Angkor Wat was a something from the history books. Something near, but was quite impossible for me to grasp. Until this moment, I still put on a smile every time I remember Angkor Wat. The National Geographic images and texts did not bring justice to what I felt when I stood there, a mere dust in the constellation of things. As I was walking towards the Angkor Wat temple, despite the many people walking with me, I can hear the eerie silence, the sacred silence of centuries. One day was not enough. I can walk around it every day, if only to find my inner peace.
Our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia was reduced to one day because Cebu Pacific rescheduled our Aug. 8 departure date to Aug. 10. We were supposed to spend 3 days in the small historic town north of the Cambodian capital but ended up just spending 24 hours in the city. It was what I called a whirlwind love affair. Kifi, my contact person with the hostel we are staying, Pan Pan Saga Villa Hotel, offered me a $58 per person day tour and I accepted it. It was kinda expensive when converted to peso and I think we could have gotten a similar tour for a lower price but time is against me, and, honestly, we were satisfied with the tour package.
It was a Friday and our day started early. We were woken up by the sound of the prayer call in the Muslim community where our guesthouse was located. Because we arrived at night, it was pitch dark at the guesthouse but we knew our room was nearest to the road. There was no security guard, no gate, no lamp post. Mike, the all-around guy, warned us of mosquitos though. We asked Mike for our free breakfast, which turned out to be a simple toast with fried egg and a cup of probably one of the best coffee I have ever tasted (and my family agrees). But that breakfast was not enough though, so we ventured out before our driver/tour guide, Kim, arrives at 8AM.
After we have ordered another cup of coffee and take-out from a restaurant called Temple (appropriately) and a num pang (similar to banh mi) from a street vendor, we headed back to our guesthouse where Kim was already waiting, freshly groomed and his Lexus spanking clean. We dropped by somewhere in town to get water, which, we later found was unlimited supply of ice cold bottled water to keep us hydrated the whole day. About 30 minutes navigating the town, the town’s main road, and further small roads, we arrived at the ticket center. And it was full of people lining up. Surprisingly, we were able to get our one-day tickets in less than 5 minutes. The service was fast and I was impressed.
Now, the real tour begins. The Angkor archaeological park is a huge park and covers many temples. Our first stop was of course the Angkor Wat. It is the world’s largest religious monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is also a part of an intriguing civilization, the cause of its fall still debated. When we talk about great empires, we always think of the Egyptian empire, the Greek empire, the Roman Empire, Gengis Khan. Angkor was a great empire that, according to many, could rival the greatness of the Egyptian empire. But many of Angkor’s temples have been buried, looted and destroyed especially during the Khmer Rouge era, and no written word has survived to tell the tales.
The wat is visited by millions each year. And it was a humbling experience. Not only because of its sheer size — the walk from the car across the moat to the first set of wall is about 300 meters and the walk from the first set of walls to the second set of walls is another 150 meters — but also because it made me realize that I am but one in a million in the world.
I lost my companions. It was easy to get lost in that huge edifice. Most of the tourists and the pilgrims immediately went to the center of the wat to go up to the highest point of the temple. There was an hour wait to get to the top. I followed a group of Cambodian teenagers who were giddily showing off their tumbling expertise at the grass. These boys may have been born after the war and I was wondering if their parents are laughing as much as they were when they were their age. I don’t have the answer to my question so I walked away and followed the hallway behind the walls facing the center of the temple. I heard many languages. Could this be the Tower of Babel?
As I nearly covered all the corners of Angkor Wat, I chanced upon another empty garden (the right side). Laughter of women were echoing. When I probed around, I saw three elderly Cambodian women sitting on top of the stairs. They were talking about something and were laughing. They were old. They must have been born before the war. I have the answer to my question.
It was nearing 11 AM and that was the time we agreed to meet at the parking lot. So I walked back slowly. At the Angkor Wat, I learned that, there will always be war, things will not always be on your side. . . but you have to find your inner peace. That is the only way you can still laugh (and live).
Stone, Richard, July 2009, Angkor: Why An Ancient Civilization Collapsed, National Geographic Magazine.