Angkor Wat Pilgrimage
by Diane Caldwell
As a child growing up in a middle-class neighbourhood of NE Philly, I could never have imagined that at fifty-eight I would be weaving my through a jungle in Cambodia on the back of a motorbike en route to a 10th century temple in the Lost City of Angkor.
The road is like one long petting zoo: slate-grey pigs, horned buffalo, and hump-backed cattle–ribs protruding like harps and skin flapping in ripples from chin to belly. The animals amble unhurriedly across the tan ribbon of dusty road heads down, searching for a previously overlooked blade of grass.
Naked babies and young children with arms and legs like teak twigs poke sticks into the tawny dust and scrawl squiggles in the sand. Motorbikes, like beasts of burden, carry families of five, their sewing machine motors whining. Other motorbikes are piled high with hand-made sacks of rice, bamboo-wrapped packets of fallen twigs. Atop this heap, dark-skinned stick families perch like oakies from the “Grapes of Wrath.” But I sense no “wrath” here, only slow, gentle Buddhist acceptance as the parched earth, air, animals, and humans all hold their breath, waiting patiently for June’s rains.
My driver brakes slowly, as ahead of us an elephant big as a hut emerges from the jungle, mahout proudly seated upon its head. I grab onto the only thing I can—the small chrome rail just behind me. A pony cart passes from the other direction, going at a mellow clip clop. We zoom past rail-thin barefoot men pulling long-handled, 3-wheeled carts filled beyond their brim.
When I had walked out of the tiny Siem Riep airport, I was approached and asked if I’d like a taxi into town. There wasn’t a single taxi in sight. Seeing my confusion the man smiled a wide grin.
‘Taxi motorbike,” he said. “One dollar.”
I paid my American dollar (the preferred currency of Cambodia), was handed a receipt, and a young man on a motorbike was hailed.
Ly (pronounced Lee) drove me to my guesthouse and asked if I needed a driver for the next three days. He explained that if I bought a three day pass to Angkor Wat, I could enter free that evening at five, climb Phaom Bakheng and watch the sunset from its heights.
I agreed to meet Ly at 4:30. He was precisely on time. I swung my leg over the motorbike and positioned myself to the back so as to avoid any physical contact (a horrible breach of conduct in SE Asia), and we were off for my first glimpse of the Lost City of Angkor.
I had always heard it referred to as “Angkor Wat,” but Angkor, meaning capital or holy, and Wat, meaning temple, is only one of a hundred or more preserved temples dating from the ancient Khmer Empire that existed between the 9th and 12th century C.E.
My day of arrival turned out to be the last celebrated day of the Khmer New Year. Ly explained that although there were very few foreign tourists this time of year, many Cambodians flock here to visit the site of their heritage.
Along the tree-lined black-top road, families, five to a single motorbike, were making the pilgrimage to Angkor Wat—the fabulous star of the Angkor temples. Ly told me that for Cambodians it was a journey of healing. A pilgrimage to try and forget the years of Khmer Rouge. To try and forget the massacres, torture and fear. A journey to remind themselves of the grandeur, majesty and wonder of their ancestral past.
I hauled myself up the extremely steep and crumbling hill, learning from Cambodian woman in high-heels to grab handholds of vines to help pull myself up. Finally at the top of the climb sat the late 9th century stone temple, Phnom Bakheng, but getting to its roof to view the sunset meant scaling stone steps as steep as the mountain path I had just climbed. Two semi-English speaking young men approached.
“Madame, we show you more easy way. Come.”
“Easier” is of course a relative term, but they did show me one side with crumbled stones that offered a less severe ascent. The price for this help was $1 and maybe they really were students trying to finance their education.
The next morning I ate breakfast and strolled through the town of Siem Riep accosted at every turn by landmine victims. Faced with one-eyed women, legless cripples, armless ragged children with eyes of bottomless woe, the reality of landmines became alarmingly clear.
Ly returned after breakfast as agreed upon and became my driver. Gazing at Angkor Wat-the knobby Taj Mahal, and the Bayan with its huge stone faces smiling enigmatically at me at every turn took up my entire morning. The grandeur, setting, and complete silence dislodged my sense of time. Lunch with Ly anchored me in reality.
“Yes, life is good,” Ly told me. My wife and I had first baby only 3 days ago.” His eyes were black and guileless. He told me he lived with his wife’s family.
“I have a motorbike and can earn money taking tourists around Angkor.”
“Do you have any dreams,” I asked him.
His eyes opened and lit up.
“Yes, if life is good, one day I buy car and take more than one tourist at a time.” He leaned forward, “and maybe car can have air-conditioning, very nice. Then maybe we have three children.”
He shifted on his stool, lowered his eyes, “Now, I think, only one, because not so much money to take care of more.”
Ly is 23. His wife is 21. He is dressed in thin blue jeans, a clean white and green-striped button-down shirt, and flip flops. Despite the heat and humidity, he never appears to sweat, and his smell is as fresh as the sun-bleached rice paddies.
“Take your time,” he told me when I entered Ta Prohm. “I wait here.”
Temple Ta Prohm looked like something out of a Hollywood film, and was actually used as the setting for Tomb Raider. Where other temples have been restored and the encroaching jungle hacked back, Ta Prohm has been left to the devouring tongue of nature. Massive fig and silk cotton trees have spread their thighs over Ta Prohm’s walls, dug their fingernails between stones separating them and sending them toppling down, and spread curling toes into corridors, obstructing passage. Everywhere huge roots entwined, curled, roped, and twisted through the stone walk ways. Bright green parrots flew from branch to branch cawing their shrill cry.
Walking away from this fairyland I imagined I heard music playing, like the background music in a film.
I followed the path out of the temple and saw a group of people seated on a large bamboo mat. It was from them the magic music emanated. Closer inspection revealed they were all landmine victims. A one-legged man blew through a twisted leaf creating a haunting sweet sound. The others played traditional Kmer instruments. They all gazed up at me with tenderness and joy as I stood and listened enraptured. Other people gathered round to hear their music and I noticed a box with CDs in it for $10. I picked one up, placed $10 in the box, and headed back to Ly, clutching my CD.
I would leave this land with a visceral reminder of its joy, beauty, and pain.