To give you some perspective on Cambodia’s temples: roughly two hundred years before the completion of Notre Dame Cathedral and a full five hundred before the rise of Taj Mahal, in the twelfth century, Khmer King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat – to this day still the largest religious monument in the world.
Aside from its majestic proportions and intricate bas-reliefs, the best part about Angkor Wat is that it isn’t alone. While it remains the biggest single complex, Angkor Thom surpasses it in overall spread and with its epic Bayon, where the 216 enormous faces carved in stone bear down upon its ghostly inhabitants and khaki-clad tourists alike.
Further out, Banteai Srei, intricately carved in red stone bests Angkor when it comes to detail work and the clear perfectionism of its masters. Ta Prohm, generally referred to by the locals as the Angelina Jolie temple is mercifully NOT dedicated to the sensuous-lipped actress but happened to be the set for her Tomb Raider movie. Its real beauty comes from a mix of beautiful architecture, atmospheric crumbling walls and awe-inspiring trees that seem to both bolster and slowly cannibalize it.
Preah Khan, Neak Poan, the reclined Buddha at Baphuon — we saw them all in a whirlwind three days with a little help from our tuk-tuk driving friend whom we had hired as our guide and chauffeur, per the local custom.
Unfortunately, to be perfectly honest, three days of climbing crumbled steps, taking in photos with bas-relief Apsaras and Nagas and Vishnus and beheaded buddhas eventually all turned into one big blur. All we have now are about two thousand photos to sort through and a handful of amazing moments that will stick with us forever:
- The self-appointed local guide who walked us though Prasat Banteay Kdei “The Citadel of Chambers” and conjured for us in kind but broken English the sad and the happy stories of that temple, from the hall of dancers that witnessed spectacular shows put on for the entertainment of kings to the pillaging of the Khmer temples during the Pol Pot era, culminating with the beheading of the majority of the buddha statues in most temples; Buddha heads apparently still fetch high prices in the Asian antique black markets to the bitterness of Khmers, who are unable to stop the traffic apparently conducted by their neighbors in Thailand. Our nameless guide also taught Ed how to sit in a particular spot inside the buddha alcoves and tap his chest in order to generate an organic, cavernous sound – troubling to me, but very entertaining to Ed…
- The game of 1-2-3-fiiivee!! (a sort of khmer rock-paper-scissors) with a group of little girls who were taking a play-break from peddling souvenirs at the temples. The children’s sheer joy and the genuine connection we felt with them was a very welcome refresher from the very transactional nature of our interactions with locals around the temples up to that point (i.e.: “You buy banana from me!” “Eat here, cheap food” or “One dollar, ten cards: one, two, three, four, etc”) We then all shared bananas and first names and enjoyed a joyful moment in the golden afternoon.
- The moments spent inside the Bayon on the first day of the new year, worshipping quietly next to locals and other folks who sought both the respite from heat and also to partake in the spiritual atmosphere. We both lit incense and wai-ed to the Buddha, who was majestically clad in golden cloth and covered in marigolds, and received the red thread of the blessing upon our wrists – we still keep them and probably will until the day saltwater eats them through.
When all was said and done, seen and photographed, at the end of three days of temple-ing, collapsed in the coolness of our hotel room, Ed and I conferred about our experience and realized that we were left with two very different impressions: one one hand, Ed, the perennial optimist, was in love with the smiles, the jokes, the easy banter of the locals and deeply appreciated the feeling of humility that the temples had inspired in him. For him, Cambodia was a place of promise, growth, opportunity and hope, but also a place where you were reminded of your own insignificance in comparison with the achievements of the Khmer kingdom – a welcome wake-up call from our Western self-centeredness.
In my eyes, however, Cambodia and Angkor, in particular, emerged shrouded in a veil of sadness. Everywhere I turned I perceived ghosts and a sense of loss: the empty scars where once rested beautiful carvings at the bottom of columns in Angkor, decapitated buddhas lying sideways in the dust, slowly relinquishing to the forces of gravity, the sadness in the voice of our impromptu guide when he was speaking about the treasures pried from the walls of the temples and sold abroad… The atrocity of the Pol Pot regime, in addition to killing over a third of this country’s citizens, is the permanent vacuous spaces left from its cultural patrimony being looted and extracted from the country – all this knowledge hung over my experience and weighed it down into a darker plane of consciousness.
After talking it through, Ed and I suddenly realized that our two experiences only made sense taken together (much like the two of us…) Cambodia, of course, is not just in the eye of the beholder: it is both sad and happy, rich and poor, tormented and serene. The weight of the past pulls on it, keeping it rooted in darkness, but, without trying to be cheesy, like a lotus, this country breaks through the surface to offer us, emerging out of mud, a thing of beauty.
So, there it is. Needless to say, the country fascinated us and puzzled us and challenged us and delighted us and we were not ready to leave it yet. But our next flight was booked and another mysterious place awaited us.