Saturday, April 19, 2008

Temples in the Jungle and Flying Candles

For the last few days I’ve been trying to get to Beng Mealea, a huge temple complex about 2 hours from Siem Reap that many believe was the prototype for Angkor Wat. It’s been left pretty much alone, overgrown by jungle with many of its stones piled in great heaps.

It wasn’t much visited in the past since the area was heavily mined. Halo Trust and CMAC cleared most of the mines a couple of years ago and as long as you stay in the temple complex you’re fine. I say most because there is no such thing 100%.

The trip was originally going to be just myself and Sau, my friend and driver. Then more people started saying they wanted to come. Eventually we had Sau, Becky, Aki Ra, Hourt, Amatek, Mine, the baby, a Japanese couple who are volunteering at the Museum, about 6 kids from the Museum and me. We piled into 2 vehicles and headed to Beng Mealea, about 10 yesterday morning.

We got there a little after 11 and there was hardly anyone around. You have to buy a ticket to see the complex, but it’s only about $5, so still pretty cheap for what you get.

After the mines were removed the Apsara Authority , sort of like the Department of the Interiror, installed walkways throughout the temple complex. It was good and bad. Good in that you can actually walk around the complex now and enjoy the amazing sights of huge stone piles covered in jungle growth. Bad in that the locals used to make money by hiring themselves out to help the tourists climb over all the rocks. Two locals per tourist. And you needed it. I went off the walkway a couple of times and had to be very, very careful climbing around and over the stones. Plus it was 92 degrees and 55% humidity so you are sweating like a sponge.

In the center of the complex, up a set of stairs is a beautiful wooden deck that overlooks the entire inner complex of the temple. That’s where we had our picnic. Hourt hung her hammock so the baby had a nice place to nap and the rest of us munched on pineapples and water and just enjoyed the beauty of the moment. Chet and Tul took my camera and climbed down into bottom of the complex and started taking pictures of all of us up above. They asked me to climb down with them. I begged out. Now both of these guys are landmine victims and missing a leg. Didn’t seem to keep them from climbing all over that complex like mountain goats.

Now you and I both know that a westerner would have walked through that temple complex, taken his pictures, rested for a couple of minutes and headed right back for the bus, another box on his to do list checked. The Khmers take the time to enjoy where they are, enjoy the moment and savor the experience. There was no need to run back to the cars. What were we going to do? Where were we going to go?

Interesting you should ask.

About 2:30 we headed back to the cars. I thought we’d be going back to the Museum. But when we got back to the village, neither Aki Ra nor the truck were anywhere to be fund. Amatek, his 5-year old son, had stayed back with daddy and they had decided to go hunting, with a slingshot. They got back about 4 with a small squirrel and bird that they had found in the jungle a few kilometers away.

Our next stop was not the Museum but a village called Sambrow (sp). They were having a huge new year’s celebration next to the pagoda. There was dancing, tug of wars, lots of baby powder being thrown around, a bit of local ‘moonshine’ available on the back of truck, and a whole bunch of little kids who’d never seen a ‘barang’ before.

I found out later that this was Aki Ra’s home village. After that I watched everything with a different perspective. He may not have known everyone there, but everyone certainly knew him. He was in his element, laughing, dancing in the crowd, helping the girls’ team in the tug-of-war and generally having a blast.

Later in the afternoon Hourt took us to the pagoda and showed us around. The monks’ house is next door and we climbed to the roof which is actually a big patio and looked out over the whole village. A bunch of the little kids had followed us. They’d never seen a barang (foreigner) before and were peppering Hourt with questions. “How do berangs eat?” “Where do berangs sleep?” “How do berangs sleep?” I’m not sure how we eat or where we sleep, but apparently the ‘how we sleep’ is standing on our head with our feet in the air, to which I added “with our eyes open”. You could almost hear their little chins hitting the tile floor.

About 6pm we headed back to the car, tired, thirsty, covered in powder with our ears ringing from Khmer Rap. Ai Ra said “one more stop. A village near here is having a party in the field with movies and a play. The play is about during the war. “ Sounded good to us.

We got to the village about 6:30 or so and parked in the field in front of the stage. Aki Ra backed the truck in so the bed faced the stage. Just like the drive-in. We bought some food from a local vendor. All you could eat for 3,000 riel ($0.75). The second course was the bird Aki Ra had shot that afternoon with his slingshot.

Ron, one of the kids who works at the Museum is from that village so we headed over to his house. The women decided to shower (a bucket from the well pored over their heads) so Ron, Sau, Amatek, Mine and I sat outside Ron’s house watching the lightning show in the sky. Mine, Aki Ra and Hourt’s 3-year old, fell fast asleep in Sau’s lap. Amatek doesn’t like thunder so he climbed into my lap, grabbed my hands and put them tightly over his ears.

We headed back to the field just as they started flying what I call burning kites. Like the burning kites at the Kratong festival in Thailand, they are big paper bags that when turned upside down and fitted with a candle float off into the sky like hot air balloons. Eventually they catch fire and fall to earth. They are about 6 feet high and fly for quite a while. They were launching them about every 15 seconds for quite a while. They filled the sky. Amatek and Mine were in the car hanging out the window absolutely fascinated by the burning kites.

The rains came at about 8:00 so we bailed and headed home. Got back to the hotel at 10pm. Slept until 8.

All in all, one of the best days I’ve had since I got here.

Monday Sau and I are going to visit Kbal Spean out near the museum. It is an ancient Khmer site with a waterfall and river. It’s also called the River of 1,000 Lingas. The area was a fetility sight and has 1,000 lingas carved into the riverbed.

All from the jungle


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Rowdy Style said...

Excellent! Mine clearing needs all the help it can get!