I remember a few years back, I was perusing through an estate sale in Virginia. As I reflected on the fact that the owner of the house had never used their beautiful crystal glasses or their fine silver cutlery, preferring to keep them stored for a special occasion, my eye caught an old book from their very extensive and exclusive collection from the 1940’s.
The fabric covered publication described in details the incredible temple complex of Angkor Wat and its relationship with the number 108. Angkor Wat happens to be the largest religious monument in the world with a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple of God Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology. Having a few days off, I decided to go and check this marvel for myself traveling on Emirates from Dubai to Bangkok with a Siem Reap Air connection to my final destination of Siem Reap.
The roads were extremely dusty and instead of renting a tuktuk, I decided to rent a guide with an air conditioned car. That was an awesome move as I was able to cover much more ground and had an extremely knowledgeable guide (David Sieb) who showed me the lesser visited temples. David was very smart and understood immediately that I was not the typical tourist. He would organise the day with counter intuitive sequence so we were always in the quiet temples avoiding the crowds. He also knew out of the way unknown temples and would take me there when I was weary to rest and enjoy the beauty and silence of the place.
We started with Bat Chum, where big peaceful cows were grazing while watching me with bored eyes. Then the temple I had a very romantic idea of, Ta Prohm, did not disappoint. From the 12th century, it was made famous by Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider and its semi ruined state among forest and farmlands gave it a very eerie feel. Again I was reminded of the power of nature as the temple provides a striking example of what the untamed tropical forest will do even to the mightiest monument when human hands are withdrawn. The canopy of these majestic trees easily reaches 60 meters high and some have hollowed trunks which make for perfect pictures.
Bayon temple was one of my all time favourites. The climb is easy enough and the small temple very smoky and dark at the top. After removing my shoes I spent a few minutes reflecting on the work and dedication of the people who erected this amazing structure some eight centuries ago. David then asked me if I wanted to see a memorial from the genocide and of course I did. Although this is a very dark chapter in Cambodia’s history, the strength and hope of the people is what I chose to see in this tragic and devastating reminder of recent history. While walking and seeing columns of human skulls, David shared his story with me, an amazing testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and a beautiful victory of love over hate. I will not share it here out of respect for his confidence but I am sure if you hire him in the future you will get all the details… I left the memorial quite saddened by the amount of suffering that Cambodians went through and even more in awe of their courage and tenacity.
The next day, I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to make it to Angkor, the main temple, for sunrise. There is absolutely no way to reconcile the pictures you see in National Geographic or all over the internet and the reality of your own experience. If you are in for a tranquil, meditative ambiance, in two words… Forget it! You will be fighting with hordes of tourists armed with selfie sticks and so engrossed in sharing their “moment” with the world on Facebook that they have to shout at each other loudly about how many “likes” they got.
David had told me that the actual sunrise was not the best photo opportunity and to wait a little longer to let the crowd leave the site, stick around and actually witness the “real” sunrise. He could not have been more right as I waited until everyone left to enjoy the sun peaking between the towers of Angkor Wat and marvel at the beauty of the place. No picture can do it justice.
Shortly after that I got to again stand in line for yet another climb to the top of the temple. There I got to spend some time with female monks in meditation. David took me afterwards behind the terrace of the Elephants into the secret passage with the famous 108 deities, 54 gods and 54 demons. 108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga, and Angkor is one of the few places in the world that has representations of this sacred number on the bas reliefs. The details of the faces are amazing and spending a little time to observe the upper and lower world was quite soothing.
On my last day, I visited a temple 17km east of Angkor Wat, which was built in the 11th century. Although it is a ruin, the moat surrounding it gave it a very serene feeling and the lack of tourists made it magical. The temple adjoining the ruins was absolutely stunning as the vivid painting on the ceiling made it a great place to rest for a while and meditate. On the way out, I had the chance to meet some volunteers from the States who had started a school in the little village adjacent to the temple. These young 20-something Americans were an inspiration to watch and I ended up sitting in class with the Cambodian pupils and sharing my travel stories regaling them with anecdotes from all over the world. The curiosity in their eyes was intense and they ended up asking many questions to get a better picture in their minds.
Unfortunately it was my last day and I had to cut it short so I could go to the market and find some people to mingle with and do a little charity before my return flight. At the market, I met some blind, auditively impaired mine victims missing limbs and any means to take care of themselves. As I was touching a gentleman on the arm to make him feel aware of my presence, (he was blind, deaf, and had lost one leg and an arm), I could not help but cry, admiring his courage and resilience. I left him with a little money and some food but my heart was breaking as I walked away from the market.
Cambodia is a land of many contrasts. On one hand you see many mine victims and are constantly reminded of the horror of what the Cambodian people have had to live through and the incredible cruelty that humans can inflict on one another.
On the other hand, you cannot help but be in awe of the skills, patience and dedication of the many nameless artists who have contributed to the construction of so many temples. Even today, many young people create beautiful pieces of art with stone, paper, wood or silk. Their patience as they bend their backs, sitting on the dusty ground, engraving a piece of leather to create another master piece is both commendable and astounding.
As a closing line, I would like to share with you my experience with pictures, after all they are worth 1000 words… I cannot convey though the kindness, generosity and respect of the people. That you will have to go and experience yourself.
Words + Photos by: Anne-Elizabeth Cecillon