LAST SUMMER IN CAMBODIA
By: Kiat-Sing Teo
Last summer, I visited the Kingdom of Cambodia for the second time. My first visit was two years ago, when my cousin Joyce and I chose Siem Reap for our extended family holiday. We had no trouble adjusting to the heat and monsoon weather, and were suitably blown away by the historical and architectural wonder of the Angkor Wat; the human marvel of a 12th century temple city attesting to the richness of the Cambodian culture. At more than 162 hectares, this is the largest religious monument known to the world. The Angkor Wat was designed to mirror a mandala, with the tallest temple at its heart – representing the peak of Mount Meru (the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology), standing more than 699 feet from the ground. It was accessible only by what appeared to be a sharp and steep ascend to us low and flatland folks. But, Joyce and I have some stubborness and adventure in our blood, so we bravely tackled the narrow steps of every ancient sandstone temple that was opened to visitors. Once on top, we perched precariously on the edges and waved to our older and doting kinsmen who indulged us by patiently waiting our descent with bottles of refreshing, cold water.
It was a memorable trip, a family bonding vacation; apart from Cambodian massages and spas (including the so-called Fish Spas whereby tiny Garra Rufa fishes feed off dead skin on feet submerged in a tank of water), we also took a cooking class that culminated with a rather romantic dinner in a somewhat shaky wooden pavilion over a shallow mangrove.
But that was the Cambodian trip that I remembered to be steeped in tourist curiosity; the enthusiasm to see, taste, experience and to have a photo taken with everything vaguely interesting. Together with being amid the atmosphere of familial banter, jokes and gossips, there was precious leisure for introspection.
This second trip was different, however, partly because my other half was the sole companion; we were sneaking a quick getaway. Although two years had lapsed since my last visit, I could still recognize the dusty, unpaved roads as our tuk-tuk crossed the Old Market Bridge. ‘Watch out for no traffic lights,’ I cautioned, as we passed the modern day temple of Wat Pream Prom Rath, with its colorful pagodas and gleaming tiles. On neither of my Cambodian visits had I seen a single traffic light or traffic officer. Instead, all road users seemed to spontaneously coordinate in this incredible dance of advanced ‘viewpoints’.
We arrived at Boutique Indochine d’Angkor, which was really a nugget of heaven away from the grimy streets. Our ground level room was spacious, airy and opened directly to a small but sufficient pool and bubbling jacuzzi, surrounded by palms, birds-of-paradise and other tropical foliage. There was even a swim-up bar with french fries and $4.90 cocktails from 4pm. Sopha, the young hotel director greeted us with pewter cups of refreshing lemongrass tea, and vivaciously inquired if my name was spelled correctly in the palm leaf welcome laid out on the bed. The next morning while lounging on the rooftop, our bellboy-cum-houseman-cum-bartender who was also our waiter, sent a wicker basket down three floors on a pulley contraption for ice and fresh squeezed orange juice.
Perhaps it was my rose-tinted Kate Spade sunnies, but on this occasion, I noticed a different shade of Cambodia; its people exuded naturalness in their earnest and easy-going. It struck me that they had been here for generations, and Cambodia is a heritage before it is an attraction.
We made arrangements for an English-speaking guide and a tuk-tuk ride to the Angkor Wat, and left at 4:30am to catch the sunrise. Before daybreak, a crowd had gathered by the antecedent lotus pond, where the best view was to be. When the imposing silhouette of the gray temples rose up against the dawn, its magnificence was as awe-inspiring as it was an ironic echo of its former glory. Deserted and forgotten between the 15th to 19th centuries, the megacity now lay in (albeit, preserved) ruins. Besides wear and tear, there were also bullet marks on some walls, courtesy of relatively recent warfare. At its greatest, the Angkor area was rumored to have supported a population of one million.
Our guide, Heng, is a jovial and cheerful man. He tirelessly kept up with our examination of the site, knowledgeably answered or tolerated our sometimes ignorant questions (do Apsaras really exist?). After several hours, worn out at last, we allowed Heng to take us to a little air-conditioned restaurant. There, we regaled him with Angkor beer – light and locally fermented, and pressed him to convince Nam, our shy and modest tuk-tuk driver, to join in, too. Over jasmine rice, stir-fried morning glory and fish amok (slightly sweet Cambodian curry), Heng shared his story with us; at 17, he was one of 34 able-bodied men from his village forced to serve one of the fractions in the violent internal strife going on in Cambodia. The men were made to comb a merciless landmine-ridden stretch that left only 5 survivors. At this point, Heng retrieved a handful of tiny Buddha status and amulets from the breast pocket of his tour guide’s vest. Presenting them to us, he said that these were the very talismans that had kept him alive. Then he clasped his palms in a gesture of reverence, and returned the little clay and brass figurines to their hiding place. In 1997, after being released from his bondage, Heng took ordination as a Buddhist monk and observed for four years, in atonement for the brutalities he had witnessed. A heavy story, not uncommon among the Cambodians, who are still dusting away the ashes of war.
It was dark when Nam dropped us off at the hotel. We tiptoed past our waiter from breakfast, sleeping on the lobby settee, no doubt on night duty. It was not quiet. The cricket chorus was in full swing, with a bullfrog or two taking the solos. This time, Cambodia made me reflective about the ever-changing landscape and fragility of human life.For guide and tuk tuk services in Siem Reap, Cambodia, contact: (Guide) Heng Bunleap, phone: +855 12 52 99 05 or email: email@example.com (Tuk-tuk) Nam Hort Him, phone: +855 092 12 16 53 Visit Boutique Indochine d’Angkor at www.boutiqueindochine.com Writer/actor Kiat-Sing blogs at www.kiatsing.com. Follow her on Instagram @singsingsingsing