Faces of the Jungle

Avelokitesvara head, the Bayon

Jungle Green... Rice Paddy Green... There are no crayons in the Crayola box that can express the depth of these colors. Angkor is covered in green, surrounded by it. Green creeps into the ruins, between the rocks, up stone towers.

From the window of our Royal Air Cambodge flight I could see the vast green expanses of Siem Reap, the city closest to the ruins. Our plane touched down in Siem Reap at 7:15 AM. A mob of men stood at the airport door offering guides or taxis. Andy walked headlong into the mob and pointed to one man. Later Andy explained half-seriously that to me that he'd selected this man out of the crowd because he was the smallest. If he tried to hurt us, Andy figured he could take him. We were still feeling paranoid and overly cautious. The man Andy chose grabbed his wrist and led us through the crowd to his car.

"My brother," the man said pointing to the driver. "Do you need a guide at Angkor? My brother will take you everywhere."

"How much?" We asked.

"Twenty dollars a day," he said.

Twenty dollars was the going rate, so we agreed. We gave the man the fee for tickets into Angkor - $40 each. As was the case in Phnom Penh, the US dollar is the preferred currency here. He dropped us off at our hotel, The Golden Apsara, then went off to buy our tickets. The hotel was nice. A good bathroom with plenty of toilet paper. Three beds, each a little wider than your average dorm room bed. A balcony, air conditioning, nice paintings of Angkor Wat in the hallway, and orange curtains, almost the shade of a monk's saffron robe. A cat perched on the rooftop of the next building over. Geckos scurried around on the balcony. The hotel manager only spoke French, which actually gave me an opportunity to use my seventh grade French.

Rang, our driver and guide to Angkor
Interested in hiring Rang next time you're at Angkor?
Within 20 minutes, the man we met at the airport rode back on a moped with the tickets. "He's 27," one guy pointed to the man with the tickets, "but he's small," he laughed. The driver told us he was 29 years old and his name was Rang (pronounced 'Rahng,' with the R rolled). Rang took the tickets from his brother, and we hopped in the car.

Angkor is about 15 minutes away from the hotel, and the drive brought us straight through the heart of the city. Siem Reap is much calmer than Phnom Penh and much smaller, more like a village than a city. One of Sihanouk's palaces dominates the center of town. Huge paintings of the king are set on the street corners. Red and blue banners decorated with the white outline of Angkor Wat stream across the road sides. Mopeds and bicycles make up about 90% of the local traffic. As was the case in the capital, there are no street lights to dictate the flow of vehicles. School children, stray dogs, and roosters sidestep mopeds on dirt roads. Homes and merchant stalls line the river banks.

The first structure that welcomed us to Angkor was the south gate of Angkor Thom. It is a huge archway crowned with four smiling faces, each looking out on a different north, south, east, west direction. The stone gate is twenty meters tall. It is an imposing introduction, but the mysterious smiles on the four heads of the Avalokiteshvara are welcoming. Under the green shades of the forest, the grin looks peaceful.

Angkor Thom south gate
As soon as we entered the complex I could tell that the ruins at Angkor went on for a great distance. They are grander than I expected; larger, fuller, healthier than I imagined. Angkor is friendly and magical. It's almost as if nothing happened here, as if the war never touched Angkor. Of course it did - rows of headless statues and amputees in every wat remind me that this too was the front-line. But today it is so peaceful. Children climb on the ruins as if they were in an enormous playground. If Phnom Penh is like a city of children, then Angkor is like a land of children. At every turn they hang out, play, run, try to sell their wares to tourists. They bombarded us with flutes, T-shirts, wooden boats, film. We were surrounded by child merchants. Adults sell film and water, but the overwhelming majority of people at Angkor are under 17.

As we drove up to the stone gate, I was immediately awed by the beauty of this place. In all my travels, I have never seen anything that rivals the majesty, the aura of Angkor. The war did not destroy it. Like the people here, Angkor is an enduring witness. Land mines have been cleared from the area. Restoration is in progress. Bamboo scaffolding supports some of the ruins. Angkor is a rugged survivor. Angkor has withstood a thousand years of time and four years of the Khmer Rouge, yet it is still quite clearly one of the wonders of the world.

The kingdom of Angkor rose, thrived and collapsed between 802 AD and 1432 AD. For the first several hundred years, Hindu tradition dictated the layout of the stone structures, as they were designed to emulate the mythical Mount Meru. After 1181, most of the kings (and so too the monuments) were Buddhist. Angkor reached its height in the late 12th and early 13th centuries when some 750,000 people lived here. But after suffering two defeats to the Thai army, the Khmer court abandoned the city for Phnom Penh. Vines moved in. Trees dug their roots into the ruins. The jungle encroached upon the massive gray stones. Jungle Green ... Rice Paddy Green... crept through this magnificent ghost town.

Children swimming, the Bayon

We began our tour at Angkor Thom. This walled city, some 10 square kilometers large, was built by King Jayavarman VII between 1181 and 1201 AD. A moat (crocodile-infested, according to legend) surrounds the city. A square wall, eight meters high and 12 kilometers long marks its borders. There are four gates, each topped with four smiling faces of the Avelokitesvara. We entered through the south gate and drove on to the ruin known as the Bayon.

Buddhist nuns offering blessings at the Bayon
As soon as we got out of the car, a swarm of children surrounded us.

"Flute?" "Boat?" "Film?"

We encountered the same thing at every stop.

"No thank you," we smiled and kept walking.

Stone steps lead up to this huge castle of rock. Two pools, one on either side, reflect the ruins. From a great distance the Bayon looked like a natural formation of rock with gargantuan stalagmites jutting out of it. As I got closer and climbed higher up the rock staircase, the details began to emerge. Intricate bas reliefs of women, apsara dancers, battles. A Buddhist nun, maybe 50 years old, pressed her palms together and returned my wei (the traditional bow you make with your palms pressed together). Her white cloth draped over the rock she was sitting on. When she smiled I could see her teeth were brown and black.

Listen to the musician play!
I climbed up another set of stairs to the top level - the highest level I could climb to, anyway. The tallest tower still rose far above me. This was, for me, Angkor's most mysterious ruin. Dozens of faces, all bearing that enlightened Avelokitesvara grin, are carved into the rock. Some of the faces have tree roots and leaves running through their cracks and crevices. Andy and I split up and wandered around. A man, sitting on the ground, played a two-stringed instrument. It was about the length of a woman's outstretched arm, and he held it against him as if it was a cello. The music echoed throughout the Bayon adding depth and mystery to the site. The instrument appeared to rest on the musician's thigh, but once I walked around him I could see that he had no thigh, no right leg at all. Land mines loomed even under the soil of Angkor. The tourist areas are all cleared, but in the outlying fields, the threat is still there.

I walked in a circle around the upper deck of the Bayon. People sat on the rocks to write or take photos. There were actually about fifteen tourists up there, maybe less, but I felt alone anyway. The music and the majesty seemed to silence everyone. Most of us just wandered, pressing our palms from time to time against the chiseled rock faces. Various shrines are set up within the ruins. Women encourage passers by to light an incense stick for Buddha and (of course) to make a contribution.

Avelokitesvara head, the Bayon

Outside and in front of the Bayon I snapped a picture of an elderly nun sitting by one of the pools. I gave her one dollar, as she requested, and I respectfully wei'd to her. She smiled, laughed and wei'd back.

We met Rang back at the car, and he directed us to the next set of sites. As he pointed down the dirt road, I noticed that his pinky fingernail was about an inch long. I'd seen that on other men here as well. I wondered if that was current fashion or tradition.

Our next stop was the Baphuon. The steps were on the far side of a huge puddle of water, and to the right stood the Terrace of the Elephants. A whole parade of pachyderms carved into a 350 meter long wall. We walked along the terraces, careful to sidestep puddles, until we came to the Terrace of the Leper King. A nude, sexless statue sat cross-legged on the top. According to legend, at least two Khmer kings had leprosy. What a view the kings must have had from this spot, I thought. Elephants cloaked in fine cloth, musicians drumming and piping, raised parasols, swaying palm leaves.

From there we climbed down and journeyed away from the road, down a dirt path. We passed a circle of boys who were kicking their flip flops in the air and betting on the results. The dirt path narrowed and led us to Tep Pranam and Phimeanakas - a Buddhist terrace and the site of a royal palace. There's not much left of those structures now. Three little girls skipped alongside us. They followed us down a dirt pathway, across a field of grazing cows, under a series of windblown banners to the North Kleang. We passed a number of large linga shaped ruins that were well over fifteen meters high - probably more than that. Music of that multi-rhythm Asian flavor poured through the forest, but since the gathering of trees between the musicians and us was so thick, we couldn't see them. I wanted to track down the performers, but the path that would have brought us to them was slushy with mud. Besides, with the midday heat bearing down on us, we were both disgusting bundles of sweat. It was time for lunch and a shower. Rang told us that Angkor empties out from noon to 2 PM everyday because of the heat. And while it may sound like a great time to explore the ruins all by yourself, it's not. The heat is just too much.

Rang drove us out of the park and back to town where we ate at a great little restaurant called The Bayon. It was laid out around a courtyard, and the host pointed a fan directly on us. It was perfect. A woman we'd met at the Phnom Penh airport that morning walked over to our table to say hello. She was traveling alone, and we asked her to join us. She was from Manchester, England and was on holiday for two months. She'd been to Hawaii, Samoa, Australia and Vietnam. Her husband didn't enjoy traveling, and her children were all over 30 years old, she explained, so she just went out on her own. She planned to take the "Palace on Wheels" train trip across India next year. We exchanged travel stories and shared chicken and fish curry in coconut milk and a plate of fried rice.