Biking around Angkor

I’m in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on a rented rickety bike without any gears – but with an awesome front basket – on my way to see the incredible temples of the Angkor area, doing the big loop. Of course I took a wrong turn somewhere – having to try to find a one-way road leading in the other direction – but soon I’m on the right track, heading towards the temples, together with tons of buses and tuk-tuks. The day before, Renate and I went around some of the biggest temples, Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm – the last one became famous because it was one of the filming locations for the Tomb Raider movie – with a rented tuk-tuk for the day, but I wanted the experience of biking around as well, get at different feel of the area, stop wherever I’d like, and well obviously, it’s cheaper as well.

Biking goes surprisingly well, I was a bit worried when I saw that the bikes for rent at the hostel didn’t have any gears, but as everything is pretty flat that’s not so much of a worry after all. I’m also amazed of how refreshing it is, when you pick up some speed it doesn’t feel that hot, a lot less so than walking at least, the wind cooling you down if you pedal fast enough. The problem is the moment you stop, you feel incredibly hot and the sweating just wont stop, better just to keep on pedaling.

      

A postcard, miss
More than in any other country I’ve been to, Cambodia is filled with small kids trying to sell you stuff. At a toilet stop, after having managed to bike all the way to the previous temple in directional confusion (I just couldn’t remember if the temple was on my left or right side of the road when I arrived, so I managed to set out in the wrong direction, doing some involuntary backtracking) a little kid – he couldn’t have been more than 6 – walks up to me, trying to sell me some postcards. I’ve already turned quite a few other kids down, and I turn him down as well. But he keeps on asking me – begging me – to buy from him. He looks up at me with desperate eyes: “Miss, please miss!” It wouldn’t cost me a dime, but as a principle I don’t buy from kids. He follows me all the way to my bike. In the end he asks if I have some foreign coins, of any kind – I wish I did, but I don’t. I feel a bit bad when I cycle off, I’ve heard stories of kids getting beaten if they can’t fill up their selling quota, but I still definitely don’t want to support their business, it won’t help the kids in the long run!

At another temple, when I get to the back, there are suddenly stands and touts there as well, selling clothes, and food and water, it’s the first – and last temple – I go to where the touts are beyond the front of the temple. And this place – with its tree sprouting out from the stone temple – was a place I hoped would maybe be a nice spot for a little clown shoot, I think not (the fact that I never found any good places in the right height to put my gorrilapod and my camera, and just the thought of putting on a thick layer of greasy make-up and run back and forth using ten second timer in the extreme heat resulted in no clown shoot that day!). Another kid, this one a little older and a girl, tries to sell me postcards. “Really cheap miss, you can get two for the price of one”. I kindly tell her I’m not going to buy any postcards. The girl is full of life and definitely has her wit, I’m wearing a top with a picture of a camera on it, and I’m wearing my camera around my neck as well, “you’ve got two cameras; camera” she says and points to my top, “camera” and points at my real camera, “camera, camera, camera” and she laughs. She starts drawing a big square in the dirt, splits it into three times three squares and draws an X in one of them. “I win you, buy two cards – you win I give for free”. I laugh and shake my head. We decide to play anyways for fun, without any prizes. She wins! We split on good terms, even though I didn’t buy anything from her.

        

One, two, three – scream!
I’m getting hungry, and I definitely need some water, so I brace myself for the water-buying experience I have to go through when I reach the next temple. As soon as I slow down (not that I go that fast to begin with, you can only do so much without gears) the screaming start. “You need water, miss, water!” I unmount the bike, lock it, “Miss, Miss, water, something to eat, you need water?” There’s a big choir of people trying to sell me a bottle of water, or lure me into their souvenir booths, apparently it was a lot worse some years ago, it’s hard to imagine. I see a woman sitting at her little restaurant; she’s not yelling at me, she’s not screaming, but she gives me a warm little smile when I look in her direction. I make my way towards her. “MISS, I SPEAK WITH YOU FIRST, MISS” the first woman to yell out before I’ve even stopped my bike screams desperately when she figures out where I’m heading.

I reach the silent smiling woman and ask for a bottle of water, she gives me a broad smile and give me one. “Would you like something to eat miss?” I tell her I might want something after checking out this temple, and I nod in the direction of the big temple complex on the other side of the road, there’s definitely more than just the famous Angkor Wat – covered in green for rehabilitation at the moment – around.  An adorable little girl hanging around grins and say: “I’ll remember you” before I venture to my last temple of the day.

Later, when I sit down to eat, I learn that her name is Pom, she’s 11 years old and she sells small bracelets. She, and a woman owning a little clothes/souvenir booth nearby hang around while I wait for my food. After the initial introduction with the booth owning woman, going something like this:

– You want a scarf miss?

– I don’t really want a scarf, I already have the scarfs I need.

– You have sisters? You can buy a scarf for your sisters.

– I don’t have any sisters, only brothers (which is not entirely true, but sometimes you need those small white lies, and she’s too small for those scarfs anyway)

– You can buy scarf for your mother.

– My mum has plenty of scarfs already.

– Maybe for cousins, aunts. Business very bad today, can you please buy scarf!

– I’m not gonna buy any scarfs, I’m sorry!

She sat down with me and Pom and talked, which was nice, even though they both hoped I would buy something in the end. (How I almost broke my little not buying from children rule when looking into Poms face brightened with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen). As soon as my food arrived, they left me alone, and when I were done and left they waved me off with smiles, while some of the other ladies hanging around their booths were eyeing me angrily.

Then I headed off, back to Siem Reap in the sweltering midday heat, having had my share of temples and touts for the time being.