After spending a day touring the temple of Angkor Wat I had a revelation: I'm a people person, but not in the typical sense of the label. I'm not a bubbly, chatty, "Good morning how are you and where are you from" type of person, rather I'm like a fly on the wall. I like to observe people, watching them, creating my own story of who they are, where they've come from and what they're doing. I'm not sure when this started but I'm pretty sure that growing up with years of people watching alongside my mom didn't hurt. I found it fascinating to watch the people that work in and around Angkor Wat. Tourists may be slowly destroying the temple grounds, but at the same time the millions of visitors are providing jobs for hundreds if not thousands of Cambodians. From the tuk-tuk and moto drivers , to the tour guides and grounds workers, even the children trying desperately to sell their post cards and bracelets, it was these people I wanted to spend more time observing.
I'll start with the obvious, the guys that every one know; the infamous but maybe not so popular tuk-tuk drivers. I would be thoroughly impressed if someone told me they visited Siem Reap without hearing the phrase, "Tuk-tuk Lady? Where you go today? You want to see the temple?" at least ten times, a day. it is their job. I can't find specific numbers but there have got to be thousands of tuk tuk drivers in the city, all vying for your business. Although you'll sometimes see them sleeping in their tuk tuk's or chatting with fellow drivers, these guys work hard, hence the calls "Tuk tuk today miss?"
A good day is when they find a customer, someone to drive out to the temples, earning them maybe $10-$20. But what happens when no one says yes? Ssimple: no pay. I wonder how many of these men actually enjoy the profession they're in, sadly I know it's not the majority. I'd be interested to spend a day talking to them, hearing their stories; what led them to the business of driving a tuk-tuk. For some it's a chosen profession, they genuinely like to interact with the tourists, share their knowledge of the city and provide service for their customers. For others, they've fallen into this profession without much of a choice, they may have had other dreams but because of lack of opportunity or problems with corruption, they find themselves behind the wheel of a tuk-tuk. Starting early at 5 am as the streams of people are being carted into the park I observed my first subject; the tuk-tuk driver.
Being cheap and a history unenthusiastic, I didn't have direct interaction with my second subject, but that didn't make them any less interesting. Similar to tuk-tuk drivers, but maybe one step above are the Angkor Wat tour guides. As I walked around the temples I eavesdropped on a few conversations and these guys are like walking, talking textbooks, they know their stuff. My tuk-tuk driver, Dara, is currently studying to become a park guide, he explained to me that he must pass a test before he can be certified, not surprising. What I did find surprising was that without this certification, if he were to have accompanied me into the temple and been caught by temple police, he could be charged with a $500 fine. This number shocked me at first but I guess it's a good measure in protecting the jobs of those that do go through with studying and certification. Maybe next time I'll pay for that tour guide, just so I can pick their brains a little bit more.
Unlike some tuk-tuk drivers, these guys have clearly chosen their field, not just anyone could give a 10-hourr tour explaining the ins and outs of ancient temple ruins, they have to study. But, similar to the job of a tuk tuk driver this is a highly competitive line of work. What I found most impressive was not only how much they knew about the temples, but how many languages they spoke. I heard one guide explain to his customer "We study as many languages as we can so that we can get better business, this job is very competitive." I'm not sure how many languages you've tried to learn, but I can tell you it's not easy. Not only that but these guys are not simply learning hello/goodbye/what's your name/thank you, they need to be able to explain thousands of years of history and details of ancient temples, and be able to answer their customers questions.
Next are the hundreds of women offering their services throughout the park, and by services I mean, "Something cool to drink miss, something to eat?". Similar to the tuk-tuk's this phrase can get old incredibly fast, but again I couldn't stay mad for long. I'm curious as to the logistics of where these women can set up shop, how does one get the prime location of the entrance to Angkor Wat while other sit along a infrequently traveled road? It's a thankless job, sure it's hot and tourists will want to eat and drink along the way, but that $1 water isn't going to feed that woman's family. I was impressed with some of their techniques though, some of these women could be mighty successful sales people if you gave them a job in the US. One woman, who I did replenish my water supply from, engaged me in conversation while walking with me to the entrance of Sras Srang. Within seconds we were through introductions and on to her spouting off details of the United States, I wonder how many countries she's memorize presidents, capitals and other random facts for? Many people use the line "maybe later" in hopes that it will fend these women off, but they're not stupid they will remember you and lay it on even harder when you return from the temple.
There's one more group of people that needs to be acknowledge and this one is a bit heartbreaking. Outside, in and around the temple you'll encounter people that are trying to sell their goods, ranging from statues to paintings, trinkets, postcards and jewelry. Some of the vendors, those that I had a desire to support, also doubled as the artists. I observed many boys sitting among the temples, creating beautiful watercolor paintings without too much of a bother to the tourists passing by. Some on the other hand seemed to have made bulk purchases from the old market and spread it out on a mat, hoping the tourists would find it more appealing here, rather than in town. What was the hardest to witness and try to ignore are the numerous children trying ardently to sell you anything from their small basket of goods. I've read countless times how you shouldn't support the begging and working children of Cambodia, as it's only going to keep them where they are, but that doesn't make it any easier to ignore them as they beg and plead with you. These children should be in school studying, not reciting country capitals and listing random facts to passing tourists all while trying to cut a deal "3 for 10, good price for you miss".
This doesn't quite cover it all, there are still the security guards, ticket checkers, grounds people and other various positions at Angkor. Although I am happy with my day at the temples, I would love to go back to Angkor, but this time spend it with the people. I'd love to sit and talk with the women selling water, sarongs and snacks, take a tuk-tuk nap with the drivers and discuss if they like what their doing, and join a guide as he shares his wealth of knowledge. Although some of these jobs may seem like hell to you or I, I'm guessing that these people are the lucky ones. Being able to work in and around Angkor provides them with a constant stream of customers, but still competition is fierce. So although the hawking might drive you slightly mad by the end of the day, try to remember that these people are just trying to make a living.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.