As far as I can recall, the first time I became aware of Angkor Wat was at my grandparents house. They had a coffee table book with pictures of abandoned cities that I loved to pass the time gazing at as a child; I remember being awestruck at the sight of the glorious temples being slowly absorbed back into the jungles from whence they were carved. Fast forward twenty or so years later and here I am in Siem Reap, sweating more than I ever have in my life, getting pissed off at Chinese tourists, and providing lunch to an ever-present throng of mosquitoes with my cowardly, western blood.
It is impossible for me to overemphasize the amount of perspiration that poured out of my body while we dwelt agape among the ruins. I'm pretty sure that my shirt became a new, hitherto unknown form of ecosystem for all kinds of microscopic, sweat-dwelling life. I didn't notice myself sweating excessively in relation to the people around me until we made our way into the interior of one of the thousands of temples in the area. In fact, I had hardly noticed the atmospheric conditions at all, aside from the extreme humidity of the jungle, until we crept into that sandstone abyss-which is understandable, I might add. One tends to focus less on matters of the profane, such as the weather, when one is surrounded by 400 acres of the most beautiful architecture ever freed from the amorphous inhumanity of stone.
But here I must stop because I’ve already gotten ahead of myself. Allow me to begin again:
The drive to Siem Reap took about six hours. And although I doubt the rest of the group shares this opinion, I personally thought that the experience of riding through the Cambodian countryside was spiritually enriching. Most of it is composed of vast marshland, with farm villages and fruit stands sparsely scattered about the side of the highway. Small mountains loom in the distance and sugar palm trees dot the earth near and far. The only animal life visible from the road were groups of water buffalo and Cambodian farmers leaving their fields at the end of the sweltering day.
When the sun began to set, the hues of twilight falling on this unique part of the world began to arouse strange emotions in me. I couldn’t help but to think of that old philosophical dinosaur, the Absolute; a feeling I have only ever felt when listening to the nades of Eyvind Kang, or Ave Maria by Schubert, which is unequivocally the most beautiful piece of music that the human mind has ever produced. I know full well that this part of the earth is, like any other, subject to the laws of temporality and change. I am quite aware that nothing lasts forever and that all is in flux; the Cambodian genocide and the attempt of the Khmer people to rebuild their nation from the ground up is a testament to this very fact. However, with the vast agrarian scenery surrounding us in a land of unending summer, awash in crepuscular light, I felt as close as I ever have to the idea of Eternity.
Siem Reap is a wonderful little place. All of us enjoyed it more than Phnom Penh, but since most members of the group had at least one horrible experience in Phnom Penh, this judgment is not exactly unbiased. Since Angkor Wat is the main tourist attraction in Cambodia, Siem Reap is far more accommodating to foreigners than the capital city. There is one main nightlife district, the center of which is called “Pub Street.” Here, fifty cent beers can be found with ease, as can drunk tourists dancing shamelessly to American pop tunes that emanate from bars that line the road.
Almost all of these little watering holes try to play their own music as loud as possible in order to drown out the music from every other bar along the strip. When all of them play songs in different keys and tempos, you get a miserable symphony of popular American music spanning the years of 1994 to 2014. And to make things more interesting, sometimes a group of monks will set up shop in the middle of the street and try to combat the auditory invasion of the West by performing classical Cambodian music on instruments I have never seen before in my life, and can’t begin to describe.
On our first full day in Siem Reap, we got up at four thirty in the morning to get pictures of the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was something of a bust. However, it was still an incredible experience to enter the vestibule of the complex in complete darkness. We took some pictures, gawked at our fellow tourists, and watched our backs meticulously, for pickpockets were afoot. Before we left, a couple of us found a lazy donkey sleeping in the grass which the reader will kindly take note of in the picture below. Happy to be among my own kin, ass that I am, we returned back to our hotel to get a few more hours of sleep before heading out to the temples once again
To be honest, I don’t know what else to say about the impressions I received while walking among the decrepit libraries and temples of Angkor, because it was an extremely personal experience for me. Just like national parks and highways, language is a public utility; I doubt that I could use words, the meaning of which is clear among all who use them, to describe something that by definition is an utterly private phenomenon. A better man than I once said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Suffice it to say that I was awestruck, to put it mildly, while making my way through the complex’s sandstone majesty.
There were moments, mostly when climbing pyramids and when witnessing a vast reclining buddha, when I was literally shaking in wonder. It was the closest thing to rapture that I have ever felt. I don’t know whether or not I cried because there was so much perspiration seeping out of my skin that at times it was hard to see through the layer of sweat running down my face. My clothes became a stinky, godawful mess and in retrospect I should have took them off and set them on fire as a sacrifice to the jungle.
I lost more than a lot of sweat that day. I couldn’t help but to let go of some the resentment toward my fellow man that has been accumulating at an accelerating rate throughout the years. Despite the fact that we live in a time without hope, and that it can feel like the planet is on the brink of sinking into another dark age, seeing these monuments with my own eyes brought something positive into my life. Not hope, but faith. Faith in the conviction that although contemporary society might be heading for the toilet, there’s no reason to think that some time in the future a group of people might come together and organize a new form of society, create new ways of living, cherishing, and interacting in the world, and construct something as beautiful as these abandoned temples.
Now I understand why Angkor Wat is pictured in nearly every single Cambodian home. It is not just “the one must-see tourist site in Cambodia,” it is a testament to the amazing creative potential of our species when we aren’t busy trying to slaughter one another or exploit each other’s labor. I now have a richer conception of the pride that the Khmer people have in their ancient culture; a way of life that that they are desperately trying to remember and reconnect with. I understand that although the Cambodian genocide occurred only a few decades ago and that body parts can still be found among the trails and swamps at Choeng Ek, the Angkorian temples will, with the help of contemporary man, last for as long as human beings continue to be the custodians of the earth.