I have to go back to Angkor Wat, both in my mind and in person. I’m sorry Ashwin (the boy who had to poop in the grass at a world heritage sight) but next time I’m going back without children. Maybe you will be all grown up by the time I return and you can come with me again – I would love that. I’ll go at sunrise when its quiet, I’ll climb to the top level where I can see the view and the altars that are still in use by monks – and I will think and draw and have peace of mind. Angkor Wat is huge and even when there are a lot of people, it doesn’t feel crowded. Even at the top level, which is fairly small, it doesn’t feel like there are very many people – but not everyone wants to climb the steep steps and children are not allowed. I have realized when I go to these holy places, no matter the religion, I am looking for my own inner peace and some kind of experience that is larger than myself. I am not a religious person, I don’t practice any particular religion, but I do feel the need for a rich inner life. I look at these pictures and sometimes I can’t believe I have seen these things.
That being said, I will certainly never be a Jain. I am currently waging war on the ants in the cloud house and the black larvae on the terrace! The larvae have come out of the compost and they move remarkably fast to the dark corners of the terrace to protect themselves from the sun. I can’t leave anything outside our door, not a door mat or flip flops or broom. They will congregate underneath. There are many things that I love about India, but the bugs are not one of them and when I’m having a difficult day they drive me crazy! Ashwin is still having major tantrums about going to school in the morning and I’m afraid it’s the bugs who suffer. I haven’t gained the tolerance of those who live in the tropics.
One of the nicest experiences I had in Cambodia was at Ta Prohm, the jungle temple, partially unrestored and overgrown with massive fig and silk cotton trees. The trees grow up out of the stone and wrap themselves around the huge blocks so tightly they move them. At this temple, trees are not cut unless they are in danger of falling down. One tree growing straight up over the entrance has a scar in the middle of the trunk that looks like an eye, watching you enter. While walking through the temple there are many small spaces where people have set up altars with offerings. One in particular had a shiny gold tree and all kinds of containers to hold incense, one of which was a Pringles can. It was being attended by a small old woman with a hunched back who tied a braided string around each of our wrists and chanted a prayer. She struck me more than any of the others, because she seemed so happy and she never asked for money. I felt like we made a connection. Upon our return I was looking through my pictures and found that she wasn’t really very old at all. As a matter of fact, I rarely saw anyone old in Cambodia. This is just one more reminder of the Khmer Rouge – it is inescapable when traveling in Siem Reap. There are still signs warning against walking in the jungle due to land mines. Many who have been injured by land mines are now musicians playing traditional music at the Wats or the Night Market. Their injuries are such that they are no longer able to do other jobs. Our guide, Rathanak told us that land mines were only cleared after the death of Pol Pot in 1999 and they still hear them going off occasionally. It baffles me to think of such violence happening in such a gentle place.
So we are back in India, ready to begin work and school – or are we? Ashwin is still recovering from a nasty virus and not ready for school yet and I still haven’t found out what I will be doing at Azim Premji University. Venkatesh went to work today, the science department is having a meeting, so I am on my own for a while. What’s on the agenda? Let me see……laundry, shopping for a few more basics for the cloud house, attending to Ashwin? Hmmm, not so exciting, but even shopping locally and taking an auto can be challenging and interesting.
I am thinking about our trip to Cambodia quite a bit. It is all hard to process while you are traveling with children, and feeling hot and tired. As I listen to the horns honking on the street I am reminded that no one honks in Siem Reap. On our drive from the airport to the hotel, our van never topped 30 miles per hour. There isn’t much traffic but everyone drives slowly and if anyone gets in the way – they wait. I saw no sign of aggravation on the face of any tuk-tuk driver. Everyone we met in Cambodia was polite and gracious. Even the hawkers were polite when I said ‘no thank you’.
Cambodian Tuk Tuk
It’s funny when you travel – and the sites that loom large in your mind turn out to be a disappointment, and the unexpected become the truly great experiences. For decades I have wanted to see the giant Buddha faces at Angkor Wat. Actually they are on the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, and I may have known this when I studied Asian Art as an undergrad but I had forgotten. Well I guess everyone wants to see this iconic site because it was a complete zoo. Yes it is incredibly beautiful and the faces are sublime, but who can enjoy it? Bus loads of tourists are crawling all over it, posing for pictures in front of the ‘most important’ icon according to the tour guides. There is no way to be left on your own to explore and discover. Sometimes as a tourist it is hard to avoid the tourist experience and see something in a genuine way. The sad part is, I feel like I missed out on seeing it when it was quiet. Leah went to see it on her own eight years ago and it was so quiet she had to look for someone to take a picture of her. I’m afraid that experience is no longer available even at sunrise.
On the other hand, we were passing a temple on the side of the road one day, (they are everywhere!) and our driver asked if we should stop. There were no buses, or line, or ticket checks, we just entered the temple and climbed to the top. The temple of Pre Rup hasn’t been conserved much. Wooden brackets were holding corners in place and there were no wooden walkways or stairs. We climbed the original steps to the top and they were large and steep! With no railings and crumbling corners I held Ashwin’s hand tightly while Venkatesh sat with his sketchbook. The Wat was surrounded by lion sculptures, each facing out like a sentry but missing its face. One of the small temples on top had a shrine with incense burning. A woman handed us each a stick of incense to add to the altar and I thought of my parents health as I added mine. We knew nothing about this temple before experiencing it, but that didn’t lessen the experience. It may have even added to it. All we had were our senses to absorb this incredible pile of stone.
This is how we feel at our Dop House. We must be in the most beautiful place on earth! This Cambodian house originated in Pouk, twenty kilometers northeast of Siem Reap. It was purchased, dismantled and rebuilt for Sala Lodges Hotel.
After the tired and hungry boy melt down and a good long nap, we went to the village center on a tuk-tuk. Different from an Indian auto rickshaw, these are essentially tricked out carts with a seat and a roof, pulled by a motorcycle. We saw one with a flat screen tv attached to the back, playing kick boxing. Another was a Rock and Roll tuk-tuk which will play your choice of music. You can even plug in your iPod to play from your own music library, and sit in the back seat under disco lights. We went through rows and rows of booths at the Night Market all selling the same stuff; graphic T-shirts, light and flowy pants with elephant prints, bags and baubles and wood carvings. After dinner we bought Ashwin a tender coconut water, in which you drink out of a big green coconut through a straw, and rode a tuk-tuk back to the Sala Lodges Hotel for a night swim. This is where the most beautiful part comes in. The pool is made of stone and the water is as warm as a bath from the days bright sun. The frogs were croaking and peeping in the small rice patty gardens, other than the sounds of nature it was completely quiet and the moon was nearly full. We had the pool to ourselves and Ashwin was almost as happy as he was at the airport when we descended from the plane directly onto the Tarmac. That was surely the highlight of his day, but Sala is the highlight of ours. Every little thing is carefully chosen, down to the most minute detail, handmade Cambodian pottery, woven grass roofs and pool umbrellas, mosquito netting over the bed with beads on the ends of the the tie ups. I can only begin to explain. A feast for all of the senses. Relax…….enjoy. We aren’t going anywhere today.