Sitting upon a crumbled empire that has changed so many hands, heard so many prayers, soaked in so much blood. A cultural piecemeal of ancient wisdom and ancient blunder. Slipping foot holds from century number one.
Reminiscing ancient past is like walking backward through your own history as well-primary comparison begins with experience, moves forward to knowledge, and then expands to imagination.
Impermanence. Despite these stones-hauled by elephants-stacked by physics-and resiliently lasting throughout the elements for over a thousand years they too will eventually crumble to dust, as their inhabitants did so long ago. I sit at the fountain-this ancient hospital with a separate pond in each direction representing the element: an elephant for the water, a horse for the wind, a lion for fire and a man for the earth. An astrologer sat here long ago guiding people to each pool to bring them wellness and balance. And now I sit here and watch the fish break the surface eating the bugs and again I think about impermanence as each of the little bugs is devoured away. Poof. Exit life. Nobly, they go, at least becoming food and energy for something else, passing their energy on. Thinking about how at any moment for any of us it could be game over for life as we know it. You may not even see it coming- one minute you are joyfully floating on the water and then- you’re not.
The children I meet inside the temple follow me giggling pointing out their secret hiding spots. They have this epic landscape as their jungle gym and they have barely heard of America and do not know of a place called New York.
My guide is 38 years old. He has never been on an airplane. He says “I was born in siem reap, I live in siem reap, and I will die in siem reap.” the Cambodian people on a whole are quite lovely, despite some of the imagery this writing may create, with beautiful smiles and charming ways. Content with so little for so long, despite ongoing history of fighting for what is theirs and having their thousands of sculptures and laborious carvings beheaded and destroyed by infiltrating regimes for centuries upon centuries of existence.
I kind of feel lost in a fairytale. Sitting in the land that time forgot-but it’s all there-written in stone-as the earth continues to grow around it. The trees push through and pour over these barrier walls that have since resigned from their duty.
Countless hours spent chiseling away at stone. I can’t even fathom what it would take to make one panel of these ruins, let alone an empire.
Long tendrils of trees drip down into the earth and I’ve been hearing and enjoying the traditional khmer band play as I walk to each temple transporting time and space- but then you look up and they have no arms, no legs, their faces are deformed and you see their sign. They are all land mine victims-all of them- every band on every cardinal direction of every temple- every single one of them. And sure- we are jaded of beggars, to the point where many of us don’t even reach out to the people that actually need us and need the help. At some of the temples I even shamefully refrained from buying things I actually was interested in secondary to being afraid of what would happen if I actually pulled money out-people are really in your face with their goods, stepping in place of where your next step will be, closer than your own shadow. Ladies whispering into your collar bones-it’s all you can do to be polite and say “no thank you” which was maybe worse than saying nothing at all. I followed my guides lead-he says nothing and let’s it pass. Then after the last devastated kingdom I was able to witness- full of trees growing through stone and epic faerytale visions- something happened to me. I have spent the last two days envisioning this entire history unfold before me, after me, and through me, reliving a glimpse with every rise and fall of my breath- and I passed the upteenth Khmer band I’ve passed in the past two days- and- I read their sign. It said something to the effect of: we have all been injured by land mines. We are not beggars. We are dignified people doing talented things to support our children, our families, and ourselves.
And I just. started. crying. just like I am again right now, and I thought how horrible am I- I can’t even give a measly fucking dollar to these people that are seriously living in dirt floor houses and eating the leaves out of the trees to survive -who have lost their limbs, likely due to mines my fucking country left in their backyards, and trying out of dignity to play a song for a fucking dollar and I turn my nose at them all day long. Slowly and silently Sobbing I reach into my bag and pull out some money and go back and put it in their tray. They kindly bow their head and say thank you and I walk on experiencing true humility, and as I walk down this red dusty dirt pathway lined with trees and butterflies of every size and color swirling in and out of my vision and pull my sunglasses down to cover the tears on my face I’m surrounded by adorable children desperately trying to sell me things I don’t want 3 for $1, 4 for a $1, books nice books$1, pants $1, and I try not step on them as they run under my feet predicting my every move, and my guide sits silently on his bike and turns it on without saying a word and I climb over all the jumping children and mount the bike as he asks if I had a good time, did I like it, and I silently nod yes and we ride down the street. It’s 3 in the afternoon and I have been looking at temples since 5 am and I’m done and I’m tired and I say- okay back to the guest house please and then it all comes full circle- you now go to the lake?, go to the temple?, go to the market?, go to. . . And the same rhythmn sets in as all the lil girls trying to sell me their goods the words don’t even matter as they trail into the spiraling explosion that is my mind…and I realize why he was so quiet and that he is just a bigger fish in the same pond and has more expensive wares-but in the end “same same but different” and tears just started streaming down my face as we drive away and i just keep both my hands on the motorbike and let the wind wipe them down and off my face. Feeling unbelievable release and horrendous guilt, all at the same time, broken down back to the basics, that kind of crying that makes you feel like you finally came clean– all at once i just cried, silently, into the wind all the way back to the guest house, calmly telling him, no I’m done, it’s time for me to go back. And 3 times I noticed him move his hand from the steering wheel and wipe his face and couldn’t help but wonder-if he was crying to – because I couldn’t go any further, I couldn’t bring him
more commission, that I needed to be done. Even as I write this I am turning my guide away as he tries to offer me more information and take me somewhere else-and I’m thankful for this experience. I’m thankful for this opportunity, I’m thankful for this opening, I’m thankful for this moment and all the moments I’ve had the ability to experience before this moment and all the moments to come.