“You wanna guide?”
“No, choose me!”
“I’m the best one – you come with me!”
As my friends and I were walking up the path to the Angkor temple of Preah Khan, a gaggle of boys came running down, each trying to get one of us to agree to his particular guiding services. My friends graciously rejected their sincere offers and went to explore the temple by themselves. Upon hearing that I had no money for guiding services, all of the boys, save one, gave up on trying to convince me. I looked down at scruffy boy next to me and he said that he would show me around. “I’m not going to pay you anything.” I said. He just shrugged and said, “That’s okay, I show you around anyway.”
So off we went. We scrambled over broken masonry and I got a rapid fire run-down of the history of the temple, of the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism (“see Shiva carved over Buddha there?”), of phallic symbols, of kings and servants. I had read that a carving of ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ was here at this temple, but difficult to find, and when I asked my small guide about it, he just nodded his head and told me to follow him. On we went, through dark rooms and corridors, small shafts of light our only illumination as we climbed over toppled stones and squeezed through tight spaces. Right and left and back again, I felt like I was going deeper into some unknown world, and a small part of me wondered if we would ever get out again. Bent over double, we finally came to a very small room that had an old wizened nun sitting in it. I offered her some money to burn some incense for me and while she did I was able to see the carvings of the beautiful woman and her sister. At that moment, in the quiet smoky gloom, deep in the heart of the temple, far removed from the bustle of tourists without, I felt a deeper connection to the temples than I had before (or since). I was still in a daze when I finally stepped out into the sunlit modern world again.
My friends were waiting for me, worried. Impatient, they went up the path to find our driver, and I turned to my small guide and offered him a few dollars in thanks for his services. He was happy and agreed to let me take a photo of him. By then the other boys had materialised, and in the way that 8-year old boys are the world over, joked about how I would hang that picture up in my toilet. It was a funny moment, and every time I look at that photo of a young Cambodian boy in a bright blue short-sleeved shirt standing proudly in front of the temple, I remember that sometimes the best guides come in the guise you least expect.