Temples of Angkor, Cambodia – This was like one of those stories you could hear on This American Life – starts off normal but gets to an extreme you didn’t think possible. It’s also the kind of story that starts off all enjoyable but the longer it goes, you just want it to end. Where you start with sympathy for the protagonist, but at the end you’re like, geez, this guy is a looser. Like a Woody Allen comedy.
Tina and I spent the previous day visiting some of Angkor’s lesser temples – saving the major works for when Hollie and Bridget joined us in Siem Reap. So when we met up with Hollie and Bridget, we decided a guide would be a fun way to tour the temples and make it a more informative experience. But the guide we ended up with had a heartbreaker of a story. And you know how when someone gets dumped they won’t shut up about it (present company included)? That was our guide, Narin. We learned more about the history of his forbidden love then the history of the temples.
When we set up the tour with Hollie and Bridget’s hotel, they said it was ok if we all rode in one tuk-tuk. But when they showed up at our hotel the next morning, Tina and I had to get our own. Fortunately, the driver who had driven us the previous day was hanging around and gave us a good price. As we were following Hollie and Bridget’s tuk-tuk, it seemed as if they were in some good conversation with Narin.
They asked Narin if he had a girlfriend. He answered by starting a story that would take the rest of the day to unfold. He had fallen in love with a girl from his childhood. And similar to Mr. Okay, he didn’t have enough money to marry her. But that didn’t matter – her parents didn’t want their daughter (the youngest) to have anything to do with him. They wanted her to marry a rich man. As a tour guide he did well, but not that well. But that didn’t matter to him. He was determined to get her in the end.
Our first stop was Angkor Wat. We did a quick walk through and when we came back around front, there was a bride and groom all dressed up posing in front of the temple. It reminded us of how in Russia newlyweds rushed around to tourist sites for photos. This was a much more modest affair and no videographer. Instead of the whirlwind when a wedding party shows up, most here were people were just sitting around eating like it was a picnic.
The next stop was Ta Phrom – the famed ruins with trees choking the temples so much to the point that if the trees were to die, the temples would crumble with them. The other thing that was choking was the number of people. Angelina Jolie shot a scene for Tomb Raider here which only increased its popularity. And the park’s response was to build huge wooden walkways through it and even raised platforms in front of the trees so people can get a better picture taken with the trees in the background. It was so bad that we left as soon as we could.
After a quick lunch at a roadside cafe, we headed to Angkor Thom – the main city in the Angkor temple area. It houses important monuments such as the Bayon, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants. Bayon turned out to be one of our favorites. The outer wall is covered in 11,000 bas-reliefs figures depicting things like everyday life in Cambodia to epic battles. But the top Bayon was the best part.
The lower part is a series of corridors and interesting doorways. But when you climb up the steep stairs to the third level, you are greeted by 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 smiling gigantic faces. Anywhere you stand there are at east 20 faces viable – either in full-face or in profile. After scrambling around for a while, we climbed down then went over to the Elephant Terrace and a few other minor sights.
While everyone was taking a break, I scurried up Phimeanakas, another pyramidal shaped temple in Angkor Thom. While I was up there, a French guy came up to Narin and asked if he spoke French. Narin said he didn’t. To which the Frenchman replied, “You should learn French because it’s a beautiful language and the French did a lot for your country”. Fortunately the guides took it in stride, but Bridget had to walk away to cool off.
I had been thinking about Narin’s experience with the girl’s parents and was curious if, or how, that had changed his thinking on traditions, or restrictions, of marriage in Cambodia. I asked if he was the parent, and it was his daughter, how would he act. He seemed to fall somewhere in the middle – there would be a dowry required, but the kids could choose who they wanted to marry.
Narin continued the story by telling us that at one point one of her sisters fell in love with him – not knowing that he was dating her sister. When she announced to the family that she was in love with Narin, all hell broke loose. Her parents became so against him, possibly thinking he was two-timing their daughters, they moved the family to Phnom Penh to get away.
The daughter, Narin’s girlfriend, lost her job and hasn’t worked since. The father started physically abusing her – even said he would kill her if she slept with Narin. But during all this, her love for Narin is still beating strong. She is tormented by having to choose to follow her heart, or to honor her parents. So far, the parents seem to be winning (maybe the physical abuse has something to do with that?).
We headed back to Angkor Wat for sunset. As I went off to take photos, the girls walked around with Narin. They found a viewing place and sat down to watch the sunset. Again, the topic of Narin and his “situation” came up. The weather matched the tone of the conversation and whatever sunshine was left ran behind some clouds – possible bored with all the girlfriend talk – and disappeared. But since everyone was so into the conversation they didn’t really notice that there would be no sunset.
That last conversation was when we all turned on Narin. He said she and her family had moved three years ago. Three years!. But he still occasionally travels to Phnom Penh to see her. And while there he wears a mask. He seemed so earnest while telling us this – even the part about wearing a mask – that I didn’t have the heart to tell him to move on. Get over it. There’s plenty more fish in the teuk trey.