i had already packed the night previous to the morning of my departure for siem reap. early that morning, i gingerly picked up my bags and went down to the lobby to settle our bill. ryan and patrick were quickly whisked away by the bus company for their 7am bus to phnom penh. i had an extra 30 minutes to wait for my bus. my companions for this part of the trip were ai, jojo, and hanz, who was convinced to join only the previous day. we boarded our sapaco tours bus -- a spacious carriage with a toilet, which i never got to use during the 12-hour journey. i slept through most of the ride, including the part when the bus rolled onto a barge to cross a bridgeless river on the cambodia side. i woke up only for immigration at the border between vietnam and cambodia. for an islander like myself whose nation's borders are imaginary lines out in open sea, i do not quite know the sensation of sharing borders, or stepping into foreign territory with a single bound. i had previously done something similar last november, when i walked into myanmar without a visa by pretending to be thai -- i already looked the part, so i just shut up completely, and nodded when the border police said something. so i've always wondered how a border would look like. nature's fences, like mountains and riverine channels might be obvious markers, but how do you delineate the edges of your territory? is there some wall, or other, erected by vietnam along the thousands of kilometers of land it shares with cambodia and laos? i only caught a glimpse of the border crossing in bavet, and i became only fully awake when we finally reached phnom penh.
the moment i stepped out of the bus for an hour's break, i was immediately struck by the city's polarizing features: tuktuks and scooters share dusty streets with very expensive luxury vehicles, some of which i have not even seen in pretentious manila. to be clear, there are very few cars in phnom penh, but a majority of these few cars are posh. we had lunch at a nearby restaurant. we passed a building which had nothing but pharmacies: perhaps more than 20 of them. lunch was far from inviting, and i wondered whether cambodian food would look like servings of indiscernible objects thrown into a thick, aromatic glob. thankfully, i would be proven gravely wrong much later into the day and that khmer cooking doesn’t always look like a radioactive experiment.
we boarded our bus at 2:00 for the remaining 6 hours to siem reap. the highway connecting cambodia's capital city and the heart of the ancient khmer kingdoms has drastically improved from previous years, as i have read from the little research i've done, although it isn't as slick as, say, the SCTEx, or the smooth stretch of asphalt between singapore and kuala lumpur. nonetheless, the ride was hitch-free, and the sometimes featureless landscape unfolded just outside my window. houses stood on stilts, and the apex of their triangular roofs were adorned by art, like dainty and pointy fingers in bloom. in complete contrast, a square, artless sign along the highway proclaimed that family’s political affiliation. hun sen’s funcinpec party seemed to be popular. at times, erect palm trees with leaves the shape of green halos stood in the perfect stillness of a brown sahara under a scorching sun. dust lifted and swirled as we sped through the highway, until evening crept even as the wooden houses were replaced by sturdier buildings, and modern signs appeared on the highway. at close to 8pm, we arrived in siem reap, and although we were booked at a particular guesthouse, the bus company's accredited tuktuk drivers suggested a place near downtown. of course, it would have been ideal to stay in a place near everything, but this was our first mistake: to accept a tuktuk driver's suggestion of a place to stay. only when we reached the hotel did i realize that lonely planet contained a warning about a scam, and this was it. although the guesthouse wasn't so unimaginably bad, we could have gotten something better for the same price. it's a bit more expensive precisely because the tuktuk drivers get a commission from bringing in customers, in much the same way that taxi drivers here get a tip by bringing tourists to a certain hotel, or couples to a certain motel.
nonetheless, we weren't about to let this small incident snag our vacation. our guide, rathana, who was recommended by pitsanu, arrived and we quickly discussed our plans for the next two days. he began by apologizing for not meeting us at the bus station. he could have gotten us a better deal, he said, but we brushed away his concern and we focused on enjoying our brief stay in siem reap. we told him we wanted cheap dinner, and he took us to his special sidewalk joint that prepared hearty meals for a dollar! in cambodia, the local currency is hardly ever part of a transaction, and items are priced in US dollars, except when they're less than 1. so if an item is a dollar fifty, when you pay USD2, you'd get 2,000 riel as change.
rathana decided our itinerary: the following day we would wake up before 5am to catch the sunrise, and keep only to as many as 3 temples, the best, he assured, because everything else were minor towers, wats, and ruins that would either pale in comparison, or desensitize our initial awe and amazement. the cardinal rule in visiting the ruins of angkor is to refuse the temptation to see so many -- unless you are doing scholarly research on angkorian art and architecture, attempting to see everything: all the fallen blocks of stone, the incomplete sculptures, the temples that lay in ruin, would be no different from a shot of anesthesia: it will neuter your senses and emasculate your responses, and you would be robbed of the awe you came here to find. so after a filling dinner, we walked along the dug-up street to the night market. the excavated road had fine beach sand underneath it.
i only had USD25 in my pocket, and in 30 minutes, i had spent all of them. the night market carries every imaginable cambodian souvenir: these ubiquitous t-shirts, khmer scarves, trinkets carved from jade and ivory, jewelry hammered from silver, ref magnets, etc. if i had stayed longer i would not have managed to refuse temptation. so we hurriedly left, knowing that we still had 2 nights in the old town. we proceeded to pub street for a night cap. we sat down at the khmer family restaurant and watched the evening pass us by. we decided to sleep early to be able to have enough energy for the entire day’s tour of the temples the following day.
before dawn, we were onboard our tuktuks, chasing the sunrise. the cold morning wind in the forest kissed my skin, and i thankfully had a scarf tied around my neck. we paid our temple pass of USD20 at the gate. it would have been possible to pass myself off as cambodian, who can of course visit the ruins of angkor for free, but i had the wrong outfit, and the starstruck look on my face was undeniable. so other than the color of my skin, and the almond shape of my eyes, i looked pretty much the part of the tourist. besides, since the evening before, and the days that would come, it became evident to me that a huge chunk of siem reap’s income and its ability to generate jobs for the locals are anchored on tourism. everyone seems to be making a living directly or vicariously from the influx of visitors eager to see the world’s most amazing religious structures. hotels, guesthouses and restaurants are so commonplace, the supply has come close to surpassing the demand. and tour guides, although a regulated profession, are also extremely common. cambodians, from a very young age, are eager to learn english and speak it every chance they get to cash in on tourism, since no other local industry seems to be able to provide as many opportunities.
when we arrived at angkor wat, i was surprised to see a stream of people crossing the bridge into the temple proper. angkor is surrounded by a huge moat, dug up by slaves of an ancient kingdom whose ruler was inspired by his hindu faith to build this glorious structure for vishnu, a task which wasn’t completed in the nearly 40 years of its construction.
from this distance, the gates of angkor seemed just like a drab arrangement of stone bricks, but an explanation of how these stones found their way here is already a chance for much reflection. and upon closer inspection, the detail with which they were artfully carved is mind-blowing. we walked along the causeway and passed through the high walls of the gate and found that many other tourists were already awaiting to catch the sun rising over the temple. most of them were perched near the pond where a faint wind was disturbing the angkor’s otherwise perfect reflection.
i set up shop there myself, no matter that it seemed thousands of other travelers with cameras have taken the same photo as i have. these days, everyone is a photographer, which makes you ask and wonder: where were they before the digital age?
slowly, the sun tore the gloomy sky without drama, refusing to reveal its colors. it poured over the five towers of angkor, one of which was surrounded by scaffolding. when the sun was fully up, and tourists began to depart the pond, we took breakfast, then proceeded to inspect the temple proper in greater detail. we walked along the platform whose railings are the slender bodies of the naga: a many-headed hydra present in both buddhism and hinduism. at angkor’s doors were decorated lions, at guard.
rathana had a clearbook with him containing photos and illustrations, and he explained ancient construction techniques to us. at one point, there was a family of americans admiring the bas relief which told the story of the search for the elixir of immortality, and they provided several guesses about why the wall was adorned that way. that is why it seemed nearly solomonic to hire a guide because i am spared my silly theories and hypothesis, or worse, leaving behind questions and mysteries over things which had clear and definite answers. i walked through angkor wat armed with knowledge, and not with an ignorance which threatened to rise to the level of my awe.
angkor wat was put together by connecting stones cut into smooth blocks from a mountain a hundred kilometers away, following which an artist devoted his days to a wall, or a column, or a ceiling, chiseling fine details, like curlicues of flowers and leaves, women with round breasts and shapely hips who are called apsara, or sometimes, something as grand as an entire people’s history. you can tell which parts get touched most often by passing tourists and visitors. the walls with the intricate bas relief, for example, has been cordoned off, so that they may be admired by the eyes, rather than felt by hand.
inside, there is construction: wooden stairs are being built on the otherwise steep steps onto the highest tower, whose steps are small and high, to depict the long and difficult road to paradise. on the cobbled floor lie pieces of a puzzle, parts of the towers toppled by lightning. construction of angkor began in the 12th century and efforts to restore it are still ongoing. i began entertaining ideas about ancient art and inspiration, but while angkor wat is a visual feast where i could possible spend an entire day just studying the lines and curves etched by ancient chisels, but we still had others thing to see and feast on. i feared an overdose. before leaving angkor wat, rathana took us to see his “girl”, the only apsara, of the thousands carved around angkor wat’s inner and outer walls, who didn’t have a mona lisa smile.
we next moved to bayon temple, inside the fortified city of angkor thom, whose ancient walls, and its narrow carriageways adorned with graceful elephants still exist. the king who built this temple had changed religions, and the temple, which looks like a pile of stone jengas from afar, is carved with more than 200 giant faces of buddha, his eyes closed, and a mysterious smile curving his full lips. outside as well as inside are blocks of stone, some of them with numbers, pointing to further efforts to restore the ruined temple structure. despite that, however, the structure is still no less amazing, and although smaller in scale compared to angkor, it is far from being less ambitious.
bayon was built later than angkor, at the turn of the 13th century, and there is an apparent competition between later cambodian kings as they attempt to outdo each other in building these inspired monuments. bayon’s faces are intriguing, and its arrangement is a lot more confounding, perhaps becase some passageways have been made inaccessible by ongoing work or destruction wrecked centuries ago. inside bayon, some of the bas relief are missing. these phantom buddhas, replaced by the scars of random chisels and pointed objects inflicted by soldiers, artists and ordinary folk who believed in a different faith, still retain the shape of what may have been an intricate sculpture of the great man in a meditative pose.
i listened to rathana while he answered my questions, although at one point, i felt awful for another guide who brought along an italian tourist who may have been a historian, an archaeologist, or a couch potato who had seen the discovery channel’s feature on the ancient khmer kingdoms at least 10 times, because he amused himself with his own explanations on bayon temple’s purpose, design, and art while his guide listened helplessly and nodded. i don’t know how long rathana has been a guide, because i can imagine he must see the ruins as many as five times a week if he’s lucky (there is stiff competition among guides), but he does know what visitors look for, and many times made many suggestions on where we could take photos, even the campy kind that we mostly associate with japanese tourists. he insisted that we pose for a kiss with a god, and i very willingly agreed. he pointed out angles where we could see five faces at a given time. he pointed to places we may have not noticed unless we spent one whole day at bayon. so although i am an advocate of intrepid and independent travel, there are times as well that the insight of a local, or even that of a guide with his tired, if not, recycled ideas and routines, may be very helpful.
after bayon, we had lunch. rathana brought us to another special place, where the food was reasonably priced and very good. outside the resto was a 300-meter pond where ancient kings used to bathe and swim. i listened to rathana’s stories, and not once did i challenge or question him, since, after all, nothing sounded too incredulous. the experience of walking through these temples, of returning to an ancient time where great men were possessed with grand ideas and unparalleled devotion to an art as well as to religion, even the impossible seemed ordinary, and the astonishing, mundane.
we proceeded to ta prohm after lunch, by far the best meal we’ve had in cambodia since we arrived. the afternoon sun was beating down upon us with great might, and burned grass and leaves and twigs right before our eyes. the khmer sun was relentless, but we were too excited to give in to its heat.
ta prohm is surrounded by high walls a forest. we walked about 400 meters from the gate where locals hawking shirts and scarves and musical instruments making odd sounds. ongoing restoration efforts have been funded by the indian government, and i could have totally missed the temple if i didn’t look closer at the pile of rocks crumbling under the weight of huge trees. ta prohm was recently made famous by lara croft the movie, but i may have forgotten angelina jolie’s action flick because nothing quite prepared me for the visuals of blocks of stone, carved with intricate detail, taken apart by the gargantuan roots of old trees. at times, the roots are so large they may have actually been prostrate trunks. they run along the walls, and in many cases, the stones have cracked, or have completely fallen apart. this temple was built inside a forest, and when the khmer kingdoms abandoned angkor and transferred their capital city to phnom penh to escape the scourge of repeated attacks from the chams, the burmese, and the siamese, the forest took over ta prohm. and with the help of birds and wind, seeds found themselves on top of the temples, and some found places to grow and develop into proud, erect trees. it is possible to imagine that the jungle might be responsible for much of the state that ta prohm is in, but it is also possible to conclude that some of these trees might actually be responsible for keeping the ruins together – that is why they were left there, and a certain magical feeling is created: traces of an ambitious ancient temple, overrun by nature. angkor wat is spared this intrusion precisely because of the moat that surrounds it.
the trees inside ta prohm have taken a life of their own. one appears like a giant snake. another looks like a beam built at the edge of the wall. one tree broke through a ceiling, creating a row of broken stones the shape of a tidal wave, although rathana called it a waterfall. rathana also took us inside a hollow tower where he instructed us to beat our chest 8 times, for good luck. the tower multiplied the sound of our closed fists, it sounded like the beat of a base drum. and the ritual may have worked, because although this was our last temple, the remaining days we spent in siem reap were the most memorable i would ever have.
as we returned to the city, less than 5km away, i wondered whether there was space in my impressionable mind for all the memories of the day at the temples. little things stay, such as the toothy smile of a single apsara, the wall of demons and gods churning an ocean of milk, the thick-lipped buddha faces at bayon (of course, whether the faces are actually that of buddha, or some other god in buddhism, or the king that constructed them, is subject of debate and discussion), the spreading tentacles of giant trees, the blocks of stone that literally lay in ruin, the stories told in intricately carved walls, to bigger things, such as the ambitious architecture, the pompous dreams of ancient kings, the infinite possibilities that could be conjured by the human mind, the great human cost involved in chasing these fantasies, and the ultimate result of such delusions in this day and age. my mind was filled to bursting with images and ideas, and my gadgets were as well exhausted, although i had cards enough for 28GB of storage and data.
we rolled back to the city of siem reap, past huge buses carrying japanese tourists with their oddly dressed women: wide-brimmed hats shading a face covered by big, round sunglasses, and an odd-looking mask that resembled a puppet duck, and clothes that concealed every square inch of skin (not even the wrist is revealed, which makes them more covered than women wearing a burqa), as though they feared that the streets of angkor contained the dust of ancient civilization and a history of unknown diseases.
i would have given in to these reveries when suddenly, rathana snapped me from my daydream as we stopped by a sidewalk stall for snacks: beetles of every unimaginable kind, one resembling a cross between a cockroach and a spider, were on display. earlier, he asked whether we’d be interested to try insects, and i very casually said sure – i am rather adventurous with food, but seeing them there made me slightly regret my sense for adventure, and my big, talkative mouth. but i do not easily take back what i have already said, and so i accepted his offer, and ate two bugs: one of each kind. first, he snapped off the carapace that covered the wings, took off the ends of the serrated legs, and popped it in. i followed suit, put it in my mouth, and chewed. the taste itself isn’t so disgusting. it resembles fish: crunchy, and the flavor hinted of the sea. but as i chewed and chewed, i could feel insects caught between my teeth, and i realized: it’s revolting, i had to fight tears. i kept chewing until i had nothing in my mouth but masticated insect, but could not get myself to swallow. a girl on a scooter came to buy some of these insects, in much the same way that a girl back home would come to buy roasted peanuts: very ordinary, nothing exotic. i wanted to spit out the last remaining insect which didn’t transform into juice from my repeated chewing, but i had given my word. and rathana looked at me approvingly, and thanked me for being such a great sport: he’d taken many many tourists here, and i was the first to accept his challenge and actually try an insect without fainting, of backing out at the last minute. pride forced me to swallow the last gulp of mashed bug in my mouth, and the rest of our stay would be pure adventure.