Face to Face with the Locals

A 10th century lintel from Pre Rup showing the half-man, half-lion, Narasimha.Following my successful visit to Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre in the morning, I felt refreshed after a cold shower, a quick nap and lunch at the French-run One & Only cafe-bar, opposite the covered market in Siem Reap. The plan for the afternoon was to visit a new batch of temples on the Grand Circuit at Angkor, concentrating on those in and around the now-dry Eastern Baray. Soydy, my guide, returned at 2pm and we drove out, on his moto, past the lake at Srah Srang and onto the funerary temple of Pre Rup. I'd visited the site before and the view from the top of this five tower temple-pyramid made the effort worthwhile.

My friends at Pre Rup: Pholla, Kin (centre) and Naning.However, it was a fleeting visit as I was really on the lookout for a young souvenir seller named Kin, whom I'd met twelve months before and who'd sat with me in the shade while I'd rested at Pre Rup and drawn me a flower with coloured crayons I'd given her. Kin was a really bright and bubbly individual and Soydy enquired at the stall near the temple entrance if they recognised her and her two friends, Pholla and Naning from the photo I handed them (left; Kin is in the centre). They immediately pointed to a dirt track leading into the bushes and suggested we might find them there. At the end of a bumpy track, which passed by the tiny Leak Neang temple, we entered a clearing and came to a halt in the middle of a celebration in the village of Tatry. A collection of wooden and bamboo shacks encircled the clearing and the whole area was buzzing with women and children picnicking, all of whom seemed to stop talking and eating as we came into view. I felt a little unnerved as everyone gathered round and Soydy attempted to translate that I was looking for Kin to give her some gifts by way of a thank you for the picture she'd drawn for me. There was an immediate recognition of the three girls in the picture I held up and although Kin wasn't to be found, lots of giggling and pointing finally produced Pholla, who shyly stepped forward from the crowd and accepted a copy of the photograph and a few necklaces and earrings.

More new friends at Tatry village.Pholla explained to us that Kin was at school a few kilometres away but would remember the English tourist who'd given her the crayons and other gifts a year before. She also explained that she wasn't at school because the villagers were celebrating the twelfth birthday of three young girls, one of whom was her sister, with a feast. Known as 'kor sak,' a puberty rite symbolizing the passage from childhood to adolescence, all three had their heads shaved except for a top-knot of hair, they were dressed in pink and white robes and a rickety bamboo platform had been constructed and festooned with coloured ribbon and flowers in preparation for a ceremony later that same day. So we didn't outstay our welcome, I handed out a packet of balloons to the smaller children who'd followed me in true Pied Piper fashion since my arrival, said our goodbyes to the crowd of smiling onlookers monitoring our every move and made our way back onto the main road to continue our tour.

The girls take a breather at East Mebon and find my pictures interesting.Although thwarted in my attempt to meet up again with Kin, my disappointment had been tempered by the exceptionally friendly reception I'd received from the rest of the Tatry villagers. Our next stop was at the Eastern Mebon temple, which is similar in style, construction and decoration to Pre Rup and built by the same king, Rajendravarman II, in the latter part of the tenth century. It once stood in the centre of the Eastern Baray, now a collection of rice fields and visible from the top of this temple-mountain. As I climbed, I was joined by four young girls with their bags of souvenirs who quickly tired of their own sales patter and eagerly looked at a book of photographs I showed them as we rested from the sun in the shade of a tower (left). Stone lions and elephants, two levels of brick towers and intricate carvings and lintels had made the effort of the climb worthwhile. As we left the temple, I joined a group of half a dozen youngsters, much to their delight, in a game of keeping a shuttlecock in the air by using only your feet, called 'tot sey' in Khmer. My temple quartet and Soydy also joined in, displaying our skills to a growing crowd of onlookers for at least half an hour, before leaving, very hot and dishevelled, but with a host of new friends, who clapped enthusiastically and shook my hand with gusto.

Ta Som - the eastern gopura of the outer enclosure with its pediment held firmly in the grip of a strangler fig tree.Back on Soydy's moto, our final port of call was Ta Som, a small unrestored twelfth century Jayavarman VII temple. We arrived at 5pm, long after the last of the tourists had been and gone and walked through the peaceful temple grounds on our own, admiring in particular the giant faces on the eastern entry tower, entangled in huge vines (right) before making for the exit and a much-needed ice cold drink at the stall just outside the gate. We exchanged some light-hearted banter with half a dozen girls manning the stand and as a parting gift, I gave each of them a necklace or bracelet, which they examined in detail, declared themselves satisfied and posed for a photograph. A very satisfying day with lots of happy memories was rounded off with a brief detour to inspect a couple of Angkorean-era towers located just behind Wat Preah Einkosei (also known as Wat Leu), on the outskirts of Siem Reap town. The light was fading as Soydy pointed out the weather-worn lintels, including Indra on a three-headed elephant, on the laterite towers in the grounds of the modern Buddhist pagoda. It was then back onto the moto for a short hop to the Bayon restaurant for my supper before retiring to bed and a well-earned rest.

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