(Writings from my recent Southeast Asia Travels, sometime in mid-March)
Remember, when exploring Angkor Wat, it’s best to arrive at the crack of dawn. That’s the bewitching hour when the Khmer ancestral faces embedded in the temple rocks come alive!
While other tourists waited patiently in front of Angkor Wat to snap a picture of the morning sun rising over the temple’s shoulders, I continued riding my bicycle toward the “great city” Angkor Thom. The path led me across the moat and through the first stone gate that guarded the great city. A light mist rolled across the mischievous stone faces that encompass the legendary Bayan temple towers.
Several hundred yards up ahead, I could see a dozen elephants lumbering through the tall trees, each driven by a determined master. As I closed the distance on the temple, to my puzzlement, I could find neither elephant nor its driver in sight. Had the dawn’s flickering beams tricked my eyes?
Suddenly, the temple’s smiling faces burst into laughter, generating such a force the very foundation that held the stone walkway where I stood quaked. The reverberation sent a fleet of small, nimble monkeys clamoring from the temple’s westernmost shadows, gaining momentum as the monkeys scurried in my direction.
Now the laughter turned ugly as the stone faces’ eyes narrowed. In unison, a low frequency baritone mantra followed: “Boom Shaka Laka Boom!”; a low frequency mantra that stirred earthly objects. Within seconds, enormous tree roots flowed forward, carrying themselves and panic-stricken monkeys dangerously close to me.
My instincts keen, I swung my right hand to my side and miraculously whipped out a paintbrush and a can of green paint. I wildly swung, painting everything green in my path; first monkeys, then giant roots, progressing forward toward the temple. Every stone face gasped as I covered them in green paint, swiftly sequestering them into silence.
At a fevered pitch I continued, adorning Bayon, then the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King in a fresh coat of emerald green. Finally reaching exhaustion, I stopped, resting on a stone elephant. So exhausted I must have dozed off for I was awoken by the gasps from a crowd of stunned tourists staring at me and the shining green temples. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE !!!!!”, they yelled.
The scream in my head awakened me from my incredulous dream. I glanced about my hotel room and sighed. “Wow”, I thought. “I guess I shouldn’t have gone to bed with Angkor Wat and St. Patrick’s Day on my mind!”
The ancient Kmer kingdom Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s heart and soul, a revered heritage and symbol of Cambodian pride that can be seen on everything from the Cambodian flag to its premier beer.
The Angkor Wat complex is vast, spreading across a level plain for many miles, the largest structures being Angkor Wat and the “great city” Angkor Thom. The rectangular moats that encompass these two complexes, the intricately carved bas reliefs and rock sculptures, the architectural complexities and the impressive city planning layout of the entire kingdom represented an incredible achievement by its artisans, engineers and architects of not only their time, but any time in man’s history.
Angkor Wat’s prominence primarily came from its strategic position along the pilgrim trade route that connected India with China, reaching its pinnacle in the 13th century. Quite interesting how so many of the world’s great ancient kingdoms reached great heights during this century. While Europeans were still stacking dung in the countryside and chasing rats away from their dinner plates, wealthy kingdoms such as Kmer’s Angkor Wat, Siam’s Sukothai, Peru’s Incas, the Mongolian Empire ruled by the Khan family (Kubla, Ganghis, and Shaka), the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, and the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest were all flourishing.
Yet look at today’s societies in Peru, Mongolia, Cambodia, or even Italy or Greece today compared to their Roman and Greek Empire heritage. What rises, falls, nothing is permanent, and what falls may rise again.
Where Angkor Wat reign supreme, ruling lands that included parts of Thailand and Laos, today’s Cambodia ranks as the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, still struggling to get on its feet after the devastating effects of its 1970s civil war and the Kmer Rouge reign of terror.
Strange how in a poor country such as Cambodia when you’re driving through the countryside in a bus how much more picturesque the villages and landscape appear; ample rural scenes, villagers still living in wooden huts on stilts, animals in the family courtyard, oxen in the fields and pulling carts of wood, naked kids running around in the yard laughing, moms preparing dinner as the intense rays of the sun start to fade. One man’s picturesque is another man’s poverty. Yet is it poverty and how would one define poverty.
The Cambodian Buddhist monks I met in the wat courtyard in Siem Reap live life modestly, performing work around their wat while also relying on food from others’ generosity. The fellows I met were all well spoken, speaking English, smiles broad and explaining how they hope to pass on their education by teaching Cambodian kids English and other life skills. One even bid me goodbye in French.
My best conversation while in Siem Reap came just hours before I had to leave Cambodia, speaking with a Cambodian man, thirty years of age who managed a nice small restaurant. He’d seen me order my morning cup of coffee the last three days and that morning sat down to talk. He grew up in one of those same poor picturesque villages I had witnessed through a passing bus window, a village where his family had farmed for a modest living.
They moved to Siem Reap in 1991. It was still a small village at that time. There was no markets, no goods for sale, one lone foreigner hotel, few motorbikes, fewer cars. Clothes were old traditional sarongs, shoes were made from old tires. Yet his family was large and no one went hungry, well not too hungry. He said soldiers would occasionally fire their rifles at birds in the trees for a source of food.
His family and friends made ends meet through bartering of food and services. His grandfather had escaped Cambodia to Thailand with many of his uncles and aunts during the Kmer Rouge purges, coming back in the early 90s to Cambodia with some money to invest in a restaurant. With the early 90s recent renovations and tourist promotion of Angkor Wat, investment money came to Siem Reap and the tourist economy grew. He wears good shoes and good clothes now. He’s lived poor and now lives well, at least by Cambodian standards.
And so I thanked him for his story, a very Cambodian story, and we wished each other well.
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