Hi everyone. My travel companion, Susanne Cornwall, has asked me to post her journal diary for our recent visit to Angkor. Hope you enjoy it…. -ac
From the window of our Royal Air Cambodge flight, I could see the vast green expanses of Siem Reap. Jungle Green… Rice Paddy Green… There is no crayon in the Crayola box that can express the depth of this color. And Angkor is covered in green, surrounded by it. Green creeps into the stone ruins, between rocks, up towers.
The ruins at Angkor go on and on. They are grander than I expected, larger, fuller, healthier than I imagined. Angkor is friendly and magical. It’s almost as if nothing happened here… almost as if the war never touched Angkor. Of course it did – rows of headless statues and amputees in every wat remind me that this too was the front-line. But today it is so peaceful. Children climb on the ruins as if they were in an enormous playground. If Phnom Penh is like a city of children, then Angkor is like a magical land of children. At every turn they hang out, play, run, try to sell their wares to tourists. They bombarded us with flutes, T-shirts, wooden boats, film.
“You buy madam? You buy?” “If you buy, you buy from me.” “Cold drink, madam? Cold drink, mister?”
We are surrounded by child merchants. Women also sell film and water, but the overwhelming majority of people at Angkor are under seventeen.
The beauty of this place amazes me. In all my travels, I have never seen anything that compares. Petra in Jordan comes close, but the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal cannot rival the majesty, the aura of Angkor. The war did not destroy it. Like the people here, Angkor is an enduring witness. Land mines have been cleared from the area. Restoration is in progress. Bamboo scaffolding supports some of the ruins. Angkor is a rugged survivor. One thousand years of time and four years of the Khmer Rouge, and it is still quite clearly one of the wonders of the world.
Spanning from Charlemagne to Joan of Arc (802 AD to 1432 AD) Angkor rose, thrived and fell. Some 750,000 people lived here during its height. The city was founded by Jayavarman II in 802 AD. Many more kings built many more temples over the years. Hindu, then after 1181, Buddhist tradition dictated the layout of the stone structures. That is why Angkor Wat’s towers, constructed between 1112 and 1152, were built in imitation of Mount Meru (the holiest mountain in Hinduism). In contrast, Angkor Thom’s stones, sculpted between 1181 and 1201, are covered with faces of the Buddhist Avelokiteswara. The 12th and 13th centuries saw the pinnacle of the complex. But after suffering two defeats to the Thai army, in 1351 and 1431, the Khmer court abandoned the city for Phnom Penh. Vines moved in. Trees dug their roots into the ruins. The jungle encroached upon the massive gray stones. Jungle Green … Rice Paddy Green crept through this magnificent ghost town.
Our plane touched down in Siem Reap at 7:15 AM. A literal mob of men stood at the airport door offering guides or taxis. Andy walked headlong into the mob and pointed to one man. Later Andy explained that to me that he’d selected this man out of the crowd because he was the smallest. If he tried to cause problems for us, Andy figured he could take him on. We were still feeling paranoid and overly cautious. The man Andy chose grabbed his wrist and led us through the crowd to his car.
“My brother,” the man said pointing to the driver. “Do you need a guide at Angkor? My brother will take you everywhere.” “How much?” We asked. “Twenty dollars a day,” he said.
That is the going rate, so we agreed. We gave the man the fee for tickets into Angkor – forty US dollars each. Like Phnom Penh, the US dollar is the preferred currency. He dropped us off at our hotel, The Golden Apsara Guesthouse, then went off to buy our tickets. The hotel was nice. A good bathroom with toilet paper. Three beds, each a little wider than your average dorm room bed. A balcony, air conditioning, nice paintings of Angkor Wat in the hallway, and orange curtains, almost the shade of a monk’s saffron robe. A cat perched on the rooftop of the next building over. Geckos scurried around on the balcony. The hotel manager only spoke French. I actually had my first chance ever to use my 7th grade French.
“Vous avez une corbellie?” I asked holding my empty water bottle.
He nodded and threw it away. Even in France everyone spoke to me in English, so it was fun to finally get to use all those years of vocabulary. After maybe twenty minutes, the man we met at the airport rode back on a moped with the tickets.
“He’s 27,” one guy pointed to the man with the tickets, “but he’s small,” he laughed. The driver told us he was 29 years old and his name was Rang. Rang took the tickets from his brother, and we hopped in the car.
Angkor is about 15 to 20 minutes away from the hotel, and the drive brings us straight through the heart of the city. Siem Reap is much calmer than Phnom Penh and much smaller. It is a village more than a city. One of Sihanouk’s palaces dominates the center of town. Huge paintings of the king are set on the street corners. Red and blue banners decorated with the white outline of Angkor Wat stream across the road sides. Mopeds and bicycles make up about 90% of the traffic. Like the capital, no street lights dictate the flow. School children, stray dogs, and roosters sidestep mopeds on these dirt roads. Homes and merchant stalls line the river banks.
The first structure that welcomed us to Angkor was the South Gate of Angkor Thom. It is a huge archway crowned with four smiling faces, each looking out on a different north, south, west direction. The stone gate is twenty meters tall. It is an imposing introduction, but the mysterious smiles on the four heads of the bodhisattva Avalokiteswara are welcoming. Under the green shades of the forest, the grin looks peaceful.
Angkor Thom, some 10 square kilometers large, was built by King Jayavarman VII between 1181 and 1201 AD. A moat – crocodile-infested according to legend – surrounds the city. A square wall, eight meters high and 12 kilometers long borders the city. There are four gates, each topped with four smiling faces of the Buddha. We entered through the South Gate and drove on to the Bayon.
As soon as we got out of the car, a swarm of children surrounded us.
“Flute?” “Boat?” “Film?”
We encountered the same thing at every stop.
“No thank you,” we smiled and kept walking.
Stone steps lead up to this huge “castle” of rock. Two pools, one on either side, reflect the ruins. From a great distance, I thought, the Bayon could look like a natural formation of rock with gargantuan stalagmites jutting out of it. As I got closer and climbed higher up the rock staircase, the details began to emerge. Intricate bas reliefs of women, dances, battles. A woman maybe fifty years old pressed her palms together and returned my wei (a bowing greeting you make with your hands clasped.) Her white cloth draped over the rock she was sitting on. When she smiled I could see her teeth were brown and black.
I climbed up another set of stairs to the top level – the top level I could climb to anyway. The tallest tower still rose far above me. This was, for me, the most mysterious ruin. Dozens of faces, all bearing that enlightened grin, are carved into the rock. Some of the faces have roots and leaves running through their cracks and crevices. Andy and I split up and wandered around. A man, sitting on the ground, played a two-stringed instrument. It was about the length of a woman’s outstretched arm, and he held it against him, as if it was a cello. The music echoed throughout the ruins, adding depth and mystery to the site. The instrument appeared to rest on the musician’s thigh, but once I walked around him I could see that he had no thigh, no right leg at all. Land mines loomed even under the soil of Angkor. The tourist areas are all cleared, but in the outlying fields, the threat is still there.
I walked in a circle around the upper deck of the Bayon. People sat on the rocks to write or take photos. There were actually about fifteen tourists up there, maybe less, but I felt alone anyway. The music and the majesty seemed to silence everyone. Most of us just wandered, pressing our palms from time to time against the chiseled rock faces. Various shrines are set up within the ruins. Women encourage passers by to light an incense stick for Buddha, and of course to make a contribution.
Outside and in front of the Bayon I snapped a picture of an elderly woman sitting by one of the pools. I gave her one dollar, as she requested, and I respectfully weid to her. She smiled, laughed and weid back.
We met Rang back at the car, and he directed us to the next set of sites. As he pointed down the dirt road, I noticed that his pinkie fingernail was about an inch long. I’d seen that on other men here as well. I wondered if that was current fashion or tradition.
Our next stop was the Baphuon. The steps were on the far side of a huge puddle of water, and to the right stood the Terrace of the Elephants. A whole parade of pachyderms carved into a 350 meter long wall. We walked along the terraces, careful to sidestep puddles, until we came to the Terrace of the Leper King. A nude, sexless statue sat cross-legged on the top. According to legend, at least two Khmer kings had leprosy. What a view the kings must have had from this spot, I thought. Elephants cloaked in fine cloth, musicians drumming and piping, raised parasols, swaying palm leaves.
From there we climbed down and journeyed away from the road, down a dirt path. We passed a circle of boys who were kicking their flip flops in the air and betting on the results. The dirt path narrowed and led us to Tep Pranam and Phimeanakas – a Buddhist terrace and the site of a palace. There’s not much left of those structures now. Three little girls skipped alongside us. They followed us down a dirt pathway, across a field of grazing cows, under a series of windblown banners and to North Kleang. We passed a number of large linga shaped ruins that were well over fifteen feet high – probably more than that. Music of that multi-rhythm Asian flavor poured through the forest, but since the gathering of trees between the musicians and us was so thick, we couldn’t see them. I wanted to track down the performers, but the path that would have brought us to them was slushy with mud. Besides with the midday heat bearing down on us, we were two disgusting bundles of sweat. It was time for lunch and a shower. Rang told us that Angkor empties out from noon to 2 PM everyday because of the heat. And while it may sound like a great time to explore the ruins all by yourself, it’s not. The heat is just too much.
Rang drove us out of the park and back to town where we ate at a great little restaurant called The Bayon. It was laid out around a courtyard, and the host pointed a fan directly on us. It was perfect. A woman we’d met at the Phnom Penh airport that morning walked over to our table to say hello. She was traveling alone, and we asked her to join us. She was from Manchester, England on holiday for two months. She’d been to Hawaii, Samoa, Australia and Vietnam. Her husband didn’t enjoy traveling, and her children were all over thirty, she explained, so she just went out on her own. She planned to take the “Palace on Wheels” train trip across India next year. We exchanged travel stories and shared chicken and fish in curry and coconut milk and a plate of fried rice.
After a quick shower at the hotel, we decided to check out the market down the street. Across the dusty dirt road and down about a block, we found the open air market. Dozens of merchant stalls sat under a large tent. The whole market was no bigger than a small city block. Fish mongers displayed their products in piles (not as if they had to, the smell was advertisement enough). We walked under the tent and into the maze of stalls. Many of the merchants rested in hammocks. One young merchant fell asleep on a glass cabinet full of watches. A woman sat at a cloth stand and rocked an infant in a hammock. Women sold miniature figures of the Bayon heads, wood carvings of the Angkor sites, paintings of Angkor Wat, rubbings of the bas reliefs. An elderly book seller stood in front of his collection: “Brother Number One: Pol Pot,” “The Tragedy of Cambodian History,” and other Khmer Rouge era studies.
We hurried back to the hotel and met Rang. Refueled and rested we went directly to Angkor Wat. Rang said we could meet him at 4:40, and we’d drive to Phnom Bakheng, a hill where we could watch the sun set. We waved good-bye to him and started down the stone bridge that spanned across the moat.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s signature piece. Historians believe it was built during the reign of Suryavarman II (1112 – 1152 AD) to honor the Hindu god Vishnu and to serve as a funerary temple for the king. The details are incredibly well preserved. The most significant features of the wat are oriented towards the west which is traditionally the direction of death. Like many temples in Angkor, the highest tower represents Mount Meru, the mystical center of the world according to Hindus. The surrounding towers represent the lower mountains.
As we walked down the sandstone causeway and through the gate, the outline of Angkor Wat was slowly revealed. Breathtaking, incredible, superb – all the superlatives apply. It is a monument to mankind. The complex is enormous. The moat is 190 meters wide; the outer wall is 1025 by 800 meters long. The 475 meter long avenue leading to the wat itself is lined with naga balustrades (statues of snakes). The avenue is cradled between two pools. Strewn with lily pads and pink flowers, the pools reflect the ruins. Jumping fish and restless insects make the waters shimmer. I have seen places like this in storybooks. Old fairy tale books that my grandmother would page through as I sat on her lap.
Inside the wat, we climbed up stone staircases and walked around the different levels. Women with shaved heads sat by statues. They asked us to donate money and to light incense. The levels are difficult to walk around because every few steps, you have to jump over a foot-high, foot-wide divider. We figured maybe the floor was designed like this to slow invading armies, but then again if invaders got that far it was probably too late. Who knows. Out the tall windows, we could see the endless landscape of trees and rice paddies. We got up to the second highest level and found a rather perilous-looking stairway up to the top of Angkor Wat. A rusty metal handrail ran up the narrow stone steps. I don’t remember how many steps there were, but they were set at a step angle. I held onto the railing like a mountain climber grasping a rope and looked only at the few steps directly below me. It wasn’t exhausting; it was just a little nerve racking.
Finally we reached the pinnacle of Angkor Wat. We circled the level and looked out at the view, then we lit incense at the shrine of a reclining Buddha. On its way out the window, the smoke drifted past a saffron cloth twisted around a chunk of stone. Three children sat under the shade of the temple playing a game with marble sized stones. We rested for a while at the top, met other tourists from Washington, D.C. and Australia, then we went back down the way we came. From a few feet back, it looked as if the staircase dropped off like a cliff. In truth, going down was ten times easier than going up. A group of women were gathered at the base of the stairs like a sort of congratulatory committee.
We walked down the various levels and towards the entrance of the wat. Just as we were leaving we found a troop of traditional Khmer dancers preparing for a show. The covered entrance was their dressing room. Teenage girls prepared their elaborate stupa-like headpieces and adjusted their golden sequined costumes. Younger girls put on lipstick and red rouge. One of the girls giggled as I took her picture. Boys smeared white paint on their faces and applied lip color. A dog wandered around sniffing at the costumes and makeup. Little children from all over the park gathered around the dancers. They rested their elbows on the ground and pressed their palms against their cheeks… and watched the backstage frenzy. Young performers tried on their plaster masks, painted to look like Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, and his crew.
After about forty minutes of prepping, the young cast was ready to go, and Andy and I parked ourselves in front of the stage. The performance was for a group of French tourists and our “seats” were the stone steps directly in front of the dancers. Little kids leaned on the stone railings to watch. With Angkor Wat as the backdrop, the performance began. The band played xylophone-like bells, drums and other instruments that I’d never seen before. Women in stupa headpieces and sequined dresses came out first. The clicking of the cameras almost created a counter rhythm to the music. The young women gracefully reached out their arms and struck poses. The next number was the coconut dance. Young girls, dressed in red and white, tapped coconut shells on the stone stirring up a rolling rhythm. Then the boys came out, smiling and sneaking up behind them. They tapped coconuts with the girls and danced around in a circle. The last dance was performed by the youngest children. It was a scene from the Ramayana. The girls had red sequined mermaid-like fins attached to their backs, and the boys were dressed up like monkeys. The monkeys scratched and rolled in perfectly timed movements. The boy who played Hanuman, the white masked monkey god, was amazing. His movements were so controlled. He mastered that part.
The whole time we were a little worried because this unexpected event was making us very late for Rang. As soon as the performance ended, we hurried back across the field, over the causeway and down the steps to Rang. He didn’t seem surprised that we were so late. We decided it was too late to climb up the hill to catch sunset, so we headed back to the hotel. We ate fried rice at a local restaurant called the Singapore. Christmas lights were strung all over the outside of the restaurant… in the bushes, across the awning. Geckos scampered across the walls, Cambodian TV played in the hallway, and friendly locals drank and laughed at the next table.
The next morning, November 10th, Rang picked us up at 5:15 AM, so we could make it to Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise. The streets were empty. When we arrived at Angkor Wat, we found that it was empty too. We looked around for the best shot and decided to stake out a corner of one of the reflecting pools. Because it was dawn and we were directly in front of a muddy swampy pool, the mosquitoes were out in full force. I put on my nylon anorak, pulled the hood over my head, crouched down and waited for the sun to rise. Andy had brought a krama, a Khmer scarf, and he wrapped it around his head. As the sun rose higher, the number of mosquitoes decreased, and the number of tourists increased. Monks from the building next door began the morning chores, sweeping their courtyard and collecting their wash.
Finally, the sun got to just the right height, so we took some shots of Angkor Wat silhouetted by the sun, reflected in the pool, from the left corner of the water, from the right corner of the water, and from just about every other angle until we decided we’d taken enough pictures. As we walked back to the causeway, an amputee held out his hat. Children followed close behind us. I don’t remember looking back at Angkor Wat. I should have. That was the last time we would visit it. At least for this trip.
We met Rang back at the car. He was so nice to us. He taught us how to say “thank you very much” in Khmer – “Ah cone chair-eye.” That is my own personal interpretation of the spelling of course. To pronounce it correctly, you have to flip the front of your tongue against the roof of your mouth between the “chair” and the “eye.” We got it after a while, but in the meantime, Rang, Andy and I laughed at our pitiful attempts. Just plain old “thank you,” by the way, is just “ah cone.”
From Angkor Wat, we took a brief detour back to the Bayon to get some morning photographs. Then we began to make our way through what is known as “The Big Circuit.” Our first stop was a mysterious maze of fallen rock and endless hallways. Very little restoration has been done to Preah Khan, so I really felt like Indiana Jones tromping through some abandoned temple. Walking toward the ruins, we passed a line of statues lined with cobwebs. Light poured in from the thick canopy of palm trees above. The sun came down in shards of light, illuminating the morning mist. A boy maybe twelve years old, followed us through the arched entryway and into the ruins. He didn’t say anything. He just followed.
Preah Khan is truly a maze. I don’t know if it was that we were there so early or just that most tourists don’t go there, but the temple was completely abandoned. We three were the only ones in the entire Preah Khan complex. Intricate spider webs spanned across the archways. Detailed reliefs rose out of stone pillars. Green leaves draped in from above; green grass crept in from below. At one point we wanted to press farther into the ruins, but a jagged pile of rocks stood in our way. Andy started to turn back to look for another path, but the boy spoke up for the first time and pointed to the pile of rocks.
“Very nice this way,” he nodded.
We decided to follow his lead. He navigated his way over the rocks, and we followed him. Some of the stones were slick with moss, and a couple times I almost lost my footing, but it turned out to be worth the trouble. On the other side and around the corner was a large courtyard. Stone lions stood guard next to a platform. A ruin, surrounded by columns was positioned at the far end. We found a pond choked with lily pads under the shade of the palm trees.
Like many of the magnificent ruins at Angkor, Preah Khan was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. The name, Preah Khan, means “Sacred Sword.”
Past the courtyard, the stone floor dropped off into a muddy plain. It wasn’t so muddy that we couldn’t walk on it though. A small thin snake with dull green stripes hugged the walls of a crevice. I bent down to watch it slither off into the cracks between the stones. When it was gone, I joined Andy and the boy in the muddy plain. Every time I took a step, dozens of little frogs, each about the size of my thumbnail, darted up. From the plain we could see how a large, canvas colored tree had grown right through the ruins, pushing its roots through the walls and across the ceilings.
Except for our footsteps and the chirping of various insects and frogs, the ruins were quiet. Hiking around the fallen rock and overgrown roots was a chore, but I found Preah Khan to be one of my favorite stops at Angkor. I felt a little bit of what it must have been like before the tourist trade. Lonely, green, overgrown and untouched. I was afraid that all the boy wanted was money, but all the same I liked that he was there. He’d led us over the rocks after all, and I was also glad that we were sharing this experience with a local who’d probably navigated these ruins since he was three. It’s not that I felt safer with him there; we were safe enough. It was even fun to get lost, but somehow he added something to that place. I felt somewhat like an explorer and somewhat like his guest. When we left, he didn’t ask for money. He didn’t even try. I smiled and waved good-bye to him. He smiled shyly, waved back and then sat down on the stone railing that led into the complex.
At the next stop, we started to walk through an archway of trees. We only got a couple feet before we could see that a large, ankle deep puddle stood between us and Preah Neak Pean. Men stood around offering to escort tourists across the puddle on their bicycles. For one dollar a per person, they’d load us on the back of their bikes and ride across to the other side of the muddy puddle. A thick, swampy gathering of trees blocked any chance of going around the puddle. If we took the bikes, mud would no doubt spray up on our clothes, and when you’ve got two pairs of jeans for three weeks, clothes become pretty important. Instead we ducked down, looked at the ruin from afar and went back to Rang.
Ta Som, the next ruin down the circuit, was an adventure. There were no other tourists there. We had the whole complex to ourselves, so we split up and made our own ways through the cavernous ruins. Spider webs clung from doorways onto chunks of fallen rock. I squeezed through a crack in the wall and found myself in a small courtyard. Huge fallen stones lay in piles. Details of flowers and dancers were carved into the rock. I felt guilty about using these glorious pieces of art as stepping stones. I thought suddenly how happy I was that we’d come to Cambodia. A little reckless courage pays off, I thought. It was just then that I realized Andy was nowhere in sight. I called out to him, but there was no answer. It was exciting to be lost and alone in this deserted ruin. I climbed over the piles of rock, steadying myself by pressing my palm against the central tower. I squatted into a little doorway and climbed over more rocks, which were teaming with red ants, then through a doorway and out into a clearing. I followed a dirt path and finally met up with Andy again. We walked to the end of Ta Som where an old man swept fallen leaves into the river. An enormous tree, maybe three stories tall, grew out from around the doorway, and a large spider hung from one of its branches.
From Ta Som, we drove on through the Eastern Baray, which is now only a field of rice paddies, then on to a large four-cornered ruin called the Eastern Mebon. Stone elephants stood guard on each corner. They seemed to be staring out into the vast expanses of surrounding rice paddies.
At Pre Rup, we found yet another steep staircase. I told Andy to go on without me. After sixteen temples, I was getting tired. Instead I sat in the shade of a tower. A little girl selling flutes sat next to me. At first she pushed her flutes ceaselessly… then her cloth… then her film. After a while, she gave up on me and just sat there. She had a floppy denim “Guess” brand hat on her head. We were the only people in the courtyard. A few tourists walked by now and then, but on the whole it was quiet. I asked her what her name was. She answered, “Ah soon” (or something close to that). I told her my name and after a few minutes she was explaining to me how to say hello and hat in Khmer.
When Andy walked back down the staircase, she said, “your friend?”
“Yes, that’s Andy,” I nodded, then asked, “How do you say good-bye?”
“Lia suhn hao-y,” she answered.
“Lia suhn hao-y, then,” I stood up.
“Lia suhn hao-y,” she smiled.
From there we went back to the Bayon. It’s not the official next stop along The Big Circuit, but we wanted to go back there and sketch in our journals. Sitting on a step next to the amputee musician, I drew a rough rendition of a Bayon head. It was wonderful to sketch a Bayon face, shaded by a rock and accompanied by the two stringed instrument. Every once in a while, kids would come and sit with the musician. The guards always struck up conversations with him when they passed. He made pretty good money by Cambodian standards. More than half of the tourists who passed him felt compelled to give him money. His music helped create a mystical feeling there. How could you not thank him with a buck? He put the money in a small wad and threw it to a friend, then continued to play with an empty hat in front of him. He smiled at me from time to time. When we left, I dropped some money in his hat. He weid and thanked me. But it was I who was thanking him. His haunting melody brought life to the weathered stones.
We ate lunch at the Bayon Restaurant in town again, then went to the market to buy souvenirs. We’d come to the right place. The market boasted cloth, carvings, T-shirts, books, postcards. Andy bought a wooden boat. I picked up a pair of Khmer-style masks from a couple of eleven-year-old merchants. The masks look like the painted plaster ones we’d seen on the performers the day before. Each one of these hand made souvenirs cost me three US dollars. I didn’t even attempt to haggle. How do you haggle with children over three dollars? After all, it wasn’t a bad deal.
After lunch and shopping, we went to Banteay Kdei where we were immediately greeted by two boys. One of them was a tiny little kid. He stayed by my side the whole way through the ruins. The older boy walked next to Andy. Both boys explained the history of Banteay Kdei and pointed out different features. I asked the little one his name.
“Da,” he said. I would guess he spelled it differently, but that’s what it sounded like to me.
“How old are you?” I asked.
Da looked confused. The older boy spoke with him in Khmer then answered, “Seventeen. He’s seventeen.”
Andy and I laughed. There was no way this little guy was more than ten years old.
“Oh, seven,” the older boy corrected himself. “He’s seven.”
When we asked the older boy how old he was he told us that he was sixteen. Andy told him that’s impossible. He was small and thin and looked twelve years old, tops. The boy simply shrugged his thin shoulders and replied, “Cambodians are smaller.”
Andy and I felt bad for contesting him. Maybe malnutrition in the wake of the Khmer Rouge reign stunted his growth. Overall I found it very difficult to determine children’s ages in Cambodia.
“Built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century,” Da pointed to the ruins. Our impressive young guides led us through Banteay Kdei pointing our details here and there. Da and I walked a few paces behind Andy and the older boy, and I could hear that sometimes Da was just repeating his friend, pretending the words were directly from his own memory. When he smiled up at me, I could see that his two front teeth were just coming in.
Afterwards, we gave them some money for the tour. They ran off laughing and wrestling with each other. Andy and I crossed the road and sat at the edge of Srar Srang lake. Da and the older boy joined us there for a while, then waved good-bye as we got back into the car and headed for Prasat Kravan.
At Prasat Kravan, Andy bought a charcoal rubbing of the temple’s bas reliefs from a boy who was no more than six years old.
“That’s definitely the youngest person I’ve ever done business with,” Andy shook his head and laughed.
Little girls played jump rope in front of the ruins. One child balanced her baby brother on her hip. Boys rested on the rocks, and dogs challenged roosters.
Next stop was Ta Prohm, a 12th century temple built by Jayavarman VII in honor of his mother. As usual an army of T-shirt vendors rushed us. In all the commotion, a kid cut in and offered to led us through the ruins. We said no thank you, crossed onto the grounds, then suddenly realized that in Ta Prohm, it might be best to follow a local guide. I ran back out and found the kid standing by a truck holding a drum. He was strikingly handsome with his high cheekbones and wavy black hair. He looked about fourteen years old to me. Meas (pronounced May-ahs) it turned out, was eighteen years old. That means he was born in 1979… the year the Khmer Rouge fell.
He told us he knew where to find all the best photographs and “the tree that looks like a snake.” He directed us through the fallen rocks and overgrown trees. Ta Prohm has been completely left to the elements. No restoration projects have been undertaken. No efforts have been made to rescue the ruins from the trees. The site looks very much like it must have appeared to the French explorers who rediscovered it. The stone is wrapped in roots and cloaked in vines. The jungle has such a fierce stranglehold on the ruins that if the trees were removed, the structure would crumble. Meas pointed out a root that looked like a boa constrictor… wrapped around the ruins, dripping from level to level. He climbed up a steep pile of rock and motioned to us to join him. Even in his flimsy blue flip flops, he could scale the ruins faster than a cat. We followed him up the rocks, but of course we didn’t look even half as graceful as he did. From the top, we could see piles upon piles of rocks split by roots, and we could hear countless frogs screeching in the river.
Meas told us that he sold drums at Angkor. He didn’t talk much during the tour, but he was sweet. We could have searched for those photos for hours if we’d explored Ta Prohm alone. He pointed out features and took us to sections that we might have missed without him. We gave Meas three dollars, thanked him and said good-bye. From there we went to Takeo, another temple where we basically got out of the car, looked up the steep staircase and got back in the car.
Sunset was approaching by that time, so Rang took us to the base of Phnom Bakheng. This ruin sits atop a rocky, sandy hill. Rang told us that the sunset view from the top is spectacular. Four children, each of them no higher than my elbow, joined us as we tromped up the hill. They laughed and posed for our cameras. The boys, Lee, Hing and Phaeng, were complete hams, but the girl, Suan, was a little camera shy. The kids directed us up the hill, told us the Khmer word for tree, and held my hand when we climbed the stairs. Actually I would have been better off on the steep staircase if Lee and Phaeng hadn’t each taken a hand, but they were cute and wanted to be polite. At the top of the hill, the children played tag, using a medieval stone table as base. Two little girls in pretty dresses sat by smiling and watching. More people gradually traveled up the hill, tourists and locals alike. The sun set over the ruins throwing gold light onto Phnom Bakheng. It was a perfect way to end our trip to Angkor. Finally the sun was just about gone, and we walked down the hill by the dwindling light.
I went to Cambodia to honor the survivors and to pay respect to the dead. I also went there hoping to find the country that lay beyond the Khmer Rouge history. Travelers can’t help but see the tatters of the recent horrors, but then they can’t miss the spirit of survival either. Cambodia has the energy of a restless teenager and the soul of a wise old man. For the tourist, Cambodia is an adventure. For the local, Cambodia is a challenge. Either way, it is an exciting, beautiful, graceful and remarkable country.