Post Khemer Rouge, Cambodia began picking up the pieces, both figuratively, and regarding reconstruction of its temples, quite literally. The process is intriguing and the results, astounding. My first full day in Siem Reap I begin getting my groove on with Angkor Thom (Big Angkor), built in the late twelfth century. Once inside the massive entrance gates the expansive grounds provide temples, towers and ruins galore. I spend hours wandering the complex and aside from getting distracted by a girl with a coconut and thereby getting lost, it was an outstanding means of submerging my feet in the holy water of Angkor.
It’s the next stop, Ta Prohm, where the predictable occurs. It’s an aesthetically intriguingsite with gnarly trees and dense brush creeping out from the ruins. Fascinated by the tangled masses of root structures mixing with the crumbling stones, I light an incense stick, as an offering to Buddha, in honor of my sister. And then it happens; I’m stricken with a case of temple-overload. I’ve got a sure-fire method of identifying the warning signs and when the urge compels me to body-check the next tourist that abruptly stops in my path — it’s time to go.
After taking a one-day break I’m back at it, with unprecedented zeal! Feeling ambitious, I set out for Angkor Wat at 5am to be of the first to view the sun peeking over the horizon of the massive structure and surrounding forest. The drive to the site moves along a tree-lined road with long, lush branches stretching overhead shielding the luminous moonlit sky. Reaching the entrance requires walking across a long wooden bridge overtop an enormous moat surrounding the entirety of the complex. I sit down on an extension of the overpass as the pre-dawn crowd slowly collects. Jockeying for position around the small lake, spots are secured and tripods erected, ready to capture photos of mirroring images of the temple as the sun makes its ascent.
True to form, when a small girl approaches and says, “coffee, tea”? I nod my head, “uh huh,” and follow her, leaving sunrise to the other hundred or so tourists eagerly anticipating the captivating spectacle. I instead, happily munch a plate of fruit and sip my tea, observing small children ram each other with plastic chairs, roosters with small chicks pecking the ground and local women preparing for the post-sunrise breakfast crowd.
The local guidebook strongly encourages employing the services of a guide for viewing these sites, lest you’re merely admiring a nice pile of rocks. I love rocks! Whipping caution into the increasingly warming breeze, I opt to go old school and take this puppy for a solo ride. In an attempt to gather my bearings I begin walking the perimeter. And what’s that I see? Why, it’s a path. And it’s not just any path, oh, no no — it’s a singing path. It’s a humming a celestial melody about a temple standing for hundreds of years awaiting my visit. And what are a few moments more? I capriciously agree with the singing path and pounce down the stone steps to formally introduce myself. Following my musical muse I am led to a choice. Left or right. Right…decidedly right…and what a choice indeed.
Meandering toward the unexpected in the early morning light, I spy an enchanted castle. Peering first to the left and then to the right, I attempt to ascertain whether or not it is inhabited…or if perhaps an angry dragon (or mildly irritated gecko) is guarding this magnificent stone palace. The wind whispers of surprises yet to discover as I gingerly approach and quickly ascertain, it is indeed abandoned.
I carefully climb each stair, look up and then tiptoe inside. The solid fortress with its high walls and empty chambers is much more than just an empty castle though. It is also a secret portal — a hidden passageway, leading to an enchanted fairyland lying just beyond. Outside the door just opposite awaits a magical kingdom, filled with twittering birds, grazing animals and mystical silhouettes, curtsying a rainbow of possibility before I can even reach a toe outside to return the gesture.
I gingerly place one foot over the threshold and emerge into the dazzling speckles of daylight glimmering upon the ground through the thousands of leaves quivering above. Skipping down the stone steps, my spirit whirls, dancing in concert with the fantasyland bestowed upon me. Approaching a sturdy tree I stop and stand motionless, deeply enveloped by the peace and tranquility. The euphoria that overwhelms me is inexplicable and I grow fearful of waking. When finally, I have the courage to move, I feel the tears of joy streaming down my face and know with every sensibility that this moment, cut into the sands of time, is what heaven must feel like.
Reluctantly, and quite some time later, I follow the pathway leading back to the point of my origination. Eyeing the gigantic temple structure, I decide to begin as the guidebook recommends, viewing the reliefs carved into the outer walls — that is, until I realize I’m moving like a salmon upstream and get caught in the throngs of a Korean tour group. To escape, I quickly duck into a hallway with a multitude of doorways, cut into the thick stone walls on either side. Immediately to my left, on the doorstep of such an opening, sits a tiny old man, next to him, a plastic basket with a US $1 bill weighed down by a rock. I peer through the entryway to see beyond, to what he appears to be protecting. Inside a chamber the size of a closet another door opens directly opposite. In the distance a stone structure reminiscent of the acropolis, is perched high atop a pile of craggily rocks.
I look down at the man, smile and bow slightly. “Echo,” he says. I tilt my head and make a Scooby Doo “hrruungh” kind-of noise at the sound of the word. He stands up, touches my elbow and leads me inside the room, to a spot along the wall. He then steps back against the opposite wall and thumps his chest with the palm of his hand. The thump reverberates throughout the cavern. A loud laugh escapes at the unexpected action and because he looks so proud of himself. He then approaches and gently pushes me back one step. Then, to my surprise he lifts his hand and takes a whack with his palm, planting it beneath my collarbone. The sound does indeed echo and I release a ridiculously giddy giggle at both my bewilderment and the look of utter elation on the little man’s face. The more I laugh, the more he whacks, the more he whacks the more I laugh. After about six good hits he seems satisfied. His point is made. It is the silliest demonstration in which I’ve been ever-so-pleased to participate. Still giggling like a child, I dig through my wallet and hand him what little I can find in Cambodian Riel. He folds the bills and places them into a wallet, resuming his position next to the plastic basket.
As I attempt to walk away, he points to the structure of my original interest and says “library.” I am too stricken with the giggles to ask any questions but snap a quick photo and meander off, still abundantly amused; I could leave left
Angkor Wat without seeing another thing. I do however, press on and am handsomely rewarded with monkeys! From my vantage point atop one of the big stone things I could tell you about if I’d utilized a guide, I witness families of monkeys doing the primate-shuffle and soon join them to play. Mammas and babies, daddies munching grass and enough pretty rocks for one day, I decide my time here is complete.
As the sun reaches its zenith I say farewell to the enchanted kingdom of Angkor Wat. I won’t lie; remaining for all of eternity, enmeshing my energy with this sacred place is more than a brief consideration. If the little thumping man protecting the sanctity of the echo chamber has need for an apprentice I would contemplate it — that is, if it weren’t for India. But each and every day since my departure from the complex land of sitars and silk, I hear the chanting of my name being called from a population patiently awaiting my return.
It’s time to go.