Part I left off at Banteay Srei, a smaller-scaled temple within the Angkor site which was consecrated in 967 A.D. Here are a couple more photos — one of which shows the “quincunx” of the temple at the end of the stone walkway. The color of the red sandstone against the changing blue sky was a particularly memorable feature of this temple, as were the flourishes and faces carved into every surface.
Side note: Holy spiders, Batman! I mentioned this in the last post — more details in the photo below. Not only did we see a rather large arachnid at Banteay Srei, but we saw several even bigger ones at the next temple — Ta Phrom. We had just entered the site and I was admiring the tall trees when I noticed a black spot in the sky. We stopped, squinted, pondered and got out the zoom to see if what we thought we were looking at was indeed what we thought we were looking at. Yes! A ginormous spider suspended in her web between two trees — awe-inspiring not only for the distance she had spanned (how is that even possible?) but for being so clearly visible from +/- 40 feet below. If you look really, really closely you can see her long, spindly legs in the photo. I have not zoomed in too much so you can get an idea of her size in relation to the trees she’s connected to. And she was not the only one hanging around. I don’t mind spiders, but I don’t think we’ll be camping in Cambodia anytime soon.
Ta Prohm! What a remarkable place. This temple is one of the locations where Angelina Joile filmed Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and it does feel like Indiana Jones might emerge from the rubble at any moment. Ta Prohm has been overtaken by strangler figs and silk cotton trees, with roots draping over its stone walls like wax dripping from a candle. Portions of the site are still intact, but in some areas the walls and ceilings have given way to time, leaving piles of rock in disarray — waiting for someone with the time, money and resources to sort it all out.
We were here late in the day with hardly another soul around. There was palpable contrast between the emptiness and the grandeur of the site… I felt a sense of lost time, forgotten legacy, disbelief, neglect. How can history and structures of this magnitude not be more prominently featured on today’s map of preferred destinations? Maybe it’s a blessing that these sites are undisturbed — children of a poor country that not many people or nations care about.
We left Ta Prohm feeling like we had seen the Holy Grail of ancient temples, already planning to return for another longer stay so we could delve deeper into the whole region. We relaxed in the air conditioning of our hired car and headed back toward our hotel in Siem Reap. Along the roadside we were treated to some vignettes of daily life in rural Cambodia — families relaxing on the elevated ground level of their homes, laundry drying in the hot sun, a man fishing in the flood waters — the moment he cast his net into the murky water captured perfectly (by Mr. Producer), with a swath of electric green between the fisherman and the sky. In Cambodia, I felt like I was seeing the color green for the first time — as if every shade I had seen before was just an imitation.
We stopped at one more temple on the side of the road — small and deserted, we were the only two people there. Pre Rup was built in 961 or 962 A.D. — ancient, worn, weathered, enduring, lost, with flowers growing in the cistern. Incredible… to think the two of us could still walk up the steps and around the temple, appreciating the beauty and the views more than 1,000 years after its construction.
We passed a truck on the way to the hotel, with men and women perched in and around its bed… probably returning to Siem Reap after a long day’s work. They saw us passing slowly in our car, with our camera pointed out the window. A few women ducked and covered their faces, laughing and shielding themselves from the photo, while a few of them stared at me until I smiled at them… and then suddenly they smiled and waved back. What a fantastic photo captured in a fleeting moment as one car passed another — the patterns of their clothing, the smiles on their faces, the stories they could tell. These women are probably between 30 and 40 years of age. These women are probably survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime. These women have probably seen and been affected by years of genocide, famine and homelessness. And yet they smile and they have hope and they welcome me to their country.
The facts about the current state of Cambodia tell a complex story, both good and bad. After years of genocide in the 1970s, HALF the country is under 22 years of age. Tourism is a major source of income for the nation but only two million people visit annually — compare that to a country like France with over 75 million visitors each year. Yet Cambodia’s economy shows great signs of promise, growing over 7% every year since 2001 (not a claim many nations can make these days).
Regardless of the growth and the hopeful outlook, Cambodia will always hold a deep, rich Khmer history that was completely derailed, destroyed and oppressed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (for an incredulously detailed and informative history read: Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short). There is sad evidence of this everywhere, even in 2011 — from the people around town without limbs, without eyes, without families, to the three despots (Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea — all in their eighties now) who were put on trial just last month for their crimes against humanity (evacuating Phnom Penh and killing 1.7 million people while trying to create a highly productive communist society; Pol Pot, by the way, died peacefully in his sleep in 1998). The horrific saga of 20th century Cambodia still lingers, yet there are survivors who keep on living — like this group of men who gather together on a wooden platform in Siem Reap. Each of them handicapped in some way by the Khmer Rouge and/or its tactics, their prosthetic limbs are detached and set aside while they sit together in a collective effort to make music and move forward. What courage and hope these Cambodians have — hopefully the worst is over and a better future lies ahead, with Angkor leading the way.