Just One More Temple, Papa
By Carol L. Bowman
Our English-speaking guide, 28-year-old Hang Hak, first name, last in Cambodian language, bowed reverently in Buddhist tradition to his elders, my husband, Ernie, and me. Along with our tuk-tuk driver, Yang Chan, we set off on our private, two-day exploration of ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples that dot the landscape of Siem Reap, Cambodia. For decades the primeval site of Angkor Wat, the seventh Wonder of the World, had been on our bucket list. Excitement spilled from our open-air, fringed-roof cart, hitched to the back of Chan’s motorbike.
Four kilometers from city center, we made the required stop at the Angkor Conservation area, the only venue to offer valid, government-issued tickets for the Angkor Wat Archaeological Zone, which covers 400 sq. kilometers and 1,000 temples. Local scam travel agencies sell reduced-price vouchers, but officials confiscate these illicit tickets at the first entrance point. Tourists filled the legitimate reception hall to obtain non-transferrable entry permits, with webcam I.D. photos attached. The $37* one-day pass limits exploration, but a $62 three-day pass, valid for one week, or the economical $72 seven-day pass, valid for one month, help one avoid “temple fatigue.” Our weary bones and overloaded brains would soon understand that term, as time constraints required us to climb temples for two consecutive days.
Regular I.D. scrutiny to enter every temple made these flimsy paper stubs our most valuable possessions. They needed protection from the humidity and sweat dripping from our faces, and a convenient enough place to produce them at every turn. I tucked them into a small compartment of my day pack. Hak cautioned, “You don’t want to know what happens if you lose your ticket.”
To ease gushes of anticipation, we shared snippets of our lives en route to Angkor Wat. I explained that I teach English to Mexican adults, and Hak bowed even lower with palms together than he had before. Buddhist tradition provides five levels of bowing, and the gesture when meeting a teacher ranks second behind bowing to Buddha. I felt honored by his respect.
His mother, 66, and his father, 69, live hours from Siem Reap, and still work their small rice field in rural Cambodia. Hak looked off in the distance, as if reliving the joy of visits to them in between his tour guide duties. When he learned that his father and my husband were the same age, a broad, comforted smile spread across his gentle, olive-skinned face. “Well, you could be my Papa for two days,” he beamed, “and I’ll have a Mama teacher. I will be so happy.”
From that moment on, Hak called Ernie, Papa. It rang with sweet tenderness, and I smiled every time the reference spilled from his lips. I watched as son and father walked side by side, Hak revealing his wealth of knowledge and Ernie soaking up the history. I felt endeared to this young man, so eager to please, so protective, so excited to share ancient secrets of his country.
Hak and his adopted parents alighted from the tuk-tuk and followed the throngs on the dirt road parallel to the wide moat that protected the ancient religious site from early invaders. A single-file orange string of *Buddhist monks, wrapped in their swaddling bright saffron meditation cloths, with shaved heads and flip-flops, sprinted by on their pilgrimage to the temple.
Then I saw it. The reflection of five carved lotus-flower towers in the clear moat waters caught me unprepared. This colossal structure, that had only been a photograph, a dream for decades, stood ready to astound. Wonderment and awe stirred within me.
As we maneuvered the 350-meter processional walkway, Hak explained that most tourists mistakenly believe that Angkor Wat only refers to this massive three-tiered pyramid crowned by lotus bud-like towers, whose image appears on the Cambodian flag. “Actually,” he said, “Angkor Wat, means City of Temples and encompasses hundreds of structures. The main temple within that collection, the one that adventurers worldwide seek, was named Angkor Wat Temple.” The Cambodian constitution prohibits construction of any building taller than the highest 65-meter tower of this 900-year-old architectural masterpiece.
Originally built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in 1150 as a Hindu temple, it was converted to a Buddhist site at the end of the 12th century. Considered the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat Temple was never abandoned as a religious center. In 1898, France reclaimed the buildings from the invasive jungle and in 1992 Angkor Wat City received recognition as an UNESCO Heritage Site. Over five million visitors invade the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park every year.
As we entered the sacred grounds, Hak advised that we should stay on marked paths. “Most of the landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime between 1975 and 1979 have been removed,” he said, “but you never know.” We had seen many Cambodians missing arms or legs on our stroll through Siem Reap center the night before and these images flashed through my mind. These reverent, respectful, and gentle people have been victims of such atrocities. I cringed at the thought of US bombings of this country from 1969 to 1973.
We struggled for nimble legs, as the task of temple exploration began. We moved cautiously through uneven passageways, on which intricate carvings depicting ancestral daily life had been etched into the stone. Fighting warriors, kings riding elephants, multi-headed dancing nymphs called asparas, carvings of the female celestial being, DeVata, and the seven-headed, fan-like cobra, Naga, which protected Buddha from the rains, made for fascinating viewing. Every inch of this massive temple had been carved in bas-relief and Hak explained each scene in excruciating detail. I felt brain overload already.
The narrow, steep, slippery, loose, uneven stones, of the temple’s ceremonial stairs to the second and third levels waited to be scaled. I had to dig deep for balance, courage and focus on each step. The scary ascent didn’t compare to the terrifying descent. Several staircases around the temple’s base had been closed off due to accidents. I prayed to Buddha all the way down.
Other temples beckoned. Chan drove us to adjoining Angkor Thom, the 105 sq. kilometer, 12th century capital city of the Khmer Empire. Bayon Temple, a massive structure of 54 stone towers emerged through the jungle. Mysterious, three meter faces carved into the four sides of each tower gave the eerie sensation of 216 pairs of eyes watching me at every turn. I had never even heard of Bayon and yet this mystifying architectural style appeared more magnificent than Angkor Wat Temple. It seemed a betrayal to even think this. This structure dedicated to Khmer’s most prolific builder, Jayavarman VII, presented more climbing challenges to the central, circular third level tower. And so it went, temple after temple. With 1,000 structures, exploration never ends.
The oppressive humidity and late afternoon heat zapped our earlier excitement. Although each temple had its own individual significance, our brains could no longer decipher the differences. Who could remember the complicated names of these kings and by now who cared? We suffered a severe case of “temple fatigue.” We dragged along, legs screaming, and clothes wringing wet. Ernie approached Hak and pleaded, “Hak, we’ve had enough for one day.”
Our “boy” looked dismayed, like he would be deprived of his greatest revelation. “Just one more temple, Papa; just one more and I promise, Papa, you will thank me for it,” Hak put his arm around Ernie’s shoulders to soften his request.
“Okay, one more,” relented Ernie, “but it had better be incredible.” Hak beamed.
Chan dropped us off at the entrance to Ta Prohm. The long walk deep into the jungle magically transformed cranky elders into eager children. The late afternoon shadows and the thick tangled forest lowered the temperature to bearable. Tourists not needing to cram 100 temples into two days were back at their hotels, relaxing by the pool. Sharing the space with only a few others, we cherished the sound of the jungle, birds and monkeys chattering, rather than the shouts and squeals from busloads of tourists. Ta Prohm unveiled itself as the best yet.
Intentionally left to the jungle, no reclaiming or restoring of this temple, we walked into an Indiana Jones movie set, with the roots of century-old banyan trees and silk cottonwoods encompassing entire structures. Entering the site through a narrow slit in the roots, we observed a 100-foot tree that secured the stones of the temple wall with its constricting tentacles.
Hak couldn’t wait to reveal his surprise. “Scenes from the movie, Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, were shot right here,” he said with pride that his country’s treasures backdropped an American film. I could see the action, through the truth of the jungle and actual ancient ruins. The entire site, stone blocks tumbling, buildings crumbling, leaning, deteriorating, all held in suspension by virtual miles of thick roots. The jungle trees encased every structure, every passageway, every corner and crevice of this Buddhist temple built for the mother of Jayavarma VII. Nature preserved this site with natural strength. I loved every inch of Ta Prohm, more than Bayon, more than Angkor Wat.
Hak wanted to end our first day of temple exploration at this awesome site. The next morning we would do it all over again and hear the same refrain, “Just one more temple, Papa.”
*Due to the high volume of foreign tourists to this area, all prices in Siem Reap are quoted and paid in US$.
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