Bayon Temple, Cambodia

After our magnificent morning at Angkor Wat we had breakfast and a nice rest before heading out to the afternoon temples. I was glad to catch my breath from the morning because the afternoon was just as incredible. It would take a month to see everything here so I’m glad we decided to spend two days here. Next time I’m going to stay a week.

The first stop was Ta Prohm which is still mostly ruins unlike the temple of Angkor Wat which has been largely restored. There were still piles of carved stones everywhere and I would have felt like Indiana Jones finding an ancient secret temple if it hadn’t been for the crowds—but I can fantasize. I was definitely in an exotic world where dreams and reality collide. Now, in this massive tumble of stone are new gods— giant 400 year old trees overtaking the temple walls. Instead of a temple to Buddha it is a temple where nature and stone are the Divine. The dappled sunlight and green lichen made it all feel ancient and wise.

 

On to Bayon Temple just down the road where there was no doubt who was in charge of the Universe. For on every side of every tower are a total of 216 giant faces of the all-knowing Brahma. I was reminded at every turn of the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity. I just loved it! We wandered around the stone temple where heaven and earth are blending together and God is made visible. Like the Sistine Chapel where God touches Adam, at Bayon temple Brahma is amongst us intertwining with our every moment.

In the center is the shrine to Buddha in a deep dark alcove. I took off my sandals and stepped on the smooth, cool stones worn and polished by the devotees. Just inside the dark was a tiny old woman with incense and flowers. I made my donation and stepped deeper into the holiest part of the temple. It was overwhelming to be kneeling with my insignificant offering and without the traditional words so all my mind and heart could find was gratitude.

The next morning we headed out to see more temples. Hamilton had accidentally washed his pass and there was just the vital information still visible. It did provide all the ticket checkers a good laugh. I pride myself in being able to remember temple names but I didn’t do such a good job this day. So I will have to just give descriptions. First was a pink sandstone temple with delicate and elaborate carvings of the Hindu gods. The second temple had a long bridge where one side had a dozen or so gods on one side and demons on the other. The entire temple was built around the duality of light and dark, gods and demons. There was beautiful two story library which had books made of palm leaves, now lost to time. Another temple has eight big elephants, one at each corner of the two levels. There was a hospital temple and a temple for water blessing and we finished with a temple used as a crematorium. None of these temples have active shrines and are much smaller and therefore fell like beautiful archeological sites rather than holy ground.

Somewhere in the middle of the day we stopped for a bit of lunch in a local open-air restaurant and I got a bit of shopping done. It is hot in Cambodia, think Tennessee in August, and we walked and climbed a lot so I was happy with an afternoon swim and Hamilton caught up on the latest issue of the Wall Street Journal. Our time in Cambodia was all we had hoped for and more. I was so sorry to leave the next day but I will be back for more adventures.

I’m so happy to have this visa in my passport.

A bit about Cambodia: Cambodia is the poorest country I have visited and is still far from recovered from the atrocities of the 1970’s where 1/3 of the population was murdered. I found the people to be courageous and resilient in trying to make a life for their families with so few resources. Their plight really reminded me how privileged we are in the West. Cambodia might not be at the top of most peoples’ vacation destination list but it is one of the most life-changing places I have ever been.

A couple of weeks after I got home I was watching a wonderful series on Netflix called The Kindness Diaries. Leon rides a motorcycle around the world with no money, only relying on the kindness of strangers. In episode 10 and 11 he is in Thailand and Cambodia and really highlights the plight of these counties. I highly recommend this show and Leon’s beautiful experience.

The Gods Drink Whiskey by Stephen Asma. I read this book on the trip and it is a well done commentary on life in Thailand and Cambodia and Theravada Buddhism. Dr. Asma is a very insightful and entertaining writer.

Advertisements

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hamilton and I each had things we wanted to do and see in Thailand but we both had a deep desire to go to Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat. When we would talk about visiting Southeast Asia it was always traveling to both Thailand and Cambodia. When he was a boy living in Thailand it was not safe to visit Cambodia. Just say “largest temple complex in the world” to me and Angkor Wat goes straight to the top of my must-visit list.

Angkor Wat is in the northern part of Cambodia next to the city of Siem Reap, just a couple of hours south of the Thai border. The largest religious monument in the world, it covers over 400 acres with with dozens of individual temples. The most important and best preserved is the temple of Angkor Wat. The temples were built starting in the early 1100’s and were active until the 1700’s. During that time it changed between Hindu and Buddhist many times depending on what king was in power but is now Buddhist.

After our bus tour we had made arrangements to go to Cambodia. It seemed like a good idea at the time just to drive down to Siem Reap as we were relatively close to the border. Well, it was a bit more complicated and challenging than we expected and included dragging our suitcases through the long and congested border gray zone and surrendering our passports to a man on a motorcycle along with bribes for visas. There were moments I was pretty sure that I was going to be featured on next season’s Lock Up Abroad.  Eventually we made it to our beautiful hotel and finished the day with a sunset boat ride on a large lake with floating villages. We flew back to Thailand a few days later—a wise decision. I love a good adventure but that border crossing was almost a bit too much adventure.

The next morning started bright and early because I wanted my first glimpse of Angkor Wat to be at sunrise. Our guide picked us up in the dark and we went and purchased our tickets and walked through the night across ancient paths and bridges to a pond with a dark silhouette of the temple on the other side. The stars were bright and Venus was hanging low with the moon. We stood with quite a large crowd waiting to see this remarkable holy site be illuminated by the morning sun. Eventually the sun peaked over the tall towers and reflected on the pond in front of us. As the temple reflection mingled with the water lilies, it almost too much to bear, with the pink, blues, purples of the flowers and morning sun illuminating this glorious shrine to the gods.

 

We walked across the bridge, through doorways, up and down steps until we reached the center of that holy place. It was still early so there was a cool breeze and the larger crowds hadn’t yet arrived. It is as awe inspiring as the great cathedrals of Europe, the monumental temples of Luxor, the crystal city of Machu Picchu and the magnificent Grand Canyon. It is a humbling expression of man’s insignificance before the Divine.

On the bottom level are four pools with four more pools on the level above. Every bit of the walls inside and out were covered with fine, detailed carvings depicting the epic stories of the Hindu gods as well as celestial dancers celebrating life. We climbed the narrow and very steep steps to the upper level to see the second set of pools and look out at the deep green countryside. Along the walls were headless Buddhas in mediation. Some had gold sashes reminding visitors that this is still a very holy place. As with all of the great temples built by our ancestors, it is breathtaking in the current expression. I can’t imagine how amazing it was with ponds full of lilies, the walls painted and the Buddhas whole.

The shrine to Buddha is back on the main level. Although Angkor Wat was mostly lost in time, for 300 years the main temple was always tended by monks so the energy never left this special place. Two monks were sitting by the shrine giving blessings to those who were ready to receive. I lit incense before the golden Buddha and then knelt in front of the monk for my blessing. First he put a pink cord on my left wrist and the took a whisk dipped in holy water and shook the water on my head as he chanted prayers.

It was hard for me to leave, I had dreamed of that morning for a long time and I didn’t want my visit to be over but it was getting warmer and we hadn’t had breakfast. So I said my good-byes knowing that I would be back. Like so many of the most holy places on earth, it is so overwhelming that I can’t take it in on the first visit. As I write this I’m listening to the music that I chose for my pilgrimage and my powerful memories entwine with the notes. I will go back.

Vishnu