Sunday, April 15, 2012

Siem Reap: Beyond Angkor Wat

When this year started, I was intent to strikeout one by one my travel bucket items faster than I can add up to it. With the blessing of a seat sale from Air Asia,I was able to book a flight for a little over 8,000 Php to the city of ancient temples. I really don't have high expectations for this trip, it was mostly to see and photograph Angkor Wat and the temple in Tomb Raider (Ta Prohm). We booked an All-In package from a family run guesthouse and everything was set for the trip.

It was a sunny morning when we touched down on the small but charming Siem Reap International Airport that integrates a lot of Khmer cultural influences in its design and architecture. Immigration was a breeze and we are out of the immigration checkpoint in a few minutes. There were already a lot of people in the exit gate mostly are pickup services from the different hotels/ hostels/ guesthouses. We scanned the sea of faces looking for the signage bearing our names and that is when we first met the thinly haired, brown guy with an easy smile but sad eyes. Mr. Than Sophea quickly smiled as we approached him, gave us a hearty handshake and led us quickly to the waiting Toyota Camry. As we got settled inside the car and we started driving, Mr. Sophea gave us some quick facts in his heavily accented english about Siem Reap and Cambodia. He asked us if it was our first time in Cambodia and we answered with a resounding 'Yes'.We continued on having small talk with him as we ride into downtown Siem Reap.

Mr.Sophea accompanied us in our 2 days of literal "temple run" in the Angkor complex. He patiently waited on us as we endlessly click on our camera shutters before going to explain the history of the temple and the meaning of the different carvings and statues. He would willingly get our camera to take our group photos and would even tell us where to stand so that there is a better light. We might really look like shutterbugs because without asking he would lead us to nooks and crannies where there is a good angle of view and we would giddily followed him and click away on our black boxes.
I can still distinctly remember how a conversation played out between him and my friend "J"
J : Sophea, how come you know all these things about photography
Mr.Sophea: I used to be a guide for some photography groups before 
J: You should look into going into photography, you are good
Mr.Sophea: Maybe when I get my own camera

Mr.Sophea was supposed to be in a white coat examining patients but today he is clad in a yellow long sleeve shirt with patches, black pants and a Crocs knock-offs.As we walk among the ruins under the intense heat of the mid day sun, he would lead us from one place to another while narrating the facts about the ruin, carvings or statues and then he will pepper his narration with some of his life story (I think we even asked more personal question than about the temples). He was supposed to study medicine and follow the footsteps of his father when the civil war broke out. As the war rage, he found himself an orphan, brother-less and with no means to continue to study medicine. Now, it has been almost 5 years that being a travel guide has helped him provide for his family. In a clear voice, I can still remember him say  " We are not rich but we get by". I found out that Mr.Sophea is a family man who works hard for his family and he wants to provide good education for his kids.

As we slowly walked amongst gigantic trees in Ta Prohm, I marvel on his stories how as a kid, he would make fertilizer with cow dung. He wrung his labor worn hands to illustrate how the smell won't leave his hand even if he washed it for numerous times. Sometimes I wouldn't even catch what he is saying because of the accent but I will still find myself smiling and nodding my head as if I understand the whole story. 

As the sun sets while we trek down after the sunset viewing in Phnom Bakhen, my friend "J" hands him our tip and he literally lights up. He stopped in his tracks and in a halting voice said "Thank you, I will not have anything to give to you but only to wish you good luck in your future" . I hope that few dollars would find it's way to a small meal or a day of fun for Mr.Sophea and his family. How I wish, I had the courage to ask him if we can meet and say hello to his wife and kids because that's what travelling is for to learn from the people you met along the way. It has been a week now and whenever I remember Siem Reap, the first thing that comes into my mind is not the world wonder of Angkor Wat but of a smiling man with those sad eyes.

If you are interested to get Mr. Than Sophea as your guide, you may reach him through email:

1 comment:

  1. Your Mr Thea sounds like a great tour guide. he reminds me of a man who specializes in Burmese massage in Burma who has been giving these awesome massages to tourists for three years and dreams of someday buying a car. Oh and looking at your bucket list again, white water rafting in CDO is so worth it. Did it with some exchange students from HK some years ago- just be careful the CDO rafting peeps have a daredevil adventurous spirits. And as for Italy, I do love pasta.