Sunset on the City

Da, our young guide to Banteay Kdei

After lunch and shopping we went to the ruins of Banteay Kdei, where we were immediately greeted by two boys. One of them was a tiny little kid. He stayed by my side the whole way through the ruins. The older boy walked next to Andy. Both boys explained the history of Banteay Kdei and pointed out different features. I asked the little one his name.

"Da," he said. I would guess he spelled it differently, but that's what it sounded like to me.

"How old are you?" I asked.

Da looked confused. The older boy spoke with him in Khmer then answered, "Seventeen. He's seventeen."

Andy and I laughed. There was no way this little guy was more than ten years old.

"Oh, seven," the older boy corrected himself. "He's seven."

Da's friend
When we asked the older boy how old he was he told us that he was sixteen. Andy told him that's impossible. He was small and thin and looked twelve years old, tops. The boy simply shrugged his thin shoulders and replied, "Cambodians are smaller."

Andy and I felt bad for contesting him. Maybe malnutrition in the wake of the Khmer Rouge reign stunted his growth. Overall I found it very difficult to determine children's ages in Cambodia.

"Built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century," Da pointed to the ruins. Our impressive young guides led us through Banteay Kdei pointing our details here and there. Da and I walked a few paces behind Andy and the older boy, and I could hear that sometimes Da was just repeating his friend, pretending the words were directly from his own memory. When he smiled up at me, I could see that his two front teeth were just coming in.

Afterwards, we gave them some money for the tour. They ran off laughing and wrestling with each other. Andy and I crossed the road and sat at the edge of Srar Srang lake. Da and the older boy joined us there for a while, then waved good-bye as we got back into the car and headed for Prasat Kravan.

Kids at Prasat Kravan
At Prasat Kravan, Andy bought a charcoal rubbing of the temple's bas reliefs from a boy who was no more than six years old.

"That's definitely the youngest person I've ever done business with," Andy shook his head and laughed.

Little girls played jump rope in front of the ruins. One child balanced her baby brother on her hip. Boys rested on the rocks, and dogs challenged roosters.

Next stop was Ta Prohm, a 12th century temple built by Jayavarman VII in honor of his mother. As usual, an army of T-shirt vendors rushed us. In all the commotion a kid cut in and offered to led us through the ruins. We said no thank you, crossed onto the grounds, then suddenly realized that in Ta Prohm it might be best to follow a local guide - the Lonely Planet guide noted that the local kids know all the best places to take pictures here. I ran back out and found the kid standing by a truck holding a drum. He was strikingly handsome with his high cheekbones and wavy black hair. He looked about fourteen years old to me. Meas (pronounced May-ahs) it turned out, was eighteen years old. That means he was born in 1979... the year the Khmer Rouge fell.

Meas and I contemplating Ta Prohm
Meas, our guide at Ta Prohm
He told us he knew where to find all the best photographs and "the tree that looks like a snake." He directed us through the fallen rocks and overgrown trees. Ta Prohm has been completely left to the elements. No restoration projects have been undertaken. No efforts have been made to rescue the ruins from the trees. The site looks very much like it must have appeared to the French explorers who re-discovered it. The stone is wrapped in roots and cloaked in vines. The jungle has such a fierce stranglehold on the ruins that if the trees were removed, the structure would crumble. Meas pointed out a root that looked like a boa constrictor... wrapped around the ruins, dripping from level to level. He climbed up a steep pile of rock and motioned to us to join him. Even in his flimsy blue flip flops, he could scale the ruins faster than a cat. We followed him up the rocks, but of course we didn't look even half as graceful as he did. From the top, we could see piles upon piles of rocks split by roots, and we could hear countless frogs screeching in the river.

Standing on the roof of the vine-entangled ruins of Ta Prohm
Meas told us that he sold drums at Angkor. He didn't talk much during the tour, but he was sweet. We could have searched for those photos for hours if we'd explored Ta Prohm alone. He pointed out features and took us to sections that we might have missed without him. We gave Meas three dollars, thanked him and said good-bye. From there we went to the Takeo temple, where we basically got out of the car, looked up the steep staircase and got back in the car.

Lee, Phaeng and Hing
Want to see more of the Sunset Gang?
Visit The Children of Southeast Asia,
or Listen to them Play with RealAudio!
Sunset was approaching by that time, so Rang took us to the base of Phnom Bakheng. This ruin sits atop a rocky, sandy hill. Rang told us that the sunset view from the top is spectacular. Four children, each of them no higher than my elbow, joined us as we tromped up the hill. They laughed and posed for our cameras. The boys, Lee, Hing and Phaeng, were complete hams, but the girl, Suan, was a little camera shy. The kids directed us up the hill, told us the Khmer word for tree, and held my hand when we climbed the stairs. Actually I would have been better off on the steep staircase if Lee and Phaeng hadn't each taken a hand, but they were cute and wanted to be polite. At the top of the hill, the children played tag, using a medieval stone table as base. Two little girls in pretty dresses sat by smiling and watching us. More people gradually traveled up the hill, tourists and locals alike. The sun set over the ruins throwing gold light onto Phnom Bakheng. It was a perfect way to end our trip to Angkor. Finally the sun was just about gone, and we walked down the hill by the dwindling light.

I went to Cambodia to honor the survivors and to pay respect to the dead. I also went there hoping to find the country that lay beyond the Khmer Rouge history. Travelers can't help but see the tatters of the recent horrors, but then they can't miss the spirit of survival either. Cambodia has the energy of a restless teenager and the soul of a wise old man. For the tourist, Cambodia is an adventure. For the local, Cambodia is a challenge. Either way, it is an exciting, beautiful, graceful and remarkable country.