On the road again for New Year’s celebrations in Cambodia. A journey that began with crossing the border at 8 am on the wildest bus ride of my life thanks to the chanting, dancing and all out mayhem caused by six rowdy Brazilian men and that ended with an earthshaking, rainbow-colored sunrise that faithfully broke free from the clouds to frame the legendary quincunx that has made Angkor Wat immortal. I was unmanageably ecstatic. I did not sleep.
Before viewing a giant up close, it helps to first gain a distant, peripheral perspective. To realize what you are in for. With a desire to see the Angkor complex from afar, I half-fulfilled my childhood dream of riding in a hot air balloon. Half because the balloon, which by name calls to mind an experience of floating freely at will of the wind, was constrained by a wire pulley which only allowed for an up-and-down elevator effect. I imagined myself floating high above Angkor Wat, peering down with the option of jumping out and landing on an unsuspecting tourist and falling to what surely would be the most photographed and picturesque death of all time if I so pleased but, alas, these dreams were squashed. From such heights, however, I could get my bearings. Angkor Wat stood before me, Tonle Sap Lake to the right of me, Phnom Bakheng to the left of me, and the Siem Reap airport behind me. For a brief moment, I was given the fleeting illusion that I could somehow grasp the vast scope of this ancient empire.
At night, thirteen of us (me and my 4 roommates, the 6 Brazilians who took a liking to us and 2 new friends) crammed into 2 tuk tuks and went to Amazon Angkor to watch a traditional Khmer dance performance accompanied by a delicious all-night buffet. They had an unbelievably bottomless spread of French, Indian, Khmer cuisine. My palate happy to taste bread again. There were five performances throughout the night, each one telling its own story. I learned the origins of the mudras that are so prevalent in Thai and Khmer dance. Each hand gesture represents different parts of the lotus flower. As the dancers create the formations, the lotus unfolds. The dance was slow, calculated, and gravely serious. It seemed like a pre-ritual fit for a beheading. There was something deeply compelling yet unmistakably sad about the performance. It was written in the dancers’ phlegmatic faces. They probably hate their costumes and these stupid tourists (like me) stuffing their faces full of food and this stiff dance they perform monotonously, laboriously, night after night. But they look so beautiful. A beauty that tears me from my chair, draws me straight to the front of the stage to be nearer to it.
The next day, Mel, Rachel and I rented bikes from our hostel and rode along the Siem Reap River beneath a shade of trees en route to Angkor. Deciding to bypass Angkor Wat to first explore other, lesser known temples, we headed to meet her brother, the Bayon. Angkor Wat is believed to honor the feminine element in nature, while The Bayon is said to symbolize the masculine element (Ba- denotes the masculine, yon- a Khmer translation of the Sanskrit ‘yantra’). The Bayon rests on a rectangular piece of ground which serves as the exact geometrical center of Angkor Thom. As you ascend the steps to meet this protective brother, the compound that guards the entrance to Angkor, you may or may not notice that you are being watched by hundreds of faces. Like a mirage they appear from beneath a stone veil that disguises itself as rubble. Two, three, four faces wrap the facades of towering prang edifices, making pin point impressions. Around every corner another Buddha face unexpectedly emerges, smiling with the ancient wisdom of past civilizations embodied within the time capsule that is their remains. Walking throughout the different levels of the compound, the faces do not reveal themselves to you all at once. They appear individually, subtly, each with their own precise timing and unique magic of optical illusion. In the Bayon, you almost feel tricked. A maze of dizzying perfections.
Next was Ta Phrom–the divine temple laden with Mother Nature’s giants. This is the temple that called me to Siem Reap. At Ta Phrom, massive trees with thick gnarled roots sprawl out and make themselves at home in the rooms created by the ruins. Birds who fly overhead and drop seeds into the crevices are responsible for planting these weight bearing wonders. Mel told me that the trees growing within the ruins are inherently and immovably buttressing their design. They are fatally intertwined. If a tree should get struck by lightning or die, the entire surrounding ruins would crumble. The scene we stood before was only temporary.
On Monday, we were determined to see the sunrise one day early. We roused at 5 am and booked it by bike to Angkor, though all five of us arrived separately and subsequently split up. All day exploring is a one woman adventure. On my bike riding through the pitch black streets of Siem Reap, a fevered reverie– feeling tired, but acute, alive. Enjoying the feeling of being alone. In silence. I was free to explore this natural wonder in any way, on any route I pleased. As the hours passed at Angkor Wat, the exponentially growing number of tourists threatened to suffocate the sanctity, to crowd the intimate experience. However, there were loop holes to this problem in that Angkor Wat is immense and, so, provided a surprising amount of getaways, hide-outs, opportunities for isolation within the temple’s many nooks and crannies. Like a 3D pop-up book, the stories of Angkor’s empire were told on the surface of her stone-carved wallpaper. The stories of war, stories of gods, stories of heaven and hell and the formation of the universe. Depictions of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna. The merging of spiritual superpowers, the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism. Headless Buddhas. Sharp diagonals. Precise proportions. Bokehs of light. Cairns upon cairns. The serpentine curvature of voluptuous female apsara reliefs. Like sirens, appearing in twos, in threes, in fours, in fives. In numbers their appeal is potent. All of the figures–the gods and goddesses, the warriors, the laymen, the devatas and apsaras–are mobile. As I move, they move. With one glance they no longer are trapped within the confines of their walls. The stories relived, reawakened by each viewer, make the figures come alive. Standing at the center of universe–the tallest, central tower of the quincunx and Khmer representation of Mt. Meru–made me think that bas-reliefs and symmetry are all I really need. From outside Angkor Wat, none of this is evident or could even be speculated. The beauty of Khmer architecture, I think, is the way it creeps with a subliminal nature. The way the scope and complexity of the temples are subtle, hidden. The intricacies, if not experienced intimately, remain secrets.
I escaped the now massive crowds of people and point-and-shoot cameras at Angkor Wat to explore Angkor Thom more thoroughly. The Baphuon, The Terrace of the Leper King, Phimeanakas, and the Royal Palace grounds. These areas allowed for more creative exploring and soon I found myself far off the tourist traversed path on a 20-minute hike into the forest, seduced by the melodic chanting of distant monks and determined to discover its origin. I never found it. Instead, I found three kids no older than nine who popped out of the bushes and claimed to be orphans seeking pity in the form of American dollars. They were cunning and pushy, and I felt threatened and eerily uneasy. Considered the possibility of dying alone in the jungle of Cambodia at the hands of pre-pubescent boys, Lord of the Flies style.
At sundown, I fled to Phnom Bakheng to be amongst the swarms of people seeking to catch the sun as it dipped below the clouds from the highest peak in the entire Angkor complex for the last time this year. Somehow, I managed to be the absolute last person allowed up the steps to catch the view, before the guards closed the gate and told the long line of groaning tourists and itching photographers to go home. From sunrise to sundown, I did not stop moving, seeking, exploring. I felt myself on fire. With enough energy left for face paint, hula hooping, free “grenade” shots at the roof top beach bar of our hostel, and a subsequent mobbing of Pub Street and with enough perseverance to make it 30 minutes early to witness the first sunrise of 2013 over Angkor Wat the following morning.