Thursday, August 24, 2006

Beng Melea: The Lost Temple (sort of)

The approach is overgrown and thick, spotlights of sunshine creeping through narrow cracks and crevices of foliage so dense that ambient light is only a wish and a whisper. There is no sound save the crunching of dry, brittle leaves, the "road" has been left a long time ago. As we progress deeper into a jungle that seems untouched for centuries by any people, the power and grandeur of a once powerful empire rises up before you like a great dark wave, one which vanishes moments before it can come crashing down upon you.

The broken and flagged stones are toppled in every direction and the architecture is a figment to be guessed and imagined at, as opposed to some form that can be readily appreciated. Yet, perhaps more than any other temple that I encountered in Cambodia, this one held the most mystique, the most intrigue and provided the deepest sense of awareness that you were witnessing something greater than yourself.

Backtracking ever so slightly, we find myself, Aidan and Lorraine on day two of our Angkor visit. Though there are nearly 200 temples that could be visited, we chose to spend the entire day at just one. The reason? It takes nearly 3.5 hours, by tuk-tuk, along not-so-great roads, roads that even our driver had to stop and get directions on, to finally arrive at the site. It is then another 20 minutes of walking through the abovementioned hyperdense jungle to arrive at what first blush appears to be a massive heap of stones dropped from some celestial quarry and then allowed to be overrun by vegetation intent on hiding something.

3.5 Hours! Egads!

The ride out was not as bad as it could have been, I mean, we could have been riding on wheels that were square, that might have been slightly less comfortable. Regardless, we arrived, stretched limbs that didn't seem to want to respond to any amount of cajoling, then headed straight past the cobra's head statues that guard the entrance to the path.

"Abandon hope, ye who hisssssss..."

When we finally arrived at the temple proper, we were greeted by what has to be the worlds least busy guide. We never quite caught her name, but she indicated to us that we should follow her around the site. As we progressed, she would point to certain areas of rubble that she thought may not be stable, and would make a "no-no" sign with her hands to indicate that a dark, lonely, and most likely painful fate awaited anyone so foolish as to step there.

A point that I wish to make now, is that due to my somewhat impulsive and reckless nature, I dragged my companions all over this site. As it is one of the most unrestored, unvisited and generally ignored of the Angkor temples, there are no "rules" to follow, you can go anywhere. I exploited this ability to the fullest:

"Sitting in the mornin' sun, I'll be sittin' til the evenin' comes...sittin' on a...pile of rubble...wastin' tiiiiime"

It is believed that Beng Melea was built according to the same plans as Angkor Wat. As such, it is an enormous site to climb around. There were a number of times where I would be working my way up a pile of stones, only to look down and realize that I was nearly 50-70 feet off the stony ground.

I can see my house from heeeeeeeeeeere

We spent a long time simply hopping from ruined stone column to ruined stone column, the whole time feeling like explorers who had been out exploring and had come to the end of an exploration. Really.

Much of the restoration that has occured at the various Angkor temples has involved fighting back the jungle that constantly threatens to overtake the sites. If you've seen the movie "Tomb Raider", then you will be somewhat familiar with the temple in the jungle scene. The temple that they filmed at is called Ta Prohm, and we actually did visit there, however my camera died and so I don't have any pictures of it. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as one of the motivating factors to come all the way out to Beng Melea was to get some pictures of a temple that was REALLY being consumed by its surroundings, and at Beng Melea, nothing is being done about it. Ta Prohm is a heavily visited site, and there are a number of projects underway to save the temple before it is completely collapsed by the jungle.

"How could trees collapse a centuries old temple?" you may ask, and how clever of you to do so! Here is how:

The trees actually grow through the stones

Tell me this isn't kind of creepy...creepy-awesome!

Hard to know which one is providing the support here...

The roots of these jungle trees creep inbetween the stones of the building, crumbling the mortar and slowly, inevitably separating support elements. Thus, as time ticks slowly away, each temple is decimated a little bit more, subjected to the whims of an uncaring host. One of the reasons that Angkor Wat is the best preserved of the Angkor temples is because of the huge retaining wall and moat that surround it, and have effectively kept the forest at bay for hundreds of years.

I thought that they looked like blood vessels...crazy, chorophyllic blood vessels. Maybe this is why I can't get into Med school...hmmm

The silence that I had previously thought existed, now turned out to be as illusory as a clear path back to where we started. The overwhelming racket of cicadas, loud calling birds and some unidentified rodentish type things (R.U.S's?...for you Princess Bride fans out there) served as a comforting, if not noisy back drop to our wanderings.

Yes, thats right, in Part 1,342,455 of Norm doing stupid things I got myself up to a point on the ruins from which there did not seem to be a safe way down. I arrived in this predicament by wedging my back against a wall, my feet against a pillar and walking up. Cool as this seemed at the time...There was subsequently no way down...until I realized that I could use...

(And now...if you would be so kind...please start humming the "Indiana Jones" theme song to yourself. Here, I'll help...

"Dum da dum dum....dum da duuuuuum...dum da dum dummmmm...dum da DUM DUM DUM...")

My middle name is ADVENTURE...and also Henry

A conveniently placed vine! Thus did I work my way back down on the other side of the wall, much to the amusement of all...except our guide who gave me a look that indicated I should perhaps not do that again.

As does happen in Cambodia, we were soon presented with a sobering reminder of the dichotomy that these temples represented, that of the beauty that was possible, and the horror. This was highlighted sharply by the passing of this sign:

As it was indecipherable to us, we asked our guide about it. In very plain language, she explained that it announced the recent clearing of landmines from the area. The letter/number combination was for some official purposes. As we digested the fact that we had been traipsing all over ground that had only very recently been cleared of thousands of land mines, we were given our greatest surprise of perhaps my whole trip. Our guide, a very nice young lady of perhaps 28-30, bent down, and pulled up her right pant leg to about mid-thigh. There, instead of the normal tapers of the calf into the knee, there was a series of metal rods, dissapearing down into her shoe, a shoe that we could now see was filled with a hard black material. She explained that she had been part of a team of people who had helped to clear mines in this area after she had lost her leg to one of them.

I was speechless (a true rarity for me) for quite a while after that. Not only had this woman been leading us all over a ruined temple that had involved a great deal of exertion for me, who has both his legs, but she had been having to climb up to some of the more precarious places that I had gone in order to ensure that I didn't fall to my death. In the span of about 2 agonizingly guilty seconds, I distinctly recalled 4 or 5 times that she had hopped from one place to another using only one leg, and using the other for stability. It hadn't really registered at the time, but the behavior, given our recent revelation was so clearly that of someone keeping weight off of one side of their body that I felt as stupid for missing it as I felt awful for forcing her to do it.

After recovering from my grief attack, I began to wonder what kind of a person would first experience something as painful and life-changing as losing a limb to a landmine, only to come back to help get rid of those same mines, and then to stay on as a sort of guide to the place where all of that had happened. I think that most people would want to get as far away from memories of something like that as they possibly could, I know that I certainly would. And perhaps, it is just that she lived in the area and that work is scarce (because it is) in Cambodia. But then again, a person who is affected deeply by something in any way, one who sees something, or experiences something profoundly awesome or terrible can't help but be motivated by it. Be it motivation to start making choices that ultimately hurt you, drinking, drugs etc. as so often happens, or motivation to work to make a change, so that noone has to experience that again, it can be a factor that influences you for the rest of your life.

There is a certain sadness as well, to being the curator of something that is deteriorating, and about which you, nor anyone else, can do anything. Be it the director of the Louvre watching the Mona Lisa slowly crumble, or be it a lonely Cambodian guide, sitting at a table in the middle of a jungle, at a rarely visited temple, hearing the merciless trees taking root among the ancient stones, watching your charge fall cannot be easy.

I like to think of our guide as a person who chose the latter path. Something awful had happened to her, yet now she is able to point to an accomplishment, the clearing of the mines, as something that will make a difference, make a change. As few visitors as there are, people can walk safely through her small section of the world, one that she helped to make safe, and she can watch them enjoy what Cambodia was always meant to be. Beautiful.

A whirlwhind return to Thailand, SCUBA diving, and the worlds biggest rave on a beach

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

...and the word spreads kind of far and sort of wide...

So...the lovely and talented Ms. Julia Dimon, a travel writer of some renown (at least in her native Canada and among gonzo travelers everywhere) recently asked if she could post some of my work (subject to her editing) on her website. After much hemming, hawing, galumphing and flip-flopping, all of which lasted less than a second, I enthusiastically told her "of course!" She promised me a pony and a rainbow and unicorn for my efforts, all of which I have been assured are forthcoming.

Therefore, you may now find one of my articles in a brilliantly edited format at:

Julia is a fantastic writer and I both can and do recommend that you read the rest of her site. She, unlike many of us unfortunates, gets to do this kind of thing for a living, a fact that I am both obscenely jealous of, yet also very excited about as it allows me to continue living through her experiences.

I will soon have postings about the rest of my time in Cambodia, the world-famous Full Moon Party and of course, my zany month in Japan with only the finest of people...

Stay tuned...