While touring the temples at Angkor, my tour guide, Chhai, spoke briefly about his life under the whip of the Khmer Rouge.  He was 17 when the militia told everyone they had three days to leave their homes and report to a randomly assigned commune out in the country.  Some people had only a few days walk to get there.  Chhai’s journey took a month.  When I asked how he found enough to eat during that trek, he didn’t respond.  He spent almost four years slaving away in the rice fields.

His little brother, Polo, was a bit luckier as he was born during the regime and was still a toddler when it fell.  Polo drove us all over Angkor for two days in his tuk-tuk, which is a covered wooden carriage pulled by a motorbike.  I got up at 5:30am the first day in order to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.  It was a bit cloudy, so the view wasn’t quite as spectacular as in the postcards.  Small children were everywhere selling packs of them, and the best picture looks like the Wat is exploding.  The moat in front reflects the colors of the sky to surround the temple in solar paint.

I spent the first day walking through the main city, Angkor Thom, with Chhai.  The walls surround about four square miles, most of it forest now, with several temples, terraces, and an enormous swimming pool for the king’s concubines and children.  The most interesting one is called Bayon.  It’s a multi-tiered Hindu temple peppered with those iconic towers in the shape of a closed lotus.  However, King Jayavarman VII, the Great Builder, ordered the bulding to feature over 200 giant carvings of his own face in a serene expression of divine contemplation.  Or perhaps, enlightenment.

Jayavarman VII practiced both Buddhism and Hinduism, so the 60-plus  temples constructed during his reign feature Siva and Indra alongside Gautama.  However, a later successor by the title of Jayavarman VIII rejected Buddhism and ordered the removal of nearly all images of the bumpy-headed guy seated on a lotus.  You can see where he’s supposed to be, but the images were scoured away.

My favorite two temples were Tha Prohm and Preah Khan.  These are the two that have yet to be completely reclaimed from the jungle, and they could easily be the set of an Indiana Jones flick.  This is mainly the work of the parasitic “spung” tree that only grows on stones.  They have very smooth off-white trunks that reach fairly high, and their massive roots clutch the temple walls like tentacles.

Angkor Wat (“Wat” means “monastery”) was once home to quite a few monks and over a hundred statues of Buddha – most of which were destroyed by Jay the Eighth.  It was far more massive than I could have imagined.  I knew that it’s walls surrounded a square mile, but it’s one of those things that you have to see to believe.  Like Machu Picchu and Rio de Janeiro.  The main citadel is a giant stupa of sorts.  It has three levels, which I assume to represent Earth, Heaven, and Nirvana (or something to that accord).  The first has an enormous carving that runs the length of the wall depicting scenes from the Ramayana.  Chhai, knowing what part of epics boys like, showed me the battle scene between Rama and the army of demons.  I reckon there were something around 500 pairs of Rama and a demon locked in various poses of combat.

The second and third levels are almost identical.  They contain a grid of four square-shaped swimming pools.  Well, Chhai said they were swimming pools, but I imagine they may have had other purposes Angkor Wat being a monastery and all.  Moving along, the pools are open to the air and fill with rain water.  Columned walkways run along the sides.  The King’s staircase to the top level was still being restored – as much of Angkor still is – so we walked around to the back entrance where I was just in time to climb the steep staircase using hands and feet.  The view from the top allows one to see the entire coutyard stretching back to the main entrance.  About the length of five or six football fields/pitches.  One can also get a good view of the forest with palm trees rising above the canopy.  Unfortunately for me, I visited Angkor Wat during the very first rain storm in two months.  During the dry season.  It started out light and nice, but Chhai and I had to walk all the way back across the coutryard and the bridge huddled under his small jacket.

I went out with Polo and friends the night before I left.  After flying thousands of miles away from Korea, I still ended up chugging beer at a noraebang.  Cambodian karaoke has a noticeably Indian tune overlapping the East Asia tones.  Several of the singers in the videos could have passed for Hindis to Western eyes.  Now I know why they call it Indo-China.

The bus ride to Bangers (as it was dubbed by an Australian my coordinator met), was an exhausting 12 hours.  The border crossing could have easily been accomplished in a shorter amount of time, but our guides insisted that we wait for the designated van to ferry us over to the bus rather than jumping on a passing tuk-tuk.  In retrospect, it’s probably much faster to just bus to the border, cross it yourself, and find a bus to Bangkok.

It seemed like we were on board a scam trip: one where the drivers and guides make the journey as long and uncomfortable as possible so you’ll collapse at the guesthouse they take you to (which is paying them a commission).  However, the bus dropped me off at Khao San Road, the backpacker hangout, which was exactly were I wanted to be.  I found Stuart sitting at a roadside bar, checked into a hostel, and we brought on the vodka buckets.  With some creamy Thai curry as well.  Have now recovered from the previous night’s alcohol fest and will be meeting some Canadian dive instructors – who work at Ko Tao – for dinner and beers.

Out

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