Lying on a mattress in my bamboo shack I could hear geckos slap their tails against the bamboo walls. From the rooftop bar across the patio, I could hear the thumping bass of techno and cheering drunk Europeans. In the dark under my mosquito net, I could hear the crinkle of plastic wrap and dry crumbling – something nibbling on my baguette, my intended pre-dawn breakfast. Too much of the outside world seeps in through the cracks. Sleep doesn’t come easy in my bamboo shack, but it does eventually come. Until my alarm clock rouses me. It’s my fourth and last full day in Siem Reap and I had been saving the best for last.
While I hop on my bike to start my day, others are stumbling back from the bars. It’s five thirty in the morning. In a corner store, full of western foods at western prices, I replace my molested baguette. Outside an inebriated Frenchman is trying to dance with a timid Cambodian security guard.
If the backpacker scene in India is for hippies and Nepal for the trekkers, then the backpacker scene in Cambodia is for frat party douchebags and I happily flee the tourist village in Siem Reap for the complex of ruins to the north. Typically tourist villages are integrated into the cities as they are, but the foreigner zone here is baptized in the waters of tourism and seems to be for foreigners alone. My mealtimes are usually characterized by finding modest looking places full of locals, but here none of the restaurants radiating from my hotel would have any Cambodians in them except for those in the staff. The inflated tourist prices mixed with my coming back from the temples too exhausted to find my cheap local eats saw me spending more on mediocre meals than I did on my greatest splurges in the Indian subcontinent, and my daily tallies showed me I was spending more here than I was in Burma.
On the road, the black sky embraces hints of indigo, and this quickens my pace. I have someplace to be. The morning crows of roosters slowly get replaced by the wild sounds of the jungle. Phantom squeaks of invisible frogs bounce around the edges of marshes, ripsaw cicadas drone in the trees, and the funny warbles of jungle birds sound oddly like the way laser beams do in cartoons – with eyes closed it almost sounds like a space battle in stereo. Sinewy trees, the sum of many inseparable trunks, reach up to meet at the forest canopy, and parasitic vines come spiraling back down. Oh, how I love the jungle.
The days before had been unfortunately overcast, particularly when I was exploring the temples of Angkor on foot, leaving my photos washed out, lacking contrast, and always backlit, no matter the angle. Somehow the clouds timed their partings for when I was hustling about on the seat of my bicycle, leaving me more vulnerable to sunburn and drenching sweat. On my second day I had biked over 80 kilometers on my crappy cruiser style bicycle, leaving my bottom quite tender. I would rehydrate with chilled young coconuts, and on the longest stretch of my longest ride, I found vendors selling a candy made from palm sap cooked in great kilns. There were maybe 50 of these candy stalls in a row all selling the same palm candy packaged in palm leaves and I wouldn’t find them anywhere else. The palm candy had all the natural fattiness you expect from coconut but with a sumptuous element of fruitiness. The texture is chalky at first but grows malty as it melts in your mouth.
The cloudiness wasn’t supposed to break until the day I was to depart, so I tacked on an extra day and saved all the sights I was the most excited about for later. I would see them from a distance as I commuted about the complex of Angkor in pursuit of its lesser treasures, and they would taunt me from behind great walls, moats, and jungle forests.
On my bonus day I visited a silk farm and witnessed every stage of silk production. Great rows of mulberry bushes would provide leafy sustenance for the silk worms, and every variety of mulberry leaf would end up producing a different quality of silk. Silk moths are bred and die shortly after giving birth. Their offspring munch until ready to cocoon themselves in yellow thread. The cocoons would then be boiled by the dozens and with a large wooden fork and a loom, their silk is wrapped into neat spindles and the leftover silkworms are ready to be snacked upon (our guide’s son found them irresistible). The silk is then dyed, dried, and woven through complex bamboo looms into intricate scarves, ties, throw pillows, whatever.
That evening I also took a tour of the local wats (monasteries), the second of which I happened upon a funeral. The body was burned under an open air pagoda. The mourners sat together dressed in white and listened to monks chant hypnotically. Many had shaved their heads in grief. One of the guests ambled over to inform me, “he die by drink too much wine.” On the other side of the monastery, next to a bustling street market, a young man entered to find a slightly private place to take a piss. “Where you from?” he asked while peeing beside a pagoda. He then informed me I should take off my hat around the pagodas, so as to be respectful… while he was peeing on a pagoda.
Northeast of the heart of the temple complex is a landmine museum founded by an ex-member of the Khmer Rouge. Before defecting, Aki was a conscripted child soldier and landmine specialist. On the battlefield, he had deceived enemy combatants by leaving behind ammunition clips that would unleash a lethal neurotoxin when fired. As an adult and free man, he has devoted his life to the disarmament of landmines in Cambodia and has personally disarmed tens of thousands of landmines – including landmines he likely laid himself, but mostly mines dropped by American planes in effort to disrupt supply lines to the Viet Kong. The museum is full of disarmed mines, rockets, bombs, and claymores, and is also home to two dozen or so children who have been disfigured by or otherwise affected by landmines. All the proceeds go to the orphanage.
Antipersonnel landmines are deliberately designed to maim instead of kill, as injured soldiers and civilians are more costly to tend to than dead ones. The devastation landmines can wreak upon human bodies is abundantly clear when traveling around Cambodia. Limbless beggars are tragically plentiful in any urban location, often legless on hand powered carts, and I had seen at least five bands of crippled musicians performing around Siem Reap, the members each being left blind or limbless thanks to chance encounters with leftover landmines. Most countries in the world have since signed a U.N. drafted treaty prohibiting the manufacture and use of antipersonnel mines. Notable holdouts include India, China, Burma, and the United States, with the U.S. insisting an exception for the Korean border be made.
Well, I began this entry discussing my final and best day here, and I suppose I should stop skipping around it. So, I was stealing through the jungle in the early morning so that I could watch the sun rise from behind the mountainous temple silhouette of Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world and the greatest source of pride for the Khmer people. A central peak in the temple looms over four smaller peaks in the corners, several layers of walls, a grand courtyard, and a massive moat once full of crocodiles. The same silhouette I saw reflected in the ponds preceding the temple in the cracks between lily pads also graces the Kingdom of Cambodia’s flag. Like many of the temples in the region, Angkor Wat was dedicated as a Hindu temple, but has been since converted to honor Buddha by the mere addition of golden Buddhas in the hallways.
The outermost layer of walls is engraved with epic depictions of battles, both historical and otherwise. In one panel, Yama, the god of death (and also the local name for crystal meth), sits indifferently as he grants access to heaven or condemns the recently departed to an eternity of suffering (much like Jesus in the last judgment paintings I love so much). Many of the halls are decorated with depictions of Asparas, Khmer nymphs with terribly mannish faces and wild haircuts that are nothing short of fabulous.
Hoping to stay a step ahead of the tour groups, after sunrise I hustled over to Ta Prohm, a tremendous temple overrun by even more tremendous jungle growth and made famous by Lara Croft’s battles in Tomb Raider. In the post-dawn morning light, the sun’s rays caught the green leaf edges of countless leaves and bathed the scene in soft emerald light. Testifying the might of nature over the triumphs of man, huge trees erupt from the temple stones in the most artfully unlikely ways. The arches of doorways bulge with strangling tree roots, simultaneously holding the stones together and causing the constructions to explode in the slowest of slow motion. Whole passageways are made impenetrable by the flooding of roots. The place was a battlefield between the most beautiful expressions of nature and man, and enjoyed with near solitude, I found its aura intoxicating. I returned in the afternoon to enjoy a few specific sights that I thought would benefit from the sun hanging higher and on the other side of the sky, but then I found myself hugging a wall to keep from being tugged away in a terrible current of Russian and Chinese tour groups. I counted three taxis in the parking lot when I was first in the temple. When I had returned, there were well over 200.
Angkor had once been sacked ruthlessly by the Chams, predecessors of the modern Vietnamese, and so the most legendary of Khmer god-kings, Jayavarman VII, set about building a walled capital that would later be called home by nearly a million people and impervious to assault by a perimeter of thick walls and a moat. The wall forms a perfect rectangle with a bridge on each side. Either side of the gate is flanked by giants or demons, engaged in an eternal tug of war by their pulling of Naga, the multi-headed serpent. With frightening authority, the top of each gate has four faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (or even Jayavarman VII himself depending on who you consult), one pointed in each cardinal direction, with an ominously haunting hint of a smile – a smile with the captivating complexity of Mona Lisa’s but made somehow foreboding by its authority.
Once inside the walled city of Angkor Thom, you can follow the trumpeting elephants to the empire’s once beating heart, the state temple called Bayon. Here the power of Avalokiteshvara’s face is made more powerful through repetition. No fewer than 216 depictions of the same godly face adorn the stone towers, exuding an authority that must have terrified the god-king’s followers and commanded their obedience.
In four days Angkor kicked my butt and captured my heart. The ruins there could be the most exciting in the world. Cycling the paths in the spaces between sights was a pleasure alone, but left me craving complete immersion in the jungle, away from the paved roads. And perhaps I’ll achieve that here in Thailand, as I’ve since spent a painful and boring 12 hours in the commute from Siem Reap to Bangkok.