The girl in purple with a hovering peaked cap peers out from behind the pillar as Tom tries to shoot the stone gate. He grumbles impatiently – it’s a futile task trying to take authentic pictures without people when there are so many visitors like us traipsing about. Even this smaller temple, Banteay Kdei, magnetises a bus-load of tourists who insist on papping away at every corner with their giant heads lodged in each frame, ignoring the stone versions that draw them to Angkor in the first place.
As we pass into a doorway that had stood for eight hundred years, the girl blows on a crudely cut piece of wood that sings like a didgeridoo. I smile at her, and she quickly responds with the speedy sales rhetoric of all her young accomplices selling one dollar magnets of godly heads, postcards and red string bracelets. ‘Where you from?’ ‘England.’ ‘Lovely jubbly, top banana!’ The incense smokes heavily and I let my eyes follow the prayer flags in the haze. But then she plays a new card: ‘You buy one and get ten free.’ I laugh, thinking this is a ridiculous marketing ploy for her to make money from, but once we get talking I find myself fighting the urge to politely shake her off with a few dollars, which disconcertingly becomes second nature as you travel around Cambodia.
The girl is sixteen and named Borromey, meaning full moon. She is the seventh daughter of eleven siblings, and was sent away from them all at age eight to live with her grandparents who maintained the temple. Her grandfather passed away a decade ago, and her grandmother, who blessed visitors to the shrines with incense, incantations and a customary bracelet for a dollar donation, retired at 87 years old. She says that being the seventh is lucky, and you cannot discern any bitterness from her separation from her siblings.
Borromey leads me through the flooded corridors, occasionally pointing out defaced Buddhist markings on the wall. Banteay Kdei is believed to have been erected as a Mahayana Buddhist temple around the end of the 12th century by the King Jayavarman VII. Once known as “Kuti”, this was a place where religious rituals were performed, including sacrificial ceremonies. In the mid 13th century, the Khmer ruler Jayavarman VIII reinstated the Hindu focus of the earlier Khmer Empire and converted Angkor away from Buddhism and back to Hinduism. Buddhist monuments, such as Buddha sitting atop headless nagas, were desecrated but their original positions are still evident today. At the end of the 13th century, Buddhism was reinstated but it was no longer the sole religion enforced.
Borromey ushers me up on to a raised stone that faces a pile of large rubble. Spinning me, she points upwards. There, locked in the roof of the opposite doorway, sits a elephant wearing a cow bell defending his position against an elephant enemy. This Buddhist relic was preserved for the reason that if it was removed, the walls would have caved in and demolished the library.
A cold stone room just four feet squared houses a small wooden statue dressed in a gold scarf. She tells me this was where she lived when her grandparents tended to the temple. The flat white square of stone in the centre shows that something significant had sat there before – a Buddha sitting on a faithful naga. She stands next to me, our backs flat against the wall. She beats her hand to her chest, and a sonorous boom escapes to the tiny hole of sunlight above. Three times she strikes: one for good luck to your family, one for your health, and one more for your work and travels.
We step into the bleached outdoors and red sandstone oozes into our sandals. Taking me around the corner, she points to a monstrous tree strangling the wall with its thick roots. She shows me the vantage point where National Geographic bagged a cover photo of a crumbling stone corridor. Jagged towers leap away from us towards the Apsara dance hall, and these are guarded by a sombre head with four faces that take in the whole panoramic scene. Angelina Jolie filmed a section here for her Tomb Raider movie, and Borromey recounts her leaping across three towers. She smiles as she explains in a whisper that she didn’t really jump. The actress gave her US$25, and when I asked what she was like, she replied ‘Too skinny but with a big laugh.”
For a young girl, Borromey dreams big. She aspires to set up a free English school as she wants to encourage other children working at the temples to go to school full time. She has to pay US$45 a month to learn, and works part time around her studies. Although she concedes that the money here is not as plentiful as in the night market, she is much safer and happier and is able to practise her English and German with tourists. However, she jokes that she can make a few extra dollars from her makeshift wooden instruments as Japanese customers cannot haggle very well in English.
National Geographic Banteay Kdei photograph, May 1982, http://vintagenatgeographic.tumblr.com/post/39790774121/banteay-kdei-temple-in-cambodia-national
‘Recycling Monuments: The Hinduism/Buddhism Switch at Angkor’ by Ashley M. Richter, http://archive.cyark.org/recycling-monuments-the-hinduismbuddhism-switch-at-angkor-blog
‘Musee Come Discovery’, http://www.autoriteapsara.org/en/apsara/musee_angkor/museum_come_discovery.html
Borromey appears on a the Visit Angkor website, written by Inga Palme: http://www.visit-angkor.org/blog/2013/08/03/borromey-shows-us-the-banteay-kdei-temple-at-angkor/