On the last main day of travels I hired a car with driver since I had no desire to ride the 57 km to the target temple with a tuktuk. A wise choice, since the drive went quite smoothly with the car. The target was the Beng Mealea temple, which is famous for its moss overgrowth during the rainy season. When I visited there were some remnants of moss left, but most of it had already been burned away by the sun. Nevertheless, the site is breathtaking. The temple is more or less entirely destroyed but how plants rank around it, claiming it back, make for a unique atmosphere which is mystic, bizarre and beautiful. It is well worth the ride from Siem Reap.
On the way back were another three temples to visit, all of them from the 9th century with Bakong temple being the most beautiful as well as best preserved one. The other two, Lolei and Preah Ko resemble the East Mebon and Pre Rup temples of the big circle tour, but Bakong is a gem of its own with its central lone tower. A very impressive site well worth the visit as well.
While all the temple glory makes you wonder who the Khmer were and how they lived and how they built all these sites, the Cambodian people of today have a hard life. Well, the people who actually toiled to built those temples on behest of their kings of course too. I chatted with the lady who brought me my dinner in the Siem Reap hotel every day. She has two sons, six and one year old. She works every single day. People in big companies have one day off per week, but people in small businesses usually work every day, because no work = no money. She has two jobs. She works at the hotel restaurant from 14:00 to 23:00 every day, then, twice a week, she also makes religious flower arrangements for people who go to the temple to pray. On those two days she has to get up at four in the morning.
I asked her about new year. Oh the Cambodian people don’t care. The fireworks and stuff on 31.12. are for the tourists. Khmer New Year is in June. That’s when people go to meet with their extended families to celebrate. The biggest deal is a festival in September though, which lasts two weeks. I understood it’s the Cambodian version of the all saints or Obon in Japan, when you think of your ancestors and honor the dead. There is a lot of fine clothes, fine food and dancing during those times and temple visits.
If you speak English, you can get jobs in the tourist industry, which is the best source of income around Siem Reap of course. Children go to school from 7:00 to 11:00 and then from 13:00 to 17:00. I suppose that’s why she starts to work at 14:00 to cook lunch for her kids. She comes from a small village further north and has never been anywhere else apart from her home town and Siem Reap, she has never been on a plane. Her mother and younger brother came to Siem Reap too. She didn’t speak of a father, maybe he passed away or left for whatever reason and then the family moved to Siem Reap. Her mother is the head chef in a nightclub and she works from 17:00 in the evening to 4:00 in the morning every day. Her mother wanted the son to “get a government job = official” because those are the best jobs, apparently, but he “was too lazy” and does internet commerce to the grievance of his mother. It’s a hard life under the tropical sun. In April it gets over 40 degrees… my hands were covered with heat rash, I got bitten by (only) three mosquitoes and luckily they didn’t carry any diseases. I sprayed an entire 200 ml bottle of insect repellent onto my skin and clothes and got bitten 3 times despite that.
But even though I am usually not in the habit of going to the same place twice, I might return to Siem Reap one day because there are still a lot of temples and sights that I couldn’t see and Angkor Wat and Bayon etc. are so beautiful it’s worthwhile to see them again 😉 let’s see!