The Road to Siem Reap
By Antonio Graceffo
The 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.
“Don’t 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 alive.”
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 wasn’t 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 day’s 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 couldn’t always explain to you why they did this or that. In Thavrin’s eyes, it wouldn’t be right to bring a tourist to the village without sharing some small money with them. At the top o the mountain, Thavrin paid of 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, couldn’t 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 king’s 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 rout 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 Rd 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 gapping 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 remained.
“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 king’s 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. It’s 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?
Copyright © Antonio Graceffo 2005