Friday, January 21: Mani is my guide today, a 35-year-old chubby Cambodian whose English pronunciation is quite mangled. Our driver is an English literature student, but he doesn’t put his English studies to use as he is just the driver. Immediately after breakfast at my plush tropical hotel, we head to the temples for my own private tour.
While riding together in the back seat of a Toyota sedan to Angkor Thom, Mani tells me that 1.4 million people live in Siem Reap and 14 million live in the whole country of Cambodia. Siem Reap means “Thai defeated,” the name resulting from the defeat of Thailand by Cambodia in some 16th century war. Whenever Mani talks, I find myself having to think hard about what he is trying to say. There are recognizable English words interspersed with babble, and many times I either just sit quietly and nod, not having a clue what he is saying, or I question him, which inevitably leads to more confusion.
So, what I relay here may be totally screwed up information. Nevertheless, I’ll try to convey what I learned, whether right or wrong.
Mani tells me that at the end of today, he wants to take me to a children’s training center where poor children learn traditional Cambodian crafts such as stone carving, wood carving, lacquering, electricity, copper and weaving. It turns out we never get to this center, due to a little meltdown on my part. This story I will relate in the course of this entry.
We wander around some ruins outside of the gates of Angkor Thom, and after I take a few pictures, I suddenly get a message on my camera: CARD ERROR! I can’t take a picture. Every time I try to snap, I get a black screen that again says CARD ERROR! I turn off the camera, always my response to any technical malfunction in any piece of equipment. When I turn it back on, it seems to work, so we go on our way after a few moments of panic on my part.
Before we enter the gates of Angkor Thom, I use the ladies’ room and in there I encounter an old woman handing over her pants and underwear, which have apparently been soiled, to a Cambodian girl. The woman has a scarf wrapped around her bottom. She asks the Cambodian girl if she can wash the woman’s garments and the Cambodian girl shakes her head. I feel horrible for the woman and have a bad feeling that someday that could be me. Old age is a thing that haunts me. Sometimes, when I see things like this, I think I would rather die than grow so old that I don’t have control of my bodily functions. In Buddhism, it is said you must accept death, old age, illness, and any problems that life throws at you. I am still fighting this. Enlightened I’m not, I’m afraid.
We enter the south gate of Angkor Thom, known as Great Angkor or Great City. The entire city is 10 square kilometers and was built by the “greatest Angkorian” King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219). This king came to power following the Khmer defeat by the Chams. In its heyday, in the 13th century, the city had a population of 1 million, while London was a tiny town of 50,000. The outer wall of the city is a normal steep wall on the outside, but on the inside, dirt ramparts lead to the top of the wall; these enabled soldiers to climb up easily to defend the city.
Cambodia practices Buddhism, Hinduism, and, in the mountains, animism. In the first century, Hinduism took root in Cambodia. There are three gods in Hinduism: Brahma, the creator of the world; Shiva, creator of the human world and destroyer of the world (?) (I’ve always heard of Shiva as the god of destruction. As a matter of fact, I once met an Indian guy named Shiva who told me he was Shiva, God of Destruction!); and Vishnu, creator of the world and protector of the world.
From the 1st to the 3rd century, Buddhism took over in the country. Later, in 1113 when Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II, he dedicated it to the Hindu god Vishnu. Until the 11th century, the king had believed in Buddhism.
In Angkor Thom, all public houses, buildings and palaces were constructed of wood. Brick or stone was reserved for the gods. This is why today, all that remains of the city are the skeletal remains of the temples and holy places.
The gates of the city are 20 meters high and are decorated with stone elephant trunks and four faces each, representing Charity, Compassion, Sympathy, and Equality. There are two east gates: one is the ghost gate, through which people entered if they lost a war. The other is the victory gate, through which soldiers went to war and re-entered if they won the war. Through the west gate, prisoners and people who were to be cremated exited. Priests and holy men used the north gate. The general population went through the south gate. In front of each gate are statues of 54 gods to the left and 54 demons to the right. These gods and demons are taken from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. It’s some kind of story where a mountain is used as a churning device, and the king of serpents is wrapped around it. On one shore, one person held the tail of the serpent and on the other shore, another held his head. They they pulled the serpent back and forth, churning the ocean. (I swear this is what Mani said!)
The number 54 is significant because at the time, there were 54 provinces in Cambodia: 21 which are now in modern-day Cambodia (now there are 24 as 3 were added in 1994), 21 now in modern-day Vietnam, and 12 in modern-day Thailand.
We go to the Bayon, which King Jayavarman VII built and which showcases his great ego. Within the Bayon are 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, who bears a great likeness to the king. These faces stare down from every angle, looking like Big Brother watching. Bas-reliefs carved all over the Bayon have over 11,000 figures. Carvings on the outer wall depict everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. We wander around the Bayon, taking pictures of all angles with the King’s faces staring down on us. There are some Cambodians in costume and we take pictures with them for a tip (of course).
We depart by the Elephant Wall, or the Terrace of the Elephants, decorated with parading elephants. This wall was used as a viewing stand for public ceremonies back in the day. Mani also points out the terrace of the Leper King, with its replica of a leprous king on top. Around it are numerous nagas, or mythical serpent beings.
Standing at the top of the Elephant wall, I try to take another picture and I get, once again, the dreaded CARD ERROR! This time turning the camera on and off does nothing to fix the problem. I open the bottom of the camera, take out the card and put it back in, thinking maybe it’s become dislodged or shaken askew. When I turn on the camera, it works again and, snap! More pictures. At this point, I’m starting to get a little worried as this CARD ERROR! has appeared too many times for comfort. I have a whole day at these famous temples and I don’t want any problem with my pictures!
We walk up another 200 meters to the Baphuon, a pyramid structure that represented the mythical Mt. Meru, home of the gods. This marks the center of the city, but was built before Angkor Thom was constructed. It was built on land filled with sand, so the structure has been unstable throughout its history. The French apparently started dismantling the structure in 1960 in order to reconstruct it. Each stone taken from the Baphuon was numbered and records were kept of each stone and where it belonged. Apparently, reconstruction efforts were disrupted by the Cambodian Civil War and then all records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years. Today, thousands of huge stones litter the grounds around the structure, the scattered pieces of the world’s largest 3-D jigsaw puzzle. The reconstruction efforts are seriously hampered, as the archeologists must take a couple of blocks at a time to see if they fit in a particular spot. If they don’t fit, the blocks are taken back to their spots, and 2 more blocks are taken. I can see, looking over this field of stones, the project’s immensity, and I wonder how many lifetimes it will take before this structure is reconstructed.
We make a stop at a little group of hut-like merchant stands where I sit in a plastic chair and have a drink while Mani takes a bathroom break. While waiting, I look in one woman’s shop at her silk scarves and end up buying a beautiful navy blue one for $4. Then I see another shopkeeper with a terra-cotta scarf around her neck and I tell her I’d love one just like hers. She scrambles around in her collection, but she can’t find one the same color. Then all the other vendors search frantically through their collections. No one has a scarf that color! Next thing I know the woman sneaks off into another shop and comes out with the scarf that was around her neck. I say, NO! I don’t want the one you were wearing! I want a new one. No one is ever able to find one that color. In the meantime (Mani was in the bathroom a long time!) I take a picture of our driver, whose name I can never quite capture. This is the first picture I take after my last CARD ERROR! message.
After this we head to Ta Prohm, a temple built from 1186 by Jayavarman VII. Ta Prohm is the place you always see in photographs of the Angkor temples. It is in a severe state of ruin and nature has overtaken it. Trees grow over its decaying walls, their roots strangling the stone structure like giant boa constrictors. Moss and lichen grow all over the bas-reliefs. Shrubs sprout from rooftops and balconies. Jumbles of intricately carved stone blocks clog corridors.
It’s like a scene from Indiana Jones; even Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider had parts filmed here. I’m a picture-taking fool here, snapping away. It’s nice to have Mani along as he can take pictures of me in this jungle of a place. We spend quite a long time here. I keep thinking I’ve seen nature in all its destructive power taking over this place, and then I turn a corner and find another huge tree grasping a wall, its monstrous roots like an octopus, encircling its prey.
After all this, I’m pretty tired, and Mani takes me to an outdoor restaurant where we have lunch. He goes off to eat with the other tour operators and I’m left to eat by myself. I order a Pepsi and a shrimp with lemongrass dish, and as I sit and wait, I decide to look through all my pictures. I go back and back and back on the camera, and suddenly I come to the picture of our driver. I go one step further back, and I’m back to my latest picture at Ta Prohm. What? I look again. This can’t be. My heart is pounding and I’m breaking out in a sweat. I go back again through all my pictures and it hits me like a stone toppled from Ta Prohm. All the pictures I took from when I put the new card in my camera at Boat Noodles in Phnom Penh to right before I took the picture of our driver are gone. Vanished! Every picture of Phnom Penh, the sunset at Angkor Wat, the morning pictures at Angkor Thom and the Bayon and Baphuong, wiped out. I can’t believe it, I don’t want to accept it, but I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. The CARD ERROR! pops into my head. I check again and again. I take the card out of the camera and put it back in, thinking maybe then my pictures will magically reappear. No matter how many times I click through the pictures, it’s the same. All gone. By now I’m afraid to even have my camera turned on because obviously every time I got a CARD ERROR! my pictures are being erased. So I turn off the camera. My face burns and a my throat grows dry and thick.
The shrimp with lemongrass comes out and I try to eat it, but the lemongrass is horrible, bitter and chewy. It dawns on me that I’m probably not supposed to eat it. Maybe it’s just for decoration, or for flavoring. Anyway, I gobble through the shrimp, but I can’t sit still. I try to think what to do. We are deep in the middle of the Angkor temple complex and it’s a long way back to Siem Reap. But I cannot go the rest of the afternoon taking pictures when I never know if a CARD ERROR! will erase more of my pictures or not enable me to take any more. I’m thinking: I am spending thousands of dollars to come on this vacation and now I won’t have pictures of anything in Cambodia. I’m sick.
My heart is banging itself against my ribs and I think, I MUST go find Mani. Now! So I go in search of him and finally find him and, I can’t help it, I burst into tears. I say I’m so sorry, but he must take me back to town. I need to get a new card for my camera because the people in Vietnam sold me a bad card. I was scammed. I should have known something was fishy when the card was just in a plastic box and not packaged in cardboard and plastic.
Anyway, he is baffled and can’t understand how I could lose my pictures. He says it must be the equipment, because the card couldn’t be bad. But I know better. My camera is new, I just bought it in October; it’s a nice Olympus and I’ve never had a single problem with it. I know about the card and the circumstances of the purchase in Vietnam. He and the driver take me back into Siem Reap, where we talk to a guy in a camera shop. He says he has encountered problems like this with cards before, and 9 times out of 10 he is able to recover the pictures. He says to give him 2 hours and he will see what he can do. No guarantees, but he feels almost certain he will recover them. I ask him to please call Mani as soon as he knows one way or the other. I need him to relieve my worry. I buy another 8GB camera card, sealed in full cardboard and plastic packaging, for $50.
So Mani and I go to Angkor Wat for the official tour, but of course I’m on edge the whole time. Wondering if the guy will be able to recover the pictures. I don’t know why in such a case I just can’t let go. I wish I didn’t worry about things that I have no control over. I hate this aspect of myself. I try to listen to Mani, but now I’m distracted and worried and I’m getting a headache from trying to understand his poor English all day.
He tells me Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure in the world and it was never abandoned to the elements as other temples were. The temple is a miniature of the universe, the central tower representing Mt. Meru, with smaller surrounding peaks of the lower towers, bounded in turn by continents (lower courtyards) and oceans (the moat). The moat surrounding Angkor Wat is a giant rectangle 1.5 km by 1.3 km. Angkor Wat was built by Suryavarman II (1113-1140), who unified Cambodia and extended Khmer influence all over southeast Asia. He devoted and consecrated the temple to the Hindu deity Vishnu. It was built about the same time as European Gothic temples such as Notre-Dame in Paris. Virtually every surface is carved in bas-reliefs. It’s estimated the workers to build the temple would have been in the thousands, including many highly skilled artisans.
It was built of some 5 million tons of sandstone blocks quarried 50 km away and ferried down the Siem Reap river on rafts. Experts say that today it would take 300 years to build Angkor Wat, but in reality it was begun soon after Suryavarman II took the throne and finished soon after his death, over 40 years.
As we’re walking around we see many headless statues. Mani says that thieves have decapitated the statues over the centuries to sell them in the black market or to museums.
We spend a lot of time walking around the temple; I have to put on long sleeves to cover my arms when I climb up to the top of Mt. Meru, to show respect for the gods. When I climb down from Mt. Meru, Mani and I walk around a corner and he motions for me to sit and rest. He then proceeds to tell me a story that goes on for about a half-hour (seems like 2 hours), something about two brothers, the older of whom kills his enemy in a cave and because blood pours out, the younger brother thinks his brother has been killed so he seals up the cave, following the older brother’s instructions. I am totally lost trying to follow this story and get so impatient that it never seems to end. Finally, I can’t take it any longer and I stand up and start moving away. He gets up to follow but keeps talking. My head is pounding. Then we run into a woman from California with two bad knees who asks Mani to help her down some stairs. She is so grateful to him that she gives him $10!! I am so floored by this as I am paying some unknown package price for this tour (for which Mani is already getting paid) and I will be expected to tip him on top. I had planned to give him a $5 tip, but how can I do so now after this woman gives him $10 for 10 minutes of his time?? Besides which I don’t even feel his tour barely worth even a $5 tip as I could hardly understand anything he said all day!!
Finally, we go back into Siem Reap and we’ve decided against going to the children’s center since we took so much time to get my camera card sorted out. We stop at the camera shop, and happily (***!!!***) the man has managed to recover my pictures and has put them on a CD-ROM. He asks me to look through them and see if they’re all there and in a quick glance, it seems they are! I’m so relieved. Thank God for this kind and talented man!! (Later, once I get back to Korea, I find that still many pictures are missing. Maybe 50 or so are still gone. I still have the card and will take it back to the U.S. to see if someone can recover the remaining photos.)
Back at the hotel, I relax for a bit by the pool and read my book. I get ready to go out to see a show of Apsara dancers. When I look in the mirror I am so discouraged at myself. I have gained weight in Korea mainly because I don’t exercise at all due to my bad knee. Also, I’ve sworn off Korean food which is supposed to be healthy, and I eat too much pasta and pizza and probably drink too much beer (although I really don’t drink that much!) So, I feel frumpy, old and aching. My hair looks and feels like straw and my face is aging minute by minute. I don’t know what is happening to me, but I hate it!
In the evening, at the Apsara show in a huge open-air pavilion, I get my meal from a huge buffet that includes some Khmer food, but mostly regular Western buffet-style food, fried chicken, spaghetti, etc. The Apsara show is beautiful, with the delicate movements of the dancers and their exquisite costumes. But once the waiter serves me a beer early on, I never see him again the rest of the night. I hate venues like this, with their bulging crowds of tourists, pigging out on huge portions of bland uninspired Western food.
I’m happy to return to the hotel tonight, where I curl up in bed and read and watch some mindless television. And sleep, hoping tomorrow will be a better day ~ and I’ll miraculously look and feel a lot better, possibly young again! 😦