Angkor Athletes and Apsara Angels

Angkor Wat is the biggest of many historic Khmer temples situated near the tourist resort town of Siem Reap in Cambodia.  It is the largest religious monument in the world and has been ranked as one of the Seven man made Wonders of the World.  Khmer civilisation came into it’s own and thrived here for centuries through the Middle Ages.  Yesterday the inaugural International Angkor Empire Marathon was held, with a starting point at the entrance gate into Angkor Wat Temple and a course encircling the World Heritage listed site, including through the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom and past many other temples.  It was an exciting event and registration fees will be divided between a number of local hospitals and charities.

There are currently eight expatriates living and working together with MSF-France in Kampong Cham, a diverse but well-matched group of people from all over the world who socialise and work as a happy (and incredibly lucky) team.  We hired a driver and mini van for the weekend and on Friday afternoon headed off with stocks of wine and snacks for the five hour journey to Siem Reap, for a weekend together.

Despite a fun journey along rural roads with many interesting sights, luxurious boutique hotel accommodation and decent tourist-friendly shopping and restaurants in Siem Reap, where I now know people who I enjoy catching up with, the highlight of my weekend was definitely the 0430am start four of us made yesterday morning. We reached Angkor Wat in time to watch the sun slowly rise behind the famous ancient temple spires before cheering on the race starters for the 21km half marathon at 6am, followed by the 10km competitors at 0610am, then lining up for my own 3km fun run take off at 0620am.

On previous trips to Siem Reap I’ve mentioned Rav, the affable young tuk-tuk driver who translates for me with the landmine victim whose family I support.  We visited them on Saturday for our usual encounter at their little single room accommodation sleeping a family of four and serving as Mum’s workplace with the sewing machine set up in one corner.  Yesterday at 0500am Rav was waiting as arranged and runners were already on the unlit road outside our hotel, 5km into the 42km full marathon which had started half an hour prior in the dark, their silhouettes silently pounding the road as policemen lined the streets to mark their route.  We packed into the tuk-tuk, the two serious competitors who were about to run 21km and 10km respectively, full of nerves and excitement.  The tuk-tuk made it’s way out into the road, crossing in front of runners in the usual Cambodian style of casual but polite rule-free road-sharing which I have become awkwardly familiar with and which makes me worry for my return to Australia where road rules and road rage will be unfamiliar and alarming!

Sunrise at the temple was a spectacular array of slowly-evolving colours, with a DJ on stage spurring the crowds, calling for competitors to make their way to the start line, appealing for cheers according to the nationalities he was naming randomly, playing loud beat music and rousing applause for the competitors at each take-off.  Our Slovakian colleague left first in the half marathon, full of nerves but no doubt stimulated by the adrenaline rush the crowd and atmosphere generated.  Ten minutes later our Australian colleague took off in a similar rush of excitement for the 10km race, followed ten minutes later by myself and our American colleague for the 3km fun run.  Unlike my American friend who planned a stroll, I was determined to run the distance despite my similarly inappropriate attire and utter lack of athletic desires or talents.  I started at a slow pace which I correctly thought I could maintain for the duration.  Surrounded by a mixed and happy crowd of joggers and walkers, and inspired by the beautiful tree-lined route in such a magical site, I mused about the historic events preceding my own footprints on this patch of land over many centuries as I ran to the beat of the tunes on my newly-created “Angkor Marathon” playlist.  Plenty of interested local people lined the route going about their usual daily business of selling to or cleaning up after tourists, with lots of staring, waving and smiling as I plodded past, helping me to maintain my pace so that within 20 minutes I had shuffled my way back to the finish line, feeling quite accomplished.  After all, I can now say that “I ran in the inaugural Angkor Empire Marathon” – with the subtle distinction of adding the word “in” to my sentence making all the difference to the truth of my statement!

Just as I was reaching the finish line a very fast and fit male runner strode past me, giving me the extremely false impression of competing in a serious race – the difference being that I shuffled across a white chalk line in one direction as he veered the bend and bounced energetically underneath the red banners of the serious finish line.  Rav found me a few moments later and we stood along the edges cheering in the approaching serious competitors.  Green cardboard squares attached to plastic ice cream sticks were being handed out and we waved these at ourselves to cool down in between using them to cheer on the athletes.  Our walking MSFer was next over the line, strolling casually along in her thongs!  About twenty minutes later Bea appeared, crossing the 10km finish line in good time with a beaming smile.  About an hour later our Slovakian 21kmer strode in looking like she’d just taken a walk in the park!  The serious runners received a medal while the 3kmers received a certificate with space on it to complete our names and finish times.  Along with the green cardboard fans and after taking some photos for evidence that we did get a finishing certificate, Rav’s children inherited these.

After cooling off, rehydrating and soaking up some of the race atmosphere Rav pulled in alongside Angkor Wat’s moat and we piled in again for the return journey to the hotel for breakfast, a shower and a much-deserved rest.  Rav parked himself across the road from the hotel and waited, the standard pastime of thousands of tuk-tuk drivers throughout Asia!  A few hours later we gave him some more custom, heading into town and then to visit the two year old I spent time with in April whose tracheostomy has been removed and is healing well, before returning to town for lunch while Rav sat patiently once more in the back of his own tuk-tuk.  After lunch I needed to stop at the bank so we parked and I jumped out and ran into the ATM.   Stuffing my money into my purse I turned around to the sight of my three housemates madly fanning themselves in unison in the back of a parked tuk-tuk with three green cardboard fans which Rav had obviously retrieved from under the seat amidst complaints of “many sweats” in the still and steamy air.  It was a quintessentially Asian-hilarious sight.

This morning I arrived at work and negotiated the discharge of a 64yo patient who is ready to return home where she has her own business which she created with $100 borrowed from a neighbour.  She has been hospitalised for a month now and her business and the repayments have all been on hold.  When I told a friend in Australia her story, which involves existing as subsistence farmers in a home made out of bamboo and banana leaves, with malnourished children in the house including a 7 month old who weighs 4kg, they sent me $100 to pay off the loan.  Today with my translator back at work after two weeks away, I was able to communicate this news and give her the money to pay off her debt.  She listened to my translator explain my possession of $100 intended for her, and nodded quietly before announcing that she was very excited to finally be going home.  We returned a few moments later with the money in an envelope.  She appeared from the bathroom with a krama wrapped sarong-like around her chest.  She slowly and demurely changed in front of us, into a white laced pyjama-like top before calling her husband in from the undercover pathway outside where he had been chatting with some other patients.  He then changed into a pair of black pyjamas and sat next to her.  I held the envelope as Win explained that they should be discreet about it as it was not possible to do this for the other patients.  They agreed quietly to this and I placed the envelope on her wooden bed base.  Via Win I then asked for a photograph to send to the donor and they agreed.  The envelope sat on the bed untouched, and so I sat down on top of it to have my photograph taken with them.  Without any verbal recognition of the money, the patient placed her hands on my arm and stroked it repeatedly, saying I had beautiful skin, and that I looked healthy.  I looked at Win, suspicious that he had substituted “healthy” for “fat”.  Reading my mind he said “she means that you are very healthy, it is a very positive thing in Cambodia”!  Against her 40kg frame which knows both hunger and tuberculosis intimately I do look gigantic, so I can accept this “compliment” without too much torment!  We did argue back and forth a bit as she said she wished she had my “health” and I replied in jest that I wished I had her slim figure, eliciting a more forceful “but I really wish I was healthy like you”.  I let her win the battle, realising that my luck at birth means I already won the war.

Making the most of my translator we then cycled to Shackville (as I have dubbed it) to visit the mother of the 6yo amputee boy.  I met her this morning on my way to work and we conversed as we always do – with much laughter and little understanding of what each other is saying, so I told her I would return “with Khmer” (the only way I know how to say “with my translator”).  Her son came to the Night Market with us a few Sundays ago, when we took the orphans to a Childrens’ Fair event.  I had managed to communicate to her earlier that day, my request that he join us at the Fair and she had conveyed her understanding and consent.  When I returned that afternoon to collect him as arranged, he very slowly put his prosthesis on, looking nervous and slightly confused the whole time.  With his growing bone protruding through the skin of his stump, the prosthesis is uncomfortable and he is only wearing it at the moment for aesthetic reasons.  I carried him to my bike and put him on the carrier, cycling away with a very anxious boy watching his mother disappear into the distance behind us.

When we arrived at the Fair his nerves slowly dissipated as he played with the other 6yo in our group, hopping along behind the other children or asking the older ones to carry him.  Apsara dancers and children juggling featured at the fundraising event and we bought the children an ice cream and some fried noodles to share.  After two hours he announced that he was ready to go home (via the Cambodian Orphanage Director who was with us).  So I picked him up and carried him home as he nodded off in my arms.  When we arrived at Shackville he opened his eyes and suddenly became very animated, shouting out to his mother, pointing towards the Night Market excitedly and talking at high speed.  His gut busting enthusiasm told me without understanding a word, that he had enjoyed the excursion.

Today thanks to Win, his mother was finally able to relay his version of events.  He told her that he ate a lot of different foods and he “even saw many angels”!  It took me a while to process what he could possibly be speaking about.  The “lot of different foods” were an ice cream and a small plate of fried noodles divided as a snack between three children.  The angels were Apsara performers!  He is staying with his grandparents at their village seven kilometres from here because Mum has to work and she doesn’t have enough money to feed him, which is why he was crying the last time I saw him.  I cycled by and waved out, aware that he was in Mum’s arms crying but because I was late for work, didn’t stop.   Mum speaks to him everyday on the telephone and in every conversation he asks “did My Barang come to look for me today?” and tells her “Mum, please don’t abandon me”, as his way of pleading to return to Shackville!  The kid is a heart breaker!

These are his angels performing for him!
Childrens Fair Night Market 9 Aug 036a

5 thoughts on “Angkor Athletes and Apsara Angels

  1. I try not to comment too often on the blogs, as a mother is probably not the best critic. However, I am constantly filled with pride and happy that you write so well of your experiences.


    1. I remember partnering you in a biathlon once Mary. Was just talking about it the other day. I am sure that 3km is really not very reminiscent of a half marathon though! :p


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