Crowding the outskirts of the ruins are rows of tents selling food and trinkets, and right up to the gates are throngs of adults and children selling books about the sites, cut up pineapples on sticks, peeled mangos, drinks nut once through the gates you are mostly free of these things. Or shall we say, things get a little trickier.
Before I complain about the hawkers, it needs to be put into the local economic context. I got a sweet deal on my very nice room in a very nice hotel (about fifteen dollars or so, the quality which here at home would cost me between $150 and $200). A decent supper in a nice restaurant ended up more extensive than I had planned since a monsoon hit, and how better to weather it with a little Mekong whiskey after Angkor Stout, and a great chicken with morning glory soup/curry, ended up at around $16 US (the local currency) and here would have been about $35. Roadside meals ran me more around $5 for a stir fry and a drink. (And frankly folks, in my experience, overall the quality of food in Cambodia was better than in Thailand). But consider that government jobs, that includes police and teachers, pay around $30 a month.
Of course, locals have cheaper ways of eating, and buying goods, but still as was told to me, even for locals $30 is not a living wage. So you scramble. Or you work the ruins, which could easily be more lucrative than the normal jobs. Or cops go for bribes so their kids will get to eat that day. So I do not blame the pestering hordes…but they are annoying none the less.
But as I was saying, in the temples…The sellers, because everyone is selling, no beggars to be seen, are not allowed past the gates. But what will happen is that someone will offer to tell you about things, they may or may not have an official uniform (my first one was a policeman) and they tell you things both true and not, and at the end suggest a donation. They won’t beat you or anything if you don’t have the money or don’t pay them but it is still just a buck or so.
Even trickier is the situation below:
Here and there are Buddhas with incense burning. There are stalks which you can take and light. In my innocense, I thought this was a way of venerating the ruins, a gesture to cultural sensitivity as so forth, but it was another money grab. I’m sure some was for a good cause but it was still a little underhanded. I say that because it was initially presented as free.
In one case, having already run across enough of these, I did not climb to yet another Buddha, and somehow as I was taking a picture the 90 year old nun who had a few seconds ago been a story up very steep and uneven stone steps was behind me proffering stalks. I tried to decline and said I had no money, and I actually had none on me. She would not stop and eventually I thought perhaps she did just want me to light a prayer despite my lack. So I did and made the requisite bows, and then she started insisting I leave money. And then began the somewhat ungraceful extraction process. As they say “if looks could kill” I would have been struck dead on the spot.
Part of the problem other than the general poverty, and perhaps grown from the poverty is that we come from a Western culture that has delineated paid from unpaid services, the paid ones are usually contracted and described before begun, and extremely “small” services unless performed by someone who already makes a lot of money, like a lawyer or doctor, are done for free.
If you are not a lawyer and someone asks you for directions to the nearest bus stop you will point or even take them there, and not bill them for the time. In these areas, people need every advantage they can find so those little things, that we have known as free things, have been restructured as little money earners.
The other cultural problem, which may stem from a true cliche about travelers, is that every one wants life made easier. I like to walk, even in bad heat; I find it is the only way to really see a place. Once while walking through the poorer areas, with no other non locals to be seen, I attracted motorbikes like moths to a flame, and seemed to confuse them by not wanting a ride. I wanted to walk I told them and I suspect they thought it was more that I was cheap.