Stacked-rock cairns at Angkor Wat (all photos by Tsuyoshi Sahara)
by Meghan Hahn
In August Meghan ventured to Cambodia overland, along with Tsuyoshi Sahara, crossing the border from Thailand. The following is a photo journal of a few segments of the trip.
Tsuyoshi had attempted the infamous border crossing from Bangkok to Cambodia years before the new road had been paved. At that time, pick-up trucks were the de rigueur mode of transportation. Ten years, however, was apparently sufficient enough time for Beyoncé to supply us with an upgrade: we would be traveling in stylish (and air-conditioned) mini-vans on a newly paved road all the way to Siem Reap, the Cambodian city guarding the ancient archaeological site of Angkor.
My expectations before coming to Cambodia were centered on its monuments, Angkor Wat chief among them. I envisioned myself lost amidst the ruins, hacking at vines and negotiating acrobatic leaps across jagged crevices, the embodiment of a Lara Croft or an Indiana Jones. Discord then suddenly swoops down upon these daydreams in the form of our new tuk-tuk driver: Batman.
Holy Cambodia, Batman! Driver Kosal Reng
“If you’re happy, I’m happy,” so reads Mr. Kosal Reng’s homemade business card, which he passes to us in delight. The card advertises his services as the Batman driver of Siem Reap. Kosal is dressed in black jeans and a grey cotton t-shirt. His thick black glasses serve as his superhero mask, a strange incarnation of the Dark Knight. The familiar bat signal is emblazoned across the dark black interior seating of Kosal’s tuk-tuk as well as his motorcycle helmet in bright golden paint. Kosal will be driving us around in his Batmobile. We are in competent hands.
Beng Mealea Brothers
Before embarking on this trip, Tsuyoshi and I had discussed what places were must-sees on our itinerary; Beng Mealea was among them. Reading various travel guides, we came across several farther-afield excursion ideas. While not only being billed as an “Indiana Jones-like” travel experience, Beng Mealea also lays claim to being the partial inspiration for Miyazaki Hayao’s first official Studio Ghibli animation, ‘Laputa.” Both having grown up with fantasies of traveling the world over, a stop at this monument was an easy sell for us both.
A 70 km ride of highway lies between the city of Siem Reap and our ultimate destination. Along this road we encounter the housing of everyday Cambodian people. Many young children wave and greet us from the roadside, while their dogs lazily sleep by their sides. One shot, in particular, is still emblazoned in my mind. What I presume to be three siblings are traveling together. The sisters are operating the moped up front, while they pull their brother seated on his maroon bicycle with a Khmer cloth scarf.
Sibling gadgetry on the road to Beng Mealea
Built in the identical style as that of Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea, smaller in structure, is argued to have been the blueprint for Cambodia’s most famous site. Absent here are the hordes of tourists seen at Angkor Wat and replaced instead with a quiet, untouched setting where roots of giant trees grow from the remnants of the once magnificent Khmer outpost. The temple has been almost completely swallowed by the enveloping wildlife of the surrounding jungle. Time and Mother Nature have been less kind to this site than to its younger and much more famous relation, but it’s precisely this wild and untamed quality that give Beng Mealea its charm. Immediately after we arrive at the site, I begin to soak in the surrounding atmosphere, primed for exploration.
A naga serpent guards Beng Mealea, Angkor Temples’ best kept secret.
Beng Mealea is Khmer for ‘Lotus pond,’ which I learn from my new Cambodian guide, Pirit. Pirit is 13 years old and has the swagger and confidence of someone in his mid to late twenties. My companion has been swept away by Chaka, Pirit’s partner in crime, so I am now left alone to make my own discoveries. I ask Pirit whether he and Chaka attend school. He explains that they go to classes in the mornings and then spend their afternoons here, practicing the phrases they have picked up in different languages on the tourists.
Pirit coaxes me through the rubble of Beng Mealea.
I longed to freely traipse and climb among the ruins, and this was my chance to do so with reckless abandon. Pirit points the way as I negotiate the piled mounds of mossy rocks and combat the jungle vines. Leading me on a whirlwind tour of the temple, Pirit allows me to experience the thrill of possible danger as he takes me on a “shortcut” atop the temple’s roof. Leather sandals are not the safest of footwear for the mossy carpeting below my feat. Relying on the reconnoitering skills of my guide, I trek on and manage to keep my balance, making it back to the temple’s entrance in one piece.
Chaka negotiates the remains of a Beng Mealea rooftop
Faces of Angkor Wat
The drive to the most renowned monuments of Angkor are about 5km from the city of Siem Reap, and we are enjoying the bumps and flashes of colorful bicycles and motorcycles as we zip along the highway. We turn off towards the entrance to the park and ride down the path under a roof of tall trees. Gradually to our right, the grand outline of Angkor Wat begins to make its appearance. The moat surrounding the structure is massive, much larger than the small pool I had created in my imagination.
A lion statue safeguards Angkor Wat from across an expansive moat.
Advancing towards the main entrance, we are met with our first glance of the many naga statues which line the structure. The multiple snake-like heads of the naga stare back at us with ferocity. We take our pictures and respectfully move on. In addition to the naga, the structure is dotted with the dancing figures of the female apsaras and the strong, yet good-natured greetings of the devata. I stop to photograph and examine some of the devata in more particular detail. Something about these faces chiseled in stone is striking. Their enigmatic smiles are somehow familiar. At that moment, a flicker of electric blue streaks past and a young Cambodian boy darts in out of the interior colonnades, collecting the abandoned plastic bottles of the tourists from the trash cans. The many children who have camped out around the world heritage site have learned quickly the art of survival and now form a symbiotic relationship with the tourist complex. Their faces speak volumes and quickly become the new subjects for the camera.
A Cambodian boy collects abandoned plastic water bottles at Angkor Wat
Architecturally, Angkor Wat crowns the achievements of the Khmer empire. A walk through the temple quickly confirms that there is indeed no boundary to human creativity and imagination. But with the capacity to imagine rich interiors and roaming hallways, there also lurks within the corridors of the mind a latent creativity for cruelty, a cruelty famously unleashed upon the land of Cambodia in the form of gruesomely imagined torture and extended political upheaval. And yet despite this history, everywhere I look are the constant smiling faces of the Cambodian people. While the exalted site of Angkor Wat might have drawn me to travel to this country, it is ultimately the faces of the people that remain fixed in my mind. I take a last look before leaving Angkor Wat and observe that the enigmatic smiles carved in stone mirror those of the modern day Cambodians. An unmatched smile unbroken throughout history and so much grief; it is a lesson in resilience.
A Cambodian boy pauses for a photograph at Angkor.
Beyond the Bayon
Returning to the Batmobile, we move on towards the Buddhist shrine of Bayon. Bayon sits at the very center of what was the ancient capital city of Angkor Thom. The only monument in the Angkor complex dedicated solely to the Buddha, the site is now maintained and well cared for by the Japanese Government team for the Safeguarding of Angkor (JSA).
Smiling statues of Bayon
Bayon’s most striking feature is the many colossal heads that crown its towers. With a strikingly similar countenance to that of the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the busts undoubtedly were modeled after the face of the man at the head of the public works program responsible for the temple’s construction. After meeting face to face with the temple’s guardians, I walk alone around the structure and admire the bas-reliefs lining its outer walls. Depicting scenes of daily Angkorian life, my mind wanders as I imagine myself an ancient Khmer come for food in the city marketplace. Amidst my solitary reveries, groups of children scuttle across the complex, creating photo opportunities for the tourists in their wake. As they animate the rubble of the past with their exuberance, their giggles are absorbed as whispers by the giant ears of the inscrutable stone faces that surround us.
A Cambodian boy darts through the colonnades of Bayon.
Late afternoon approaches and we leave Bayon behind for a perch from which to view the impending sunset. We journey up a sizable hill to its top towards the temple of Phnom Bakheng, passing a line of lumbering elephants costumed as tourist chariots. Cradled among the craggy rocks, we wait while the small group of sightseers begins to multiply. Many of the tourists hail from Japan and France. I recall the thrill of being able to understand some of the Japanese girls’ conversation at my back, a small linguistic triumph. My bones begin to absorb the hardness of the rock below me, as we begin our long, slow descent into the pale glow of sunset. Finally, the sun approaches her final arc towards the horizon before being swallowed by the line of the earth.
Carefully we climb down the steep face of the temple wall and then snake our path down the dirt trail towards the bottom of the hill. We touch down, slightly lighter, a part of us spirited away on the back of the sun.
Descending Phnom Bakheng