Humans of Angkor

A Photo Story

“Trust proper people, who are polite and use gentle words; always be pleasant, and your reputation will be fragrant and pervasive.”

Khmer Proverb

9a.m at Ta Prohm

Enveloped by the Cambodian countryside, the ancient city of Angkor lies in disarray: some temples painted lichen-green by the sweltering climate, others pockmarked by the scars of time.

Angkor was once the heart of the Khmer kingdom and home to 750,000 people. But now, it stands abandoned by its creators and hosts a new group of inhabitants — tourists.

Every year, 2 million of these intrepid adventurers visit the Angkor complex, anxious to explore within the walls.

They peer at hidden crevasses, marvel in man-made ingenuity and make their own memories.

Yet, quietly, unknowingly, they are supported by another group of individuals.

Young bottle recyclers at Beng Melea

Seen but often forgotten, these individuals go about their lives in the shadow of world famous monuments.

They eke out a living — catering to the hoards that march through the gates of the complex.

And till today, they remain as inextricably tied to the complex as their forefathers were centuries ago.

They are the Humans of Angkor.

This is their story.


The savvy saleswoman of Srah Srang

“Would you like to take a look at some tablecloths? Very beautiful, for your mother maybe?”

Perhaps I would if I could talk to you for a while?

“Sure no problem. After we talk, you can come to my shop!”

“I’ve been here since I was five, it’s been fifteen years now. I wanted to study medicine in school and be a doctor, but I had to stop after primary school to help my family out.”

Your English is really good by the way.

“Why, thank you! I learned it by speaking to tourists. I can also speak four other languages. Russian, French, Japanese and Khmer. Maybe I should learn Spanish too. But that would be enough, if not I would have too many (to remember).”

Speaking of tourists, you charge different prices for different tourists?

“Yes, of course. Usually we charge the Chinese tourists the least.”

“Because they are the most stingy!”

Is it difficult working here in Angkor?

“It’s a little bit easy. I like it -when we are not working, we sit down to chat and have fun. Usually I make about USD 20 on a good day and that makes me happy.”

Maybe if I bought one of your tablecloths, would you then be able to close shop for the day?

“Maybe if you bought ten, I’d be able to close for sure.”


The resident expert of Banteay Kdei

“Where are you from?”

I’m from Singapore.

“Oh…Very beautiful country!”

“Are you looking for a good view? Go to the tree at the back of the temple. Less tourists now, better sunlight, better photographs.”

Thanks for the tip. Are you a guide here?

“I am an unofficial guide, but I can tell you everything about this temple.”

Guess I’m following you then…

“Many people don’t know but the Tomb Raider movie was also filmed here. Yes, they came here for the third day of filming.”

“Angelina Jolie used to run down that long corridor!”

“See all those rocks in there? Tourists stack them up to look like the statues they saw in the movie.”

Why do you work at Banteay Kdei rather than at the other temples?

“I like that there are more trees here, it is more peaceful. In the morning at about 5.30, there are a lot more birds singing.”

“There are a lot more people at other temples but I like to work here because it is near my village. I can also pray at the big Buddha at the front of the temple three times a day.”

“ Apsara Carvings are my favorite part of this temple. I would like a photo next to this one.”

Do you want to be an official guide in the future?

“Yes but do you know, it is very expensive to get a license?
It costs USD 2000 for five years. After five years, you need to make a new one.”

“It is okay for me to be an unofficial guide. If the police come no problem, all the people here are my friends.”


Chef turned Tuk-tuk Driver

After spending a day with Da touring the complex, I speak to him at greater length.

Hi Da, what do you think about tourists?

“Tourists? Tourists are good, they make a job for me. No tourist,no job. All the people in Siem Reap, they always want tourists, it makes jobs for all.”

How long have you been a driver for?

“I’ve been a tuk-tuk driver for three years. Before that I was a chef and I did not like it. I had less money, less freedom. Last time I worked full day, extra time all the time and it was very hot in the kitchen.”

“Now I like my job so much. Because with just one job, I can support my family.”

You must be bored waiting for tourists though?

“Not really, I like spending time by myself.”

What do you do while waiting then?

“Well, I usually read or sleep. I like to sleep. Do you want me to pose for you?”

Pheakdey and Sambat

The gatekeepers of Banteay Srei

“Hey, you…

I like your hair! Very cool.”

Why, thank you. Your hair is pretty nice too!

“Hmm.. thank you! I think it is okay.”

Are you free for a short chat now?

“Yes, I can talk to you but not when the tourists come. I need to check their tickets. For now, its okay.”


What do I like most about being a security guard here?

“I like seeing tourists smile. I also like it because I can see Chinese and Japanese tourists — many pretty girls!”

“Actually I also used to have a girlfriend, two years ago and she broke my heart. Heartbroken…”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Unfortunately not. I’m also busy studying, no time.


Do you get to rest on the job?

(Sambat chimes in)

“Only rest at lunch time. We cannot sleep when we are working. The supervisor will check.”

“If we sleep, we will be fired.”

What do you like to have for lunch then?

“Fish… I like fish and vegetables”

(Sambat interjects)

“I like…..soup.”

(A look of dismay crosses Pheakdeay’s face)

“No, no, soup is not nice.”

“Which is our favorite temple? I think it would be Banteay Srei.The carvings here are the most beautiful.”

Do you need to go? There are more tourists now.

“It’s okay, Sambat can check their tickets.”

“We’ve worked together here for four years, every fifteen days we have to change shift and be posted to another temple. Sometimes to Angkor Wat, sometimes somewhere else.”

Do you stay nearby Banteay Srei then?

“No. The house I stay in now is one hour away. One hour because I am a safe driver,not like Sambat; he is a crazy driver!”


Young Entrepreneur of Angkor

What are you selling?

“Bananas and...Mangoes.”

Do you spend the whole day here?

“No. I go to school at 6 o’clock in the morning, finish at 11 o’clock and come here.”

“Now my mummy has gone home so I will stay here and sell banana and mango until 4 o’clock. After that I will go back to school for English lessons. For five hours.”

Five hours?

“NO NO, I will study for two hours.”

How many people are there in your family?

“Six. Mummy, daddy, me, and three sisters. Two sisters have two misters. I am the smallest.”

Interview ends

“Now which fruit do you want?”

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