(WRITER'S NOTE: This series of blog posts is about a trip I took to Cambodia to report on a story for the San Angelo Standard-Times that took place between Sept. 27 - Oct. 17, 2011.)
Friday, Sept. 30, 2011: Okay, so everyone knows that the worst thing about traveling are the tourists, right? You know, that giant roving hoard of matching t-shirts, fanny-pack carrying, souvenir-seeking loudmouths that gets in the way of you actually having a moving experience. Having to dodge sticky-faced children running a muck as oblivious parents go in search of that perfect shot glass to add to an already expansive collection can really distract from the beauty or historical significance of a place. It was a struggle today to overcome the oppressive heat and the throng of people, but the majesty of Cambodia's ancient temples trumps anything Mother Nature or Vietnamese tour groups could muster.
At 6:00 a.m. Toro, myself and our two traveling companions headed out to take a tour of some of Cambodia's Angkor-region temples. If you are a citizen of Cambodia of Khmer descent, you can get into these national treasures without paying a fee. I, on the other hand, had to buy a day pass, which I was happy to do since the fees go to reconstruction of the temples that were damaged due to years of war and neglect. The really great thing is that its not just a day pass to one temple, but all the temples near Siem Reap.
After getting my pass, we headed over to the main attraction to almost every tourist in the county: Angkor Wat, the mother of ancient temples. This place has always held a kind of mystical allure in my heart, though I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would ever get to see it in person. I mean, let's be honest, who ever thinks of Cambodia as a tourist destination?
Just as I suspected, as we pulled up to the temple gates, the tourists were out in force. I can't blame them for getting here early due to the fact that it was going to be especially hot and muggy today. We parked the car, shuffled our way through street vendors trying to sell hats and packs of postcards and made our way across a long, stone bridge over the moat that surrounds the temple complex. As we are crossing over the bridge, I am trying to run several things through my mind along the lines of which lenses I should have on my cameras, should I be shooting video or stills, trying to determine if this moment is even important enough to document and trying to soak up as much as I can for my own experience of being in a new place. The incredible size of this place is enough to want to see it in person, but the true glory of Angkor Wat is all in the details. Sure, there are the massive stone structures and the incredible bas-relief carvings on the inner temple walls, but if you really look close at even the most insignificant pillar or out of view wall, you will find some of the most ornate stone carving you have ever seen. This place is beautiful.
As we make our way through the compound to the inner temple, the smell of wet grass and burning incense wafts through the air. Placed sporadically through the temple there are large statues of the Buddha where people can stop and pray. We made it into the inner temple complex where a handrail had been constructed for those that wished to brave the steep stairs to the upper shrine. What is it with the ancient civilizations and near perpendicular staircases? Have you ever been to Chitzen Iza, that Mayan complex in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula? The staircase of the central temple... steep as all get out!
Before making the climb to the top, Toro removed his shoes out of respect. Almost all Cambodians will remove their shoes before entering any temple. As we made our way up, the din of the amassing crowd below seemed to slowly fade away to the sound of a cool breeze blowing through the hallways of the upper shrine. The view from the top is amazing. The center shrine is four-sided with images of the Buddha. Toro paused for a moment to say a prayer. I'm not a Buddhist, but I paused for a moment out of respect for the people who believe this to be a holy place. There is a certain feeling of reverence you get when visiting the holy places of this earth, even if you don't subscribe to the specific belief of that area. We lingered there at the upper shrine for a time before climbing back down among the tourist groups with their specially marked "follow me" flags and bull-horns. Bull horns! Really?
Reluctantly, we left Angkor Wat to head back to the hotel for some rest and lunch. We were supposed to begin packing up to head into Sisophon about an hour away and then on to Phnom Penh. But that plan had changed and we would not be going that afternoon as expected. Phnom Penh is a six-hour drive and the passport office Toro needed to get to was going to be closed before we got there. And, with it being Friday, the office was not going to open again until Monday. So instead of heading to Sisophon where Toro's mom's house was, we decided to head back out and see a few more temples until it was time to leave.
We headed back out and entered the ancient temple city of Angkor Thom, built by one of Cambodia's great kings, Jayavarman VII. The first temple we came up on was Bayon which features 216 faces carved out of stone. Other than Angkor Wat, this was probably my favorite of all the temples we walked through. Wonderful stone carvings up and down stairs and the carved faces with their wry smiles looking out over the temple complex. We also stopped for a moment at Baphuon to see a few more stone carvings and toured the grounds of Ta Prohm, a temple complex that is being torn apart slowly by the encroaching jungle.
After five more hours of Cambodian history and six more pounds lost in sweat, we headed back to the hotel to pack up and head to Sisophon where we would stay the night at Toro's mom's house. I was so tired from the day's activities I almost immediately fell asleep in the back seat of the car. Two hours later under the cover of darkness, we pulled into Sisophon and the driveway of the house. The reception Toro received was warm and heartfelt. A small Cambodian woman, probably no more than five-feet tall, came running out of the house, grabbed Toro by the hand and pulled him inside to meet the rest of the family. The woman was 82-year-old family friend Me La, who lost her husband during the war. I tried chasing them into the house, but for being 82-years-old, she was pretty spry. I found them sitting on the floor now joined by his aunt, Me Lo, examining his hands and curly hair. a few tears even flowed. This was the first time Toro had seen these people since immigrating to the US in 1992. It was a nice moment as family and friends reunited.
Toro's mother, Lor, had a meal ready for us when we arrived of rice, fish, soup and vegetables. They invited me in without hesitation and offered me a spot on the floor with the rest of the family to eat. Sitting on the floor was something I was not expecting. In most Cambodian homes there is no furniture. Everything is done on the floor from preparing food, to eating meals, socializing with family and guests to sleeping. If you do have furniture, its a luxury. We all talked late into the night. The group asked about my family, my "village" and my wife. After that we claimed a spot on the floor to go to bed. What a great ending to a long day.