over.
Dont hurt your hand. I warned, as the blow landed
solidly on my belly.
We thought you were dead, said one boy. But
now, we know you were just kidding. And we are glad that you are
My guide from Phnom
Penh Tours, Thavrin, and I were at Pnom San Tok temple, 120 Km outside
of Phnom Penh. When we pulled off the highway, every kid in the village
came running out to greet us. It looked like a crowd of about fifty
screaming children who mobbed our Land Cruiser. One of the bigger boys
even jumped onto the rear bumper. They were all laughing and shouting,
so I wasnt frightened so much as curious. When Thavrin opened
the door, and began speaking to the boys, I understood. The boys in
this village picked up extra money by leading tourists up the mountain
to the temple. As foreign tourists rarely visit, they were all very
excited to earn a days wage.
They were pushing and fighting their way to the front to be chosen.
One clever young man was walking on his hands to attract our attention.
Finally, Thavrin selected an eleven-year-old boy, named Mai Lin, much
to the chagrin of the other boys, who would have to wait in disappointment
for the next tourists to come.
Half way up the mountain, I realised two things. Mai Lin had no idea
how to get to the temple. And Thavrin did. He had chosen a kid from
the village only because it was the polite thing to do. Khmer culture
has very intricate rules of politeness, which the Khmers themselves
seem to be unaware of.
That is to say, they always know and complete their cultural duty, but
they couldnt always explain to you why they did this or that.
In Thavrins eyes, it wouldnt be right to bring a tourist
to the village without sharing some small money with them. At the top
of the mountain, Thavrin paid off Mai Lin, and he skipped back down
to the village, a hero. The unwritten rules of Khmer society also dictate
who can make money, where. There is only so much cash to go around,
and it would be unfair for to have double, while another goes hungry.
For this reason, at the top of the mountain, we were met by a completely
different set of boys, whose job it was to lead tourists through the
temples, explaining the history as they went. These boys would never
dream of leading tourists up the mountain. And the boys in the village
would never encroach on this informal guide service.
In Khmer society, everything always balanced.
This temple, like so many in the Buddhist world, boasted an actual footprint
of the Buddha. So many temples maintain the distinction of having a
footprint of the Buddha, that even I, a lapsed Roman Catholic, couldnt
doubt his divinity, because no human could have walked that much. Behind
the temple proper was a smaller temple, which featured the milk
of the mother. Thavrin explained, If we are in the jungle,
and we meet a tiger or a dangerous situation, we pray to the mother
for help. After, if we survive, we come here to give thanks to the mother.
The temple featured two tremendous, stone breasts, covered in metal.
The breasts were not identical, so Thavrin explained. One represents
the breast of a virgin, and one the breast of a woman who has already
had children. The most interesting feature of this temple was
that this was the place where the kings father, His Majesty King
Norodom Sihanouk, had served as a Buddhist monk. There was a striking
photo of the King as a young man, his innocent face not yet marked by
years of worry and endless political intrigues where he was forced to
use his cunning brain to first win, and then maintain the sovereignty
of Cambodia. For many reasons, the King had been a personal hero of
mine since arriving in Cambodia nearly eighteen months before, and seeing
this rare photo of a young Norodom Sihanouk was very special.
The boys told us a legend of the temple. There was a wishing well, where
you could toss coins, and ask for a blessing. Apparently, long ago,
a woman came to the temple and tossed in a coin. Suddenly two tigers
appeared. But, instead of being afraid, the woman began dancing with
the tigers. A king witnessed the tiger dance, and fell in love with
the woman. He married her, an instructed her to teach the dance to all
of the Khmer girls. Today, the dance is called Kontai Rai, and it is
still widely known.
Now, why were a group of nice boys pummelling me at a holy Buddhist
temple? The boys had been half following, half leading us through the
temple, explaining their version of the history. One of the boys made
a comment that I looked very strong. Another boy said, I think
I saw him fight Eh Phou Thoung in a movie. Eh Phou Thoung is the
Khmer boxing champion, and we had, in fact, made a very bad kung fu
movie together the previous year. A light of half recognition went off
in the faces of the other boys, and they stared at me wonderingly. Yes,
that was me. I said. Can you beat Eh Phou Thoung?
They asked. Of course not. I laughed. He killed me
in that movie.
I thought you were really dead. One boy confessed. But
now I know you were just pretending. He finished by adding, I
am glad you are still alive.
Me too. I answered. Me too.
The number one tourist destination in Cambodia is Angkor Wat. But along
the three hundred kilometer route from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap there
are some excellent temples to see. If you make the long drive, or better,
bicycle ride, take a little time to stop off and see some of the less
famous sites. The Khmers in these small villages are not as jaded as
residents of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap and still make a big deal when
they see a foreigner. You will be greeted with smiles, as well as people
falling over themselves to be your tour guide.
Following Road Number 6, approximately 80 KM North East of Phnom Penh,
in Kompong Tom Province we stopped off at Kuhat Ngor, an 11th Century
temple. Much of the temple was overgrown, and blended beautifully with
the jungle setting. Directly beside the temple was a monastery, where
modern monks lived and studied. The temple is a massive stone structure,
which contains reclining Buddas, on the spot where the Hindu god, Shiva,
once resided, before the Khmers changed to Buddhism. Beneath the pedestal,
the earth was marked by a gaping hole, where treasure seekers had defiled
the temple. Every temple in Cambodia they do like this.
Explained Thavrin. They dig up the earth, looking for buried treasure.
It is a well-known secret that nearly all rural Khmers bury their life
savings under their homes. Banks have been known to go bust in Cambodia,
and country people everywhere distrust large, city-based institutions.
This explains the financial squirrel behaviour, but one question still
Did they ever find anything buried under a temple? I asked.
As far as I know, answered Thavrin, No.
How many temples are there in Cambodia?
Well, at least they are persistent. I said, in defence of
the tomb robbers. No one can call them lazy. If I dug up a hundred
temples and found no treasure, I would quit, but these guys just kept
going. You have to respect that. Actually, the west promotes a
dual standard when it comes to tomb robbing, when Angelina Jolie does
it, it is ok, but if I did it, it would be a crime. Someone needs to
explain that one to me. The one true treasure mystery in Cambodia concerns
the kings crown. It disappeared during the Khmer Rouge time, and
to this day, it has never been found. Maybe we need to get Tomb Raider
on the case. Its out there, all covered in gold and jewels. Maybe
you could be the one to find it. Do you want to buy a treasure map?
© Antonio Graceffo Oct 2005
Contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can reach Long Leng of Phnom Penh Tours at email@example.com
See all of Antonio Graceffo's books about adventures in South east Asia
Boats & Boxing Gloves
Antonio Graceffo in Thailand
Taklamakan by Rickshaw
The Roof of Taiwan
Antonio Graceffo on travel writing & Hemingway
Martial Arts Movies
Antoni Graceffo with E Pho Thong
Antonio Graceffo in Phnom Phen
Children of the Garbage Fields Phnom Phen
Paddling the Maekok River
Antonio Graceffo in Thailand
Journeys in Hacktreks
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