We two elderly travellers, baby-baby boomers and recent retirees have been dreaming of Angkor Wat…and tomorrow our dream is about to miraculously transform into hundreds of thousands of tons of intricately carved, elaborately ornamented, beautifully decorated, spiritually profound reality.
But even our dreams couldn’t conjure the fantastically outrageous images we’d encounter; elaborately intense cosmic battles, Gods and Demons churning a sea of milk, dancing girls Ziegfeld would have wept for and a hypnotically seductive woman with two tongues, (one of those girls, evidently, that Mother warned you about).
We’ve settled in nicely to our rather lovely and ridiculously cheap hotel in the charming and well appointed town of Siem Reap. Our hotel has a pool, hot water, a colour TV, wifi and two bedside lamps straight from the set of Ben-Hur. Even as we gazed upon them night fell, quickly, with a thud, as it does in the tropics. We anointed our bodies with the sacred unguent (aeroguard – tropical strength) and braved the kamikaze mosquitoes outside.
The Night Markets of Siem Reap are overflowing with souvenirs of plastic animals, elephants, little tin soldiers, Cambodian beer t-shirts, monkeys, Buddhas in all their incarnations – ugly, pretty, meditating Buddhas, chubby, slim and levitating Buddhas, in every shape and size, sitting on Naga, overcoming Mara, incorporating karma, defying dharma, you name it, they’ve got it.
We notice young trainee hippies resplendent in their newly-bought-freshly laundered “hippy” pants and tops. Good to see the sacred torch being taken up by a new generation. We even met a charming young couple reading Kerouac for goodness sake !
To the enthrallingly appalling Pub Street where we had a few refreshing ales. If you so desire you can drink cold beer whilst specially trained fish nibble on your feet. There are bright lights and crocodile burgers, massages and fortune tellers. It’s about as far removed from a Buddhist spiritual experience as you can imagine.
Angelina had been here before us and named a cocktail. The spirits however, despite having the great virtue of cheapness, tasted mostly of old grandpa’s socks and the family bath tub as well as leaving a slightly metallic taste in the back of your throat. Hmm, but 5 pints and 3 Campari Sodas for about $12. Dangerous ! A Khmer band pumping out Black Magic Woman, their singer seemingly inspired by Little Eva doing the locomotion all over the stage.
The glorious day dawned and we rendezvoused with our guide, Mr Nok Kachhel and tuk tuk driver Mr Sam. On to the Wat ! Sam’s tuk tuk bumped and swayed us along the river, down this dusty road and that. We pulled in briefly at the tourist information bureau to pay our dues ($62 for 3 days worth of visits to be taken within a week).
We tuk-tucked down a long road filled with shockingly bad paintings, the sorts of air brushed and mass produced things that people used to sell door to door while pretending to be itinerant gypsy artists. Finally an impressive (though evidently very shallow) moat appeared and we skidded to a stop near the entrance.
Most paradoxically the first thing you encounter at this ancient site is an extraordinarily modern bridge over the moat built by the Japanese. It’s made entirely of blocks of a spongy sort of plastic and feels just like walking across a water bed, for several hundred metres. Then past an array of ancient libraries, lakes and small temples and finally onto a staggering , mind altering, consciousness raising collection of bas reliefs, statues, images and buildings, courtyards, the famous towering gopurams, monoliths and friezes.
The Wats of the massive Angkor complex represent both the Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies as each of these religions has profoundly influenced and held sway in this part of the world at different, and sometimes at overlapping times.
Some of the images lining the exterior of the Wat recreate the Ramayana and Mahabharata and really do seem to flow and rage right across the walls; strutting war elephants, glaring warriors, serene maidens
tens of thousands marching gaily to war in one panel…
and then gleefully injecting themselves into profoundly disturbing melees in the next, like a giant game of twister but with severed heads, so artfully depicted that you can smell the battle, hear the clashing shields and feel the splintering bones.
In other panels depicting more historically recent events the Khymer soldiers, (under their great King and the builder of Angkor Suryavarman II), glide blithely into battle with their long ear lobes swinging, never merely fighting, but slaughtering with exotic grace and delicate dance moves.
Needless to say the evil Cham (Vietnamese) or sometimes the Chinese, are never so lovely and quite clumsy as they inevitably lose the battle. Inevitably since the Khymer are protected not only by the Godliness of their cause but also by a mysterious sacred rope. According to our guide this rope’s magic continues to the present day.
Kachhel informed us that a number of people in the recent terrible convulsion had been undoubtedly protected by these magic ropes and that there were hundreds of instances of land mines not going off when the wearers of these ropes stepped on them. Maybe so. But from the number of amputees around the town we figured (a little cynically) that the magic rope must have been in short supply.
The panels are morally instructional and educational as well as historical. There are spine chilling images of sinners being carted off to Hell, led by hooked chains in their mouths and noses.
Evidently the Buddhists believe that not only bad people but also bad dogs, cats and other animals go to Hell. These bad dogs and cats, wolves, goats and tigers peck and tear and claw their fellow sufferers in eternal damnation.
One poor creature demonstrated the fate of shopkeepers who cheat their customers. It involves being nailed to something while having stupendous weights attached to ones legs. Best to keep that thumb off the scales eh?
The main temple gopurams are only accessible by an extremely vertiginous set of stairs, not for the faint hearted, the clickety hipped or the clumsy. Once above you meet more gorgeous writhing Apsaras, more incense covered shrines to Buddha, more glorious courtyards and are treated to an awe inspiring view of the surrounding countryside.
It’s while you’re aloft that you meet the beautiful two tongued woman. She is seduction itself and her siren song seems to set the stone around her pulsing.
Finally, reluctantly tearing yourself away and stepping past saffron monks you contemplate the giddy descent. Then, whilst holding your breath, clutching the slightly wobbly hand rail tightly and wishing you had a little of that magic rope you somehow manage the almost vertical stairs.
Angkor is the main temple, and is just 6 kms from Siem Reap, but there are several dozen other temples scattered over 200 kms. Incredibly, the several temples we saw over our 3 days were all very different and each was well worth a visit. But fellow baby boomers, if you are to go then go now for this trip is not for the halt or the lame. We are glad to have seen it and are grateful to the generous and warm hearted people of Cambodia.