Thursday, April 15, 2010

Angkor, Cambodia

About 900 years ago, a guy named Suryavarman charged a rival prince's war elephant on foot. He leapt onto the animal, pulled himself up the harness and stabbed the rival prince through the heart with a sword. Thus, leadership of the enormous Khmer Empire was consolidated. A few years later, construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex would begin -- the architectural zenith of the entire region.

“This is so stupid,” a statement that has punctuated some of the better things I’ve done. “This is so stupid,” one of Caesar’s Lieutenants must have said, looking back at the Rubicon.

The moat around Angkor Wat was silver with moon and star light.

“It’s so quiet,” Lucy said. We all sat and stared, the absence of a response accentuating the fact.

The temple looked further away in the darkness. Like a range of hand-wrought mountains on the horizon. The causeway seemed to stretch for miles.

“There’s probably an unmarked grave around here somewhere for trespassing tourists,” Liam said. It was a flawed attempt at humor in Cambodia. There probably was.

We’d agreed not to use our flashlights to avoid detection, so I strained to examine my map by moonlight. “Ta Prohm, the jungle temple where they filmed Tomb Raider, is about four miles from here.”

“We should probably stay off the paths,” Liam said, letting his tone remind us of his initial reticence
“You’re probably right,” I conceded. I was nervous about getting caught, too.

“I’m alright here,” Lucy said. “We’ve been walking all day anyway.”

The Angkor Temples are near the top of the SE Asian tourist checklist. There are dozens of western-style hotels in Siem Reap, the nearest city, all of which operate Disney-esque shuttle services to and from the site. Foreigners pay $20 for a day’s access – about three weeks income for the average Cambodian.. There had been thousands of people there earlier in the day, crowding and jostling. Some annoyingly over-precocious English tween had blathered at me nonstop while I was trying to watch the sunset. Allowing children into museums or historic sites is about as good an idea as setting yourself on fire. Same goes for the obese. I’d had to wait in line for almost 20 minutes just to use some stairs.

We’d been walking back to the shuttle boarding point at the end of the day when Lucy stopped and said, “let’s just stay.”

“No,” Liam knee-jerked.

“Like, overnight?” I asked, already sold.

“Yeah. We’re just going to have to come back and pay [$20] again tomorrow. I’m surprised more people don’t just camp out here.”


“There’s nowhere to sleep here Lucy. And it’s probably illegal.”

“It’s definitely illegal,” I said. “I asked a policeman earlier.”

“We’ll be able to sleep if we get tired enough,” Lucy said cheerfully. “You can tell it’s going to be a warm night.”

We broke off from the herd and into the woods, up a hill and into a clearing overlooking the largest temple – Angkor Wat. Even off the trail there was no grass, just over-trodden dirt and worn branches that the multitudes used as handrails.

“I’m surprised more people don’t do this,” Lucy said as we settled in.

We talked for a few hours as more stars twinkled into being and the conspicuous silence was replaced by a din of cicada clicks. The occasional flashlight beam bounced mindlessly across the road in the distance. We’d stop talking and go stone-still whenever the dancing lights got close.

I was curious about what would have happened if we’d been caught. Doing something illegal in Cambodia is not the same as doing something illegal in the United States. In a Western representative democracy, penalties are legislated to be commensurate to the crime and are accurately enforced. A couple dumb kids staying overnight in a park get yelled at, or, at very worst, a fine. In a country like Cambodia, there is a disconnect between law enforcement and legislation. The power balance in a questioning or arrest is about the same as a mugging.

I had already paid one bribe a few days earlier (Border guards had demanded an “unofficial passport duty” upon entry, as well as an additional fee for the inconvenience of having to accept Laotian currency. It came to about $14.50 – exactly the amount of cash in my wallet.), and would pay a second before I left. It is a profound culture shock to be robbed by a police officer. A badge and gun are symbols of safety in my mind. But as is the case in America, officers are just regular guys who make a regular wage. The difference being that that wage in the US is enough to buy a new car every few years and put your kids through college. In Cambodia, it is barely enough to stave off malnourishment. And that disparity, in most cases, is greater than the value of integrity, or even human decency.

A steep fine, doubtless, would have been the price of getting caught in a national park after hours. The most worrisome element of such a payment are the theatric lengths that the officer will go through to get it. Horror stories circulate of backpackers caught with drugs or prostitutes who spend a few nights in jail while they wait for sizeable wire transfers. Such stories are all the incentive a reasonable person should need to avoid serious crime in Asia. Actual jail terms, handed down by a judge for something like drug trafficking, are only debatably more desirable than a death sentence.

We didn’t get caught that night. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you,” an American accent as I sat up slowly the next morning. It was still dark, but the noise of a forming crowd chattered through the trees.

“What time is it?” One of those default questions you can articulate while your brain is powering on.

“A little after five,” the American said – a man about my age with a big digital camera and day pack slung over his shoulder. “The park just opened.”

Made it, I thought. “Cool,” groggily.

“Did you guys sleep here all night?”


“You allowed to do that?”

“Definitely not.”

“Heh. Cool.” A like-mind.

I smiled and nodded. “Spot’s all yours.” I patted the ground. “Just don’t get caught.”


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