Cambodia

Angels & demons by Marek Charytonowicz

'Can you buy a postcard from me?' 'I'm sorry but I already have the same pictures in my camera…' 'Same same but different… only one dollar…' 'I'm sorry but I've already bought from other children…' 'But not from me… only one dollar…'

This comes from a tiny, very cute girl, maybe 6 - 7 years old that stands next to me until I leave the square in front of a temple in my tuk tuk. There’s no discussion here and although she seems to understand all my arguments against buying anything, she’s got answers to everything I say.

It’s very sad that children like that spend their time trying to sell tourists souvenirs instead of playing, learning, doing kids stuff. It makes you think too. One dollar in London buys you almost nothing. Here it’s a cheap meal. I must say the only beggars in Cambodia I’ve seen so far, were in front of S-21 museum. Everywhere else it’s children and adults trying to sell you souvenirs.

From a tourist point of view it may be an annoying spoil to a nice itinerary, crease on the smooth fabric of temple experience. But this is a poor country, damaged by war and cruelty of Khmer Rouge and the money we bring, regarded by us as bargain, puts food on their plates. I wish I could teach how to fish instead of giving a fish here and there. When I was that age my biggest worry was a new Matchbox car model to impress friends. That thanks to my parents and I guess the economy we got to live in. Here most of the kids work - either helping parents in a field, in a shop, in a laundry place, at the roadside food stall.

At some point while visiting the temples you start unconsciously developing defense system against all those ‘Sir please buy…’. That shows the other side of the problem - its easy to become immune to this and stop noticing.

So I buy that set of postcards and the girls face lights up with the most beautiful smile. She waves at me later cheerfully when I’m leaving the temple, she’s busy talking to another tourist.


In the footsteps of Tomb Rider by Marek Charytonowicz

I wake up half past four only to find the world around me wrapped in heavy rain. Around five, when my tuk tuk driver arrives we both decide it doesn’t make much sense to go for the sunrise as there’ll be no sun visible behind the heavy, uniform curtain of clouds. So we move the departure a couple of hour later and I spend early morning reading about the temples instead.

Angkor Watt makes an immense impression. Thanks to low season not a lot breaks the overall silence and voices of the cicadas. It’s like the time has stopped here and the grey and black stones overgrown with moss just are, suspended in passing years and centuries like meditating monks.

The scale is overwhelming as well although it’s only the temple complex, not even the nearby city. Vast areas of Angkor Wat are covered in inscriptions and reliefs of amazing detail and complexity. It’s a breathtaking view despite overwhelming heat and humidity soaking every inch of my T-shirt.

Next stop - the temple of the stone faces…

Artisans D'Angkor by Marek Charytonowicz

I’ve found Artisans D’Angkor in Phnom Penh - they offer high quality Cambodian craft items - from sand and soapstone sculptures, wood carving to various silk items - clothes and home decor. That all sounds very usual for Cambodian tourist industry but what makes them different is the quality and philosophy behind it.

They originate from Siem Reap and here they have two workshops / schools where young kids can join and learn high level craft - from painting to sculpting under supervision of experienced teachers. Majority of the students are disabled - some of them mute - and they come from different provinces. After around a year, they have a profession and go back to their villages and towns to open their own workshops or stay and continue working here.

It’s amazing to see how they work. From ordinary pieces of stone or glued wood to the final perfectly chiseled pieces. My sense of aesthetics was deeply pleased seeing that kind of work in progress and I secretly wished I could stay here and learn the art of wood sculpting. I think they could do very well in London as what they offer - although inspired directly by Cambodian culture - feels and looks like an international slightly posh brand, with surprisingly low prices.

For more info please check artisansdangkor.com

Cypress Hill & temples by Marek Charytonowicz

Siem Reap surprisingly feels refreshing. It is a truly tourist destination but I think I needed it. Smoking another cigar and drinking this time Gentleman Jack (edition of Jack Daniels) in the rooftop bar called the X Bar that also houses 6ft half pipe for skateboarders on the roof.

Snoop Doggy Dog and Cypress Hill coming for the speakers and a night lights of Siem Reap all around. It’s low season so it’s a bit quiet and not so many tourists which is nice. Even tuk tuk drivers are not so determined to take you somewhere.

Tomorrow sunrise at Angkor Watt and following the footsteps of Lara Croft but tonight visiting local shops and most of all Artisans D’Angkor workshops and school - but that deserves a separate post. People again are very nice, I’ve met an Englishman that lived at the same street that I do in London and I’ve been invited for a free cup of Ratanakiri. coffee in one of the boutiques selling famous Kampot pepper, used in Michelin stars restaurants.

In the meantime I’m going back to get some sleep and on the way I’m offered ‘a lady’ and shortly after marijuana, opium and coke recited in one breath. After buying a Lonely Planet guide to Singapore in a local bookshop that turns to be a page by page low quality photocopy of an actual guide, the picture of Siem Reap is complete.

The Mekong Express by Marek Charytonowicz

I’m leaving Phnom Penh today and although it was short, the goodbye is sad as I met very nice people and had great time and great laugh with them. But it’s time for the temples of Angkor and Siem Reap.

Over last few days I’ve inhaled more car fumes than over last 36 years. London’s air seems pretty clean comparing to this.

The Mekong Express bus welcomes everyone with pleasant chill of air conditioning. Seats are small but everything is in Cambodia. Next six hours will take me through beautiful countryside to the one of the Wonders of the World.