Saturday, July 08, 2006

Angkor Wat – Cambodia: April 1-4

Angkor Wat – Cambodia
“A Country’s story of Courage and Renewal”

Here’s the story of our profound visit to Cambodia and the ruins at Angkor Wat.

Arrival to Siem Riep
We arrive in Siem Riep, Cambodia, the home of Angkor Wat, in the late afternoon expecting blistering heat. We’ve heard that April is the hottest month in Cambodia reaching temperatures of 1100F. Instead, today it is cool and breezy, and we’re glad of that. I remember arriving in Bangkok in the middle of the night it had felt like a sauna. We wondered if it would be worse here, but we are pleasantly surprised. We pull the baby card at customs and are helped by a very nice customs official to get through the airport quickly.

We hope to find help with getting a room because we didn’t book a motel in advance. Surprisingly, there are no phones at the airport and no tourist desk to assist us. Since we had heard there were no ATM machines in Cambodia, we are surprised to see there is one at the airport. As it turns out, we don’t see another ATM during our stay. Amazing to us, they do not use their own currency, the riel. People use American dollars or other currencies, and they all return US dollars when giving change. Their money is only used to break a $1 bill when they will give 1000 riel that equals 25 cents.
We go outside and book a taxi and when asked where to go we tell him we don’t have a hotel booked. I mention the name of one I had seen on the internet that sounded nice. He tells us it’s far away from town and doesn’t have a pool. He offers to take us to a place he knows of. When we arrive there it is perfect for us, modest in price, very nice, and has a pool. We pay him extra for his gracious help. Everything for us has been so smooth and easy in coming to Cambodia as opposed to our experience in Thailand where there was so much difficulty. We had all been sick in Thailand and that made it very difficult, especially in Chiang Mai where the air was so toxic with pollution. This quick jaunt from Thailand to Cambodia is a true blessing for our family in many ways.

Sweet Welcome
I didn’t know what kind of welcome we would receive in Cambodia, but it feels good to be here. Their country is quite beautiful. The landscape is lovely and inviting with lush trees and forests, meandering rivers and the moats surrounding the ancient temples.
I remember the US bombings in Cambodia back in the Vietnam era, to allegedly take out North Vietnamese bases. I have also heard about the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge but when I ask people about it, there is discomfort and I receive very explanation. Nonetheless, the people have been so kind to us, and we are so struck by how joyful they seem after so many years of war and terror.

We have come to see Angkor Wat, described as the world’s largest religious monument ever built. Because of the wars and unrest, this place had been closed for many years. Only in the last 10 years or so has the border of Cambodia been open to tourists again. I have wondered about Angkor Wat for years, and now we are on the doorstep of seeing it in person.

The Young Ones Street Play
When we return from dinner at a local restaurant in the evening we notice a group of young people around ages16 playing a game on the sidewalk. They are fully engaged, laughing and carrying on. We stand to watch them a little bit. I’m reflecting about how they come together and play and engage with each other instead of watching TV or standing around drinking, or complaining, or talking about how there’s nothing to do. They are throwing little stone like objects, like large flat chestnuts at a layout of the same objects placed on the ground. I see a girl hit the center object and she groans. I find out that the object of the game is to hit the outer objects, but to avoid the center one. She has hit the center one and that means she will receive a little wop or hit on the knee from 2 of the same objects held in a cupped hand of her opponent. Her teammates will also receive the same treatment. One of the girls sees me and welcomingly asks if I’d like to join the game. I join in for a little while, without any luck – meaning I didn’t hit anything, but soon their attention is on Elijah, our little ambassador. This is the usual, people just go wild with eagerness to meet him, coo and play with him, as he is so responsive to their expressions of love and attention.
When we pass by this area the following evening they are playing a different game, still together, still engaged, still having fun.

The Temples

We see the ruins the following day. In a few days one can see only a little bit of what is here. The Khmer builders back in the 8th to the 13th centuries were master builders. For a very long time, the Khmer people were a coherent kingdom with advanced irrigation systems and building knowledge. It was the irrigation systems that allowed this huge empire to become established. Most of this knowledge is lost today. All that’s left are some of the moats, which are quite impressive. The moat around Angkor is 200 yards wide around each side and stretches for almost a mile on each side.
The religion of the Khmer kingdom started as a Hindu, then changed to Buddhism in the 12th century or so, then became Hindu again. Today the country is mostly Buddhist. It was odd to see the Buddha-statue faces defaced; this was done when the Hindus took back the temples. The struggle between Buddhism and Hinduism seems odd for such seemingly peaceful religions.

It is such a strange feeling to be standing in the temples of Angkor Wat, I marvel at the way they were able to build these amazing temples. I wish I could go back in a time machine and see how they lived when these grounds were populated by the people who built them. I can only wonder at how, and reflect about how they prayed in here and what they were really built for: for a king’s ego fancy, or for the good of the people, for praise to the creator, their God, or as a place of learning or initiation.

The place that strikes both Icasiana and me the most on the first day is Ta Prohm. This temple is much smaller than the gargantuan Angkor Wat. While many of the sites have had extensive reconstruction, Ta Prohm has not. It is very much in the condition that all the temples were in when they were rediscovered by the French in the 1800s after centuries of neglect. For the last 500 years or so, strangler fig trees and spung trees have grown up around the temples, seeded by birds from the mountains where these trees normally grow. As they’ve grown, they have wedged into the stone crevices and pushed apart the buildings. At this point, many of the trees cannot be removed or else the structure will collapse. We were told that the movie “Tomb Raider”, was shot at these ominous places where the trees have taken over the stones.

Talented Artist
We happened to meet a very interesting Cambodian artist at the west entrance of Ta Prohm who drew exquisite drawings and paintings using watercolor, ink and charcoal. At 20 and only studying art for one year, he was a very accomplished as an artist. He also seemed to have an excellent flair for business and marketing. We were happy to assist him by selecting a lovely watercolor painting of Angkor Wat.

Victims of Land Mines

We also saw in this same area a group of men playing music who were victims of land mines. They had formed a band to raise money for all victims of land mines and to help themselves. We listened to them play, and they carried on with such joy even though they were missing legs, blinded and maimed in other ways. We marveled at their courage and good spirits. This attitude and light was seen throughout Cambodia. Throughout all the tragedies and travesties, the spirit of the people, their light, has come through and they share this love so freely with us.

Temples at Sunrise – Magical Light
The following day, Icasiana and I (and Elijah of course) got up at sunrise to see the temples in the early morning light. Kate and Matt did not volunteer to accompany us, I don’t think they find it as interesting as we do, and they had probably had enough the day before. We arrived at Angkor a little later than we had hoped and saw a squadron of people leaving the temple having gotten their perfect sunrise picture. Well, I don’t care; I got an absolutely magical picture of the sunrise over the moat of Angkor Wat that I’m going to publish in National Geographic. Well that’s if they like it as much as I do. If they don’t, I’m sure my mom will like it. (Anyway, Elijah thinks I’m funny, he’s laughing right now.)

After Angkor we go to Ta Prohm again to get some early morning, magical light photos. We try to find one of the special places again, but hunger has overtaken Icasiana and we must seek refuge in food immediately. There is a chamber at Ta Prohm that when you thump on your chest over your heart, it echoes deeply and strongly. It doesn’t respond this way with voices or thumping anywhere else on your body, just over your heart. Something about the resonance of the heart is attuned to this chamber. But as I was saying, we can’t find it again and finally just go and eat.

A Welcomed Surprise
After breakfast, we go to a temple called Preah Khan. We hadn’t planned on going to this site, but our tuk tuk (motorcycle taxi) driver, Mr. Chuon suggested it to us. Icasiana and I had just mentioned to each other that as magnificent as the buildings were, we hadn’t felt an “energetic charge” from any of them. We were wondering why not and speaking about sacred sites of the world where I had experienced something special, and what did it mean that we didn’t feel it here. When we got to Preah Khan that all changes - we both feel a magnetism, me in my hands and feet and Icasiana at her forehead and crown. Now we can wonder about why we felt it here and not the other temples.

Energy Charge at Angkor
Ironically, the next morning all of us got up early at sunrise to visit Angkor Wat again. I walk up the steep steps to the top alone as no one else wants to make the climb and go up again. This time, without carrying the baby, without being tired from the heat, and without others calling for my attention, I was able to feel that sacred hum. I drop down into a still place and feel a huge energy field at this place. I let it fill me. Then I wonder what else have I been missing?

Touched by Mr. Chuon

Mr. Chuon, our driver from the day before, was someone who made a powerful impression on us. He had such a wonderful way of taking care of us. Beyond his kind and caring actions though there was something about him that touched not only Icasiana and I, but the kids as well. We all felt something special in meeting him. Every time we came back to the tuk tuk, he would rearrange the seat covering for us and primp the cab for us. We felt so honored to be riding with him. Icasiana and I rode alone with him in the morning while the kids stayed in. In the afternoon he came back for us and took us all, including the kids. The kids immediately felt an affinity towards him without us ever saying anything to them about him. We noticed how Kate and Matt became so animated and playful when we drove around in Mr. Chuon’s open tuk tuk.
As dusk approached in the evening and it was time to leave the temples, he stopped at a wonderful place for us to see the sunset. That’s when Matt noticed that one of his legs was not real. We hadn’t noticed this before. As this realization sunk in, we looked at each other with wonder and awe. It made us feel even more appreciative of his good will and kindness. In the midst of a tragic event of losing his leg, which we suspected was from a land mine, he maintained such a joyful spirit and caring attitude.

Memoirs of a Tragic Time
I’m reading a book called “First They Killed My Father,” a person telling the story of her childhood when the Khmer Rouge came and began their reign of terror in Cambodia in 1979. I want to understand better what happened here during this time. We are marveling at the resiliency of the people here. Just one point. The people of Cambodia are the Khmer people and they speak the Khmer language. The Khmer Rouge were the Communist fanatics who waged a civil war with the military government that had overthrown the monarchy in 1970. After the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, they began a program of genocide against their own people, killing nearly 2 million people. When the Vietnamese came in and defeated the Khmer Rouge, they retreated to the mountains and maintained a stronghold where they were able to continue terrorizing even though they weren’t in power anymore. Peace did not come until 1995. And still today, many of the land mines that they had planted remain and continue to cripple the Cambodian people.

We are Grateful
In leaving Cambodia after such a short stay, we feel so grateful to have seen a little window into the spirit of these people who have endured such tragedy with such courage. The kids were so moved by it that one evening as we drove home they waved hello to all the people passing by. Could these be the same kids that started out this journey not willing to reach out to anyone they didn’t know? It was a magical moment for all of us to experience their joy.

Soon we will be in the Philippines, the home of Icasiana’s mother and her family.

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