The Smiles Of Angkor


This blog entry about the events of Thursday, January 27, 2005 was originally posted on February 02, 2005.

DAY 467:  “Are you just as awe-inspired as I am?” Noelle asked me as we stood in front of the Bayon, one of Angkor Park’s major temples.  Her smile was wide with joy, even in the scorching hot and humid conditions of tropical Cambodia.

“Yeah, this pretty much kicks the pyramids’ ass,” was my response.

THE SWANKY CAFES, BARS, RESTAURANTS, AND UPMARKET HOTELS in and around Siem Reap (including Le Meridien and Sofitel) sprouted up from what would otherwise be your normal southeast Asian city due to the city’s six-kilometer proximity to arguably one of the great man-made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples.  The UNESCO World Heritage Site draws thousands of tourists a year from countries all around the globe, which inadvertently pump much-needed money into a struggling economy.

The money pumping began when Noelle and I hired Vebol and Louen, two young Cambodian guys in orange t-shirts from our guesthouse who offered their motorbike touring services to us.  Noelle and I each hopped on the back of a scooter and soon we were zipping across town and up the road to the entrance of Angkor Park to get our 3-day photo ID passes at the whopping, but well-worth price of $40 (USD).  My photo made me look sixteen and my driver Louen was surprised when I told him I was actually thirty and the older one between Noelle and me.

Down the jungle forest road and over the stone guardian demon-studded bridge over a moat, we rode into the Angkor Park complex.  We decided to save the main Angkor Wat (Great Temple) for the next day and sped off a little further to Angkor Thom (Great City), which was equally angkor

ANGKOR THOM WAS THE LAST CAPITAL OF THE KHMER EMPIRE — the civilization which eventually evolved into present day Cambodia — and was an ancient city surrounded by stone fortification walls in a perfect square, providing a nine square kilometer area for the priests, officials, and military soldiers who took residence there.  The hey-day of Angkor Thom was during the 12th and 13th centuries, when Buddhist King Jayavarman VII ruled the land.  In the exact center of his square city was the Bayon temple, the place where our story began.

The splendor of the Bayon temple (reconstructed and maintained today by the Japanese) rivals that of its more famous sibling Angkor Wat to the south built some one hundred years prior.  At first glance, the Bayon and Angkor Wat look similar in design, but upon a closer look you see that it is only the Bayon that looks back at you and smiles.  In addition to its bas-reliefs, the 12th century temple is known for its unique, 200 odd stone faces carved into its 54 towers.  Each face depicts what archaeologists believe are images of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, showing the omnipresence of the king.  The lips of each carved face are curved upwards, giving it the nickname, “the smile of Angkor” (picture above).

The carvings are amazing!” Noelle raved with her own smile of Angkor as we toured up and down the temple.  Even for “templed out” me, I agreed.  My good impression of the temple was not only due to the fine ancient craftsmanship, but the fact that unlike at the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, there weren’t nearly as many people around ruining the ethereal vibe — nor not as many touts and hawkers for that matter.

The touts and hawkers appeared when we left the Bayon and walked to the food stalls on the north end where our motorbike drivers were.  We stopped in to escape the heat and have a quick snack under a shelter where many Pepsi flags with Pink, Britney, Beyonce and Enrique in gladiator clothes were hung up. 

“Where are you from?” asked one little boy hawking souvenirs.

“The States,” Noelle replied.

“What state?”


“If I know your capital, then you buy something,” the little boy said.  “The capital is Sacramento.”  Noelle was amazed; half the kids in America would have gotten that wrong.  “You buy something from me.”

“Sorry, I don’t have any money,” Noelle gave as an alibi. 

A little girl named Lai was also there to sell souvenirs.  “If I tell you the population of California, you buy something.”

These guys were good; most likely they’d have the answer to that one to, so Noelle reciprocated with a stumper:  “The population today or yesterday?”

“It’s the same.”

“No, it’s not.  Some people are born and some people die.”

“No…” little Lai said in disbelief.


She tried again.  “I tell you the population of California and then you buy something.”

“The population today or yesterday?”

This went back and forth and Lai’s smile started turning into a frown.  She changed the subject and asked where I was from.

“I’m from the moon,” I said, smirking like a Bayon face.

“Yeah, he’s from the moon.”

“No…” she said again in disbelief.  She was really started to get upset with our shenanigans and her lack of progress in making a sale.  “All the people from the United States, they lie to me,” she said, laying on the guilt.  I made her day though when I bought a ten-pack of postcards from her for a dollar.  Noelle did the same, and sent Lai off with a big “smile of Angkor” on her face.

“You want postcards?” asked the next hawking girl down the line. 

“We already bought some,” we told her.  She got angry and blew a minor tantrum, saying it wasn’t fair.  “You made one girl happy, but not me!”  We sighed; you can’t make everyone go home with a smile. 

NORTH OF THE BAYON FOOD STALLS were more noteworthy temples and structures of Angkor Thom, all accessible by foot.  Noelle and I made our way to see them, first to the Baphuon, the 11th century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, which wasn’t too much to write home about.  A temple which was once known as a shimmering Tower of Bronze, it was one of Angkor Park’s most damaged temples from the wars over time, but fortunately, it was under a big renovation project led by the French.

Nearby was a temple in much better condition:  the Phimeanakas, the 11th century Hindu temple once known as the Tower of Gold — even though it was made of sandstone.  A quick up and down the steep stairs and it was off to see more. 

“I DON’T SEE ANY ELEPHANTS,” Noelle said at the next stone attraction down the line, the Terrace of the Elephants, the royal terrace first used by King Suryavarman I; all I saw thus far were relief sculptures of demons “holding up” the terrace.  It took a while for us to spot the images of pachyderms, but when we did, they were all over, in wall reliefs and in a more three-dimensional form.  They were accompanied by relief images of other animals and soldiers, including the image of the king’s legendary a five-headed horse.  Beyond the Terrace was the 12th century Terrace of the Leper King, which sported a statue of the king that, in a style atypical to its time, sported a smile of Angkor with teeth showing.

“WHAT SHOULD WE DO NOW?” Noelle asked.  We were completely sluggish and lethargic from walking around under the pounding heat of the sun.

“Go to the zoo, flip off the monkeys?” I said. 


“It’s from Anchorman,” I had to explain.

Our post-Angkor Thom festivities didn’t involve giving the finger to monkeys, but with less vulgar things at sundown.  We joined the hundreds of others climbing up a big hill (instead of taking a pricey elephant ride) to the top where the Phnom Bakheng temple resided, to catch the sunset in the west.  Afterwards, Vebol and Louen took us back in Siem Reap. 

Noelle and I ended our day with Khmer food (chicken with diced tomato and pineapple) and a wireless internet session back at The Blue Pumpkin.  We also went out to get something I had heard many people rave about:  massages by blind people, who were supposedly the best in the business.  My blind masseuse, a middle-aged woman named Chea who assumed I was Noelle until I spoke in my male voice, laid me out, pushed me, pulled me and beat every knot out of my body.  It was an experience that I soon raved about to the others walking in as “the best massage I’ve ever had” (and at just $3/hr too).  I gave Chea a tip when I paid her, happy with her services.  Oh, if only she could have seen the smile on my face, she would have seen one greater than the ones at the Bayon temple.


Next entry: Where Life Imitates Video Games

Previous entry: Red Pills, White Apples, and Blue Pumpkins

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Comments for “The Smiles Of Angkor”

  • wow, awesome pictures…
    doesnt it get annoying dealing with kids constantly trying to sell you things??

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  08:16 AM

  • MARQUEE:  Actually, I’ve gotten quite used to it… but yeah, still annoying.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  08:17 AM

  • nice, right after the lunch break 2 new entries to read, keep the good work up.
    i showed my coworker the flash animation and the blog this morning, she was amazed as well and especially interested in africa since she’s been there in the 80s for quiet some time.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  09:43 AM

  • Great entry Erik, Cambodia sounds amazing.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  12:41 PM

  • population today or yesterday…that’s just mean…

    everyone’s gotta hustle…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  01:19 PM

  • Nice entry… I’m smiling!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  01:42 PM

  • A $3/hr massage? Can you sign up for like 8 hours at a time?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  05:54 PM

  • I work as a massage therapist in a physiotherapy clinic.. I remember reading about the blind masseuses in Cambodia in a Massage journal.. I’m waaayyy jealous, I always wondered how good that would have been..

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/03  at  05:16 AM

  • Erik, I started getting really depressed after realizing that your trip is coming to end, because that meant I couldn’t live vicariously through you anymore! I mean, what am I going to do at work now?  So, my tentative RTW is in the works right now. Hate to pester you with mundane questions like this, but what did your RTW ticket look like, main flights etc? and did you have a Oneworld, or Star Alliance?  Thanks a bunch!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/03  at  06:02 PM

  • Hi.
    I’d appreciate some info with regards to your plane tickets like Kirsten.  I’m in the middle of buying a RTW ticket and I can’t make up my mind. Thanks. I appreciate it!

    Posted by Giovanni  on  02/03  at  06:53 PM

  • FUNCHILDE/DARCY:  The massage technique was Anma/Shiatsu… highly recommended!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/04  at  04:32 AM

  • KIRSTEN/GIOVANNI:  I did NOT buy an RTW Ticket.  I went with, an agency in San Francisco that uses their contacts in cheaper locations to book you individual tickets dirt cheap…  I only used them for the first half of my trip and then winged it from there; it’s easy and more flexible to get flights as you need them.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/04  at  04:36 AM

  • That bench on top of the elephant doesn’t look like it would be very stable…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/05  at  06:43 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Where Life Imitates Video Games

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