Having heard about the delicate engravings and charm of Banteay Srei (Khmer for “Citadel of the Women”) temple, we organized a special trip there with our tuk-tuk driver. It is one of the oldest Hindu temples at Angkor and dates back to the 10th century.
Not Early Enough
We arrived plenty early for us, at 8:30 AM, but not nearly early enough to beat the throngs. The tour buses were already lined up and groups of tourists were being herded inside through the main entrance. The complex is small and people are outnumbered only by cameras. As you duck out of courtesy from one photo, you find yourself falling into another. We were having flashbacks to our first morning at Bayon. To maintain our sanity, we retreated to the outside courtyard until some calm ensued inside. The green area on the perimeter provides a nice perspective to view the temple…in peace. It also allows you to appreciate the temple's intended intimacy and its reddish glow in the early morning light.
When we finally entered the main temple area, we understood why this temple has become so popular. The engravings are deep, unique and narrative. As we eavesdropped on tour guides providing explanations, we learned of different Hindu figures and legends being depicted in the red stone. As in Italian opera, love, war, death and deception figured prominently.
Zoom Lens and Zoo Behavior
We saw a couple of cute Cambodian girls, around 5-6ish, sitting in a windowsill, just hanging out and playing. Next thing we know, a group of Western tourists (possibly American) descended upon them in a group and shoved their mega-zoom lenses (about 1+ foot in length) in the kids' faces. The tourists made cooing noises at the girls, as if they were animals in a zoo, presumably to prompt a reaction for their brilliant photography. Fittingly, the girls looked back at them stoically and emotionless. Look for these uninspired shots in your favorite magazine sometime soon.
Isn’t the point of having a zoom lens that size to avoid poking people in the eyeball for a close-up? It was a truly sad scene and we were embarrassed for all involved.
We exited the temple a bit saddened by the actions of tourists, but in admiration of the temple and its artists. The popularity of Banteay Srei may help to destroy it, though, unless restrictions are placed on the number of tourists allowed in at one time and further barricades are erected to prevent people from pawing the engravings.
Breakfast Soup and Villages
We found redemption and authenticity as our our tuk-tuk driver downed a bowl of Cambodian breakfast soup just around the corner at a food stall with other drivers. We joined him for a second breakfast and ended up eating two bowls of the stuff ourselves. It was some of the best soup we'd had (or best food for that matter) – stunningly fresh rice noodles covered with a light yellow fish-based broth and topped off with a spoonful of sweet peanut soup. Grated fresh banana flower, long beans, cucumbers and bitter herbs topped it off and complemented the soup in taste and texture. We are now among the converted and consider ourselves charter members of the Soup for Breakfast Club.
On our return to Siem Reap we stopped at several villages, witnessed how people make palm sugar candies, and watched more than a few water buffaloes getting sponge baths from devoted owners hoping to help them escape from the baking heat of the dry season. By that point, obnoxious tourists with mega telephoto lenses were all but forgotten.