Archaeology is not what you find, it’s what you find out.” ~ David Hurst Thomas (Archaeologist)
You’ve seen the films, the exotic shots of ancient civilisations, the anticipation as the intrepid hero is on the trail for fortune and glory. In his path ancient evil is not far behind. Traversing temples, eating monkey brains and beetles and rituals and sacrifices are all just part of the plot. When I first studied archeology I was led by this fictional story, only to find that archeology was more about collecting data than the stories. It didn’t take long to realise that my imagination couldn’t cope with the day to day drudgery. However I appreciated the work. I loved reading about past archeologists and looking at images of before and after a dig. It’s a pity that it took me 35 years to find my hobby. I first remember my love of ancient sites. The moon and the sun pyramids of the Aztecs. I thought to myself how come I didn’t know about this. I was fascinated, although it would be 10 years later before I took a couple of units of archeology and anthropology to appreciate the past at Uni. Since then I have become a passive lover of ancients sites and have had the opportunity to visit some of the worlds most amazing sites, which doesn’t include Egypt, yet. So it was a no brainer that I would visit Siem Reap. I deliberately didn’t read much information, I wanted to go with a clear mind. I had no idea what I was in for and as it would turn out, it wasn’t just the visit to the many sites in this region that made the 4 days of discovery an amazing experience.
Before I set out to decide the areas I would like to explore, I spent a few hours doing my due diligence by going to the Museum. My knowledge of the Khmer empire began in Thailand at Sukhothai. I also visited the royal palace in Phnom Penh where I came across some interesting reliefs and murals that told the story of this once mighty empire. The Museum gave my head a full work out and as much as I could try I knew I needed to read more. I think in retrospect I should’ve understood the physical geography a little better. So after learning about textiles, the technical aspects of art and carvings I was ready to choose the sites, so I spent the day lying by the pool and learning about the appropriate sites to visit. Very nice indeed, that’s the way to study. Then with my notebook in hand the next challenge was that I needed to work out how the hell I was going to get to them all. This is the thing about just turning up at a place and not really knowing what to expect. On the positive the excitement of something new on the negative trying to work out how not to get ripped of. The hostel I was staying at was for the under 25s and they weren’t to interested in 4 days of getting up at 5am and returning at 7pm. The Chinese tourists were either paying for a private car or tour buses that shuttle you around like cattle. I did have many tuk-tuk drivers who promised me the world but most couldn’t speak English, only knew what the travel brochures told them and they wanted to take me to as many sites they could fit in one day. To me it was quality and also my ability at the time to traverse the many sites with my healing broken foot. I am not going to explain every site I visited here as the video does show you and really you need to come and see for yourself. But lets just say, the expanse of this empire was indeed mighty and their show of power intimidating, magnificent in detail and size.
YOUR ONLY AS STRONG AS YOUR WEAKEST LINK
It’s funny, that most good stories always include a back story, sort of like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor players to the big gig. This wasn’t any different, as it was the Tuk Tuk drivers that added to my discovery about the history of the Khmers, including my tuk-tuk driver Rus. When I first met Rus my intuition kicked in and I knew he wouldn’t let me down. We worked out the best routes and what I was to expect. Well to the best of my knowledge anyway. I felt really comfortable talking to him and he was honest with me. So we worked out a price and set the ball rolling. For the many tuk tuk drivers it is pay day, the money they can earn helps with the basics of life. The other businesses that profit from Siem Reap’s archeology enable the people to prosper in many ways. However like all touristic places there are also the normal pitfalls, culture clashes, lack of infrastructure, alienation. I have already commented on a previous posts about this and Rus was quite aware of many of the issues. He didn’t enjoy the loss of community and the building of mega size hotels with casinos that bring in thousands each week. They fly in spend two days, give all their money to Chinese owners and nothing left for the locals. Rus also knew, rather than just being a driver and be stuck in a revolving door, he needed to aim higher he needed to go back to school and learn about the history of his ancestors and also his own local history. He also realised that being able to communicate also required many hours learning other languages. When I met him he was still learning and happy to. He was aiming to save money for his young children who would need more than just a basic education. He also was the bread winner for his mother and father who were subsistent farmers and his younger brother was a cowboy, his role was to look after the farm animals because he did not have an education. Rus did not want this for himself or his family. So Rus started small and over the past few years has been able to earn more. He needs extra cash for repairs on his Tuk Tuk and is also hoping to buy an environmentally cleaner, faster and stronger Tuk Tuk like some of his friends have. With many people going on organised tours to the main sites he needs to take people to places a little of the beaten track. A point of difference from the major travel companies. He says he is learning every day new understandings of the past and proud and honoured to be a spokesperson. Similarly with his friends I met who were also Tuk Tuk drivers. Over time I got to know the other drivers and if Rus didn’t know an answer to my question there was always someone who did. Like community education. They also worked in teams using their mobiles to warn other drivers when buses or when the Lexus cars would be arriving. They would know the bus route and they made sure I and other tourist using Tuk tuks could visit various sites without hoards of people. Of course this did not always work out but you know that when its Chinese New Year you really only have yourself to blame. Of course the Chinese like any other group of people should also have the ability to visit this area. Its just a little sad that the mystery of the place has now been lost to an over saturation of tourists. I wish I went 20-15 years ago when this incredible area was only a paragraph in the lonely planet. Yet without tourism I wonder what Rus would be doing. Like he says “in Cambodia you have to make the most of the opportunities because you never know when you will end up with nothing to show for it.” The history of the Khmer and their ruins are evident of that.