The Hub and I are drawn to a good photo and a good story like The One Who Spits is drawn to a nice pile of sticks. So at the beginning of our short but sweet quasi-vacation in Cambodia, The Hub and I rose at 3:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s temple of temples. About a hundred other tourists had the same idea. Silently – everyone was still probably dozing on their feet – we all walked toward the small lake in front of the temple. It felt like the scene from the movie City of Angels where the angels gathered at the beach every day at dawn to watch the sunrise. The Hub and I kept walking, though – he had been to Angkor Wat before and wanted to take photos that didn’t look like everyone else’s silhouette-against-the-sunrise shots. So I left him alone to do his photography acrobatics. It was my first time in the temple and I actually forgot that we were there to watch the sunrise. Angkor Wat beckoned to me. So I went in.
It was deathly quiet inside. When I walked, the only sound I heard was the soft slap of my feet against the rock floor. When I stopped moving, there was nothing to hear. It was as if the walls sucked in all sound. And all light. Sunrise had come but as I stood in the middle of a five-foot square chamber, the only light I could see came through an arched passageway at the end of the hall, about 20 feet away. I was shrouded in complete darkness. It was cold, too. The warmth of the sun hadn’t permeated the walls yet. Essentially, it was still night inside Angkor Wat and the peace that overcame me in the temple embraced my whole being.
I thought, this must be how it feels inside a tomb. (Except the residents of tombs don’t really care.) What a relief that only later did I find out that Angkor Wat really is a tomb. In the 12th century, king Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat to honor the Hindu god Vishnu. When Suryavarman died, Angkor Wat became his tomb, as well. Centuries later, other kings who leaned toward Buddhism put images and statues of Buddha in the temples, turning the temples into interesting documentaries of religious history.
It was Buddha who I met at one of the bigger chambers. It was still dark and I was stumbling through the temple, disoriented by the many arched passageways and long, narrow halls. At first, I thought the 20-foot tall Buddha statue was a dead-end wall. When I came nearer, my scream died in my throat and my bladder curdled into itself. It was just Buddha, after all, smiling benignly at my fright.
When I found my way outside, the sun was in the sky, but only just inches above the horizon. Even then, it provided enough light for me to recognize the famous bas reliefs of hundreds of devatas, or female deities, on the wall. The reliefs were almost worn smooth because of the rubbing they got from thousands of eager hands over the decades.
Way led on to way, as Robert Frost wrote, and I kept walking until I reached the edge of a wooded area. Through it, I could see a well-worn foot path going deeper in. There was an elderly tourist walking toward me from the woods, sandals in his hand. Apart from the two of us, no one else was around.
“Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?” I asked him as a form of greeting.
“Absolutely,” he said. An American tourist. “There’s another temple in there,” he added, gesturing toward the woods. “But you might want to find your companions before going in. It’s still dark under those trees.”
A temple within a forest! I forgot about his advice and strode on. It wasn’t really dark, and it wasn’t really a forest, I discovered. All excitement fizzled out when I saw, feet away from the foot path, a paved road. So much for Indiana Jones-ing. The temple beyond the “woods” was small, really just a bungalow made of stone with its roof caved in. But because of the stillness that the trees brought, it felt magical to stand there, welcoming the sun.
The next day, The Hub and I went to another temple, Bakheng, within Angkor. This one sat on top of a hill – the perfect spot to catch the sunset. Walking up the hill, we met many tourists on their way down. They provided us with useful information.
“How far away from the top are we?” We asked one couple.
“You’re five minutes away,” the guy said with a smile.
Five minutes later, we asked another couple.
“Just five more minutes,” they said.
Five more minutes later, with no summit in sight, we asked another tourist.
“Oh, you’re close. Five minutes, tops.”
They were all either optimistic about our hiking abilities or they had varying perceptions of time. It took The Hub and I about 20 minutes to reach the temple.
Finally at the top, we climbed a makeshift staircase of about 50 steps. The temple, much like Angkor Wat and the other temples, was being renovated. What we found were just the ruins of a small tower that had no doors, no ceiling, and no floor. Still, about a hundred tourists were there, most of them sitting on the ground in the shade the tower walls made. All sorts were there to, again, pay tribute to the sun: cranky little kids, noisy groups of friends playing gin rummy, a couple with pierced noses and with limbs covered almost entirely with tattoos, solo elderly tourists using up their retirement fund. The sun brought all of us together. It felt good to be part of the universe.
An hour to go before sunset. When it got cooler, people gravitated toward the west side and waited for the show to start – which didn’t come. The sun decided to set behind a cluster of clouds – no spectacular ball of fire, no burst of colors. Tourists put away their cameras.
“The sunset is beautiful here, sometimes,” I heard a tour guide tell his wards. “But sometimes, the sun is shy.”
But even then, hiding behind clouds, the sun made one thing clear: it was the boss of us, and whenever it decides to put on a production number, we would be there, basking in it.