I am finding it difficult to put into words the overall experience of our trip to Cambodia. From the awe inspiring ancient beauty that is the Ankor Wat, Ankor Thom, and Bayon Temples to the unfathomable horrors that occurred at the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh- it’s too big for words and a linear timeline of the 5-day journey through Cambodia seems utterly useless. I considered simply putting up pictures with some captions but the photos I have to share are not wildly different than that of any other tourist. So, I will just start telling you the story and see where it leads…
About a year ago Eric and I saw The Royal Ballet of Cambodia perform “The Legend of Apsara Mera” – the churning of the seas and epic battle between the Gods and the demons – at BAM in Brooklyn. The Princess of Cambodia and choreographer of the piece was present and contributed to a Q&A session after the performance. She spoke of it being their way of reintroducing Cambodian culture to the world after the Khmer Rouge destroyed any expression of culture, religion, or self-expression 30 years ago. Dancing Well is the Best Revenge was the well chosen title of the article in the NY Times which enthusiastically welcomed the company of dancers to New York. This was essentially my introduction to Cambodia. Embarrassingly the rest of my understanding and knowledge of this place was severely limited.
After a night spent in the capital city of Phnom Penh, a bumpy 6-hour bus ride through four provinces to Siem Reap, and an all-too-short night’s sleep we woke at about 5am to be at Ankor Wat for sunrise. We stood along the water’s edge with gaggles of tourists eagerly anticipating the sun with cameras in hand. Our guide chattered on and on about something or another (he was never, ever short of words) and we wished that there was a suggestion of silence on temple grounds. With all that considered- it was still pretty damn gorgeous!
We somehow convinced our guide to go get a cup of coffee or something and walked into the temple and along the wall of the first gallery on our own. This depicted the now familiar Legend of Apsara Mera as well as stories of the Khmer monarchs. Spontaneously the music of the battle scene in The Nutcracker began to play in my head as the three-dimensional carvings seemed to leap off the wall with full expression. The ancientness of the place was evident all around. How many beings devoted their lives to the creation of this place? From the red sandstone cut from distant mountains, to the elephants that moved it down river on bamboo rafts, to the artisans that designed and crafted these works of art. Not placed behind a velvet curtain in a museum of fine art, how many hands have run across these carvings over the centuries- and what did it inspire in them?
Dancing Apsaras graced the walls and ceilings of almost every temple like omni-present fairies. In the dancing halls you could almost hear the clanging of their anklets. The faces at Bayon Temple seemed that if you were quiet enough in both your words and your mind they would whisper to you the secrets of the universe. We continued to explore with our guide’s direction and never-ending stream of detailed information. About halfway through the day Eric commented that this place didn’t feel necessarily holy, religious, or spiritual even though it is still a working Buddhist temple with people offering incense to altars throughout. I agreed adding that to me it felt enchanted- perhaps if only by the massive number of people who have walked through the aged halls or maybe it was something that felt older than the names which we have given to the Gods.
The jungle has begun to take back Ankor Thom and that is why it’s my favorite. Without the protection of the large mote that surrounds Ankor Wat, Bayon, and others Ankor Thom is being reclaimed by nature. Trees bust through barrier walls and mightily grow atop of the crumbling pagodas. Roots snake around and in between rock recklessly seeking solid foundation in the earth. Massive sandstone bricks fall into the containers of individual rooms and tumble out the windows. This temple feels most ancient, most arcane, most mysterious. We also visit here early in the day and have the place to ourselves for the most part. You can climb, touch, and explore to your heart’s delight.
Our time in Siem Reap was made complete with leisurely swims in the warm “Ganesha Pool” at our hotel surrounded by blossoming Magnolias, dinners on Pub Street, a fish spa pedicure, and time to simply be at ease on holiday. The sun was strong and traversing the temples a physical endeavor so our evenings were very low key. We fly (rather than take the bus again) forty-five minutes back to Phnom Penh and stay at a different hotel, Amanjaya, along the Tonle Sap River. That night we continue sampling the local food staples; Fish Amok, sautéed Morning Glory, Green Mango Salad, Fresh Spring Rolls, Pumpkin Cream Soup, and we both tried Water Buffalo for the first time.
On our last day we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us out to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center or more commonly known as the Killing Fields. This is the site where hundreds of people; men, women, children, and even babies were killed during the time of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot regime. The mass graves here have been covered with thatch roofs to preserve and honor those who were killed here. Along the wooden fences surrounding the graves visitors leave their prayer or puja strings received at temples as a way to honor to those who have passed. The most adorned is a tree. This tree was once used to kill babies taken to Choeung Ek. Not far from the tree is a mass grave where the babies where then thrown. Silence is preserved and utmost respect given throughout the whole center. Each visitor is given a audio guide which walks your through the site explaining what exactly happened here and tells heart wrenching stories of Khmer Rouge survivors. This allows you to process the information in a quiet and personal way. A Buddhist Stupa has been erected as a memorial to the victims of this and other killing fields. Inside are large bones and clothing remnants which continue to surface during monsoon season. After completing our time here, we drive back towards Phnom Penh to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum- a prison and interrogation center where thousands were held captive, tortured, and killed. You cry your way through this entire experience. Between genocide, starvation, and disease they estimate that about 2 million people lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge- a quarter of the population. We take an hour to rehydrate, cool down, and decompress in the hotel lounge before heading back out for a quick visit to the nearby Royal Palace. We then load our bags onto the tuk-tuk and make our way to the airport.
More marinating is necessary. But, I suppose the layers will reveal themselves with time as well as with further explorations and comparatives of Asia. For now I am left with an imagination stirred by ancient runes, empathetic pangs for the Cambodian people, and further fascination with the Eastern world.
Next adventure: a visit back to the US at the end of May, Bali in June, and Macau in July!