When one thinks Cambodia one would think of the mysterious Angkor Wat, wild jungles and crisscrossing vines requiring exuberant machete wielding exploration. But this thought would make an excellent janitor for being so grossly and simplifyingly sweeping. Cambodia is complex: historically, politically, culturally and socially. It has a lot to offer and one has a lot to learn.
Where time and lots of space meet
The imposing structure of Angkor Wat is too iconic to evade mention. As one enters through the gateway, an infinite causeway splitting expansive gardens into two, leads up to the Wat. An edifice can be seen at the horizon with its five egg shaped domes silhouetted against the rising sun representing the mythical mount Meru. And indeed, drawing closer to the structure, you would need acrobatic skills bending the spine backwards to keep the heights in view.
As one draws nearer, one notices that each constituent stone is, in itself, the size of a grown man’s torso. Not advisable to share a cake with the guy who decided to cut the rocks with that sense of proportion. And definitely not advisable to be an employee under King Suryavarman II. It would have been some heavy lifting and hard work. The job description would have also required excellent digging skills and endless stamina to create a deep moat and a foundation of several layers of stone and sand that the structure rests on. Also, Kings have not been identified as great pay-masters.
One could imagine, that once the royal announcement initiating the project would have been made, a politically curious subject swinging with a bottle of Tuk tnout choo (palm wine) would have asked a relevant question: “But why?”. Turns out temples are not just made to please the Gods, as one is usually led to believe. It is an incredible political statement. A King who can drive its subjects to work tirelessly surely must be garnering such great loyalty and if not loyalty, he must be wielding such unquestionable authority. Potato potato! Also, the king gets to record himself fighting perilous battles against the Chams and being quite brave with a long pokey spear atop an elephant. And one leaves a great canvass for the successor kings to make their mark.
Not saying that the Angkor Wat does not make for a beautiful array of artistic storytelling. The carvings are intricate, ornate and convey action and emotion like a baroque painting. Many, telling tales of Mahabharat and Ramayana and several dedicated murals to Vishnu. The patron god chosen by Suryavarman II. The Bayon temple has distinctive obelisks with smiling faces overlooking the kingdom. Each face seems to have grown organically out of the stone. It looks one with the temple. When one steps down the Baphuon (temple dedicated to Shiva), behind the structure, one can notice that the entire temple was in fact a sleeping Buddha. His somnolent face faintly visible in the shaded pattern of constituent stones. The famous Ta Phrom, where the snaking Spung Tree has made itself home sharing space with Lord Bramha himself, looks eerily forgotten.
Angkor Wat translates to “Temple City” and indeed the endless walking does do the name justice. The temples are distributed over 402 Acres of land interspersed with forests of rustling trees. The dried leaves falling lazily to the ground, the pollen in the air drifting aimlessly, the occasional tweets of invisible birds, the sunlight scattering through the foliage casting dancing shadows on the ground, all make the place look like a magical daydream.
Heaven on Earth
If the temples were mystical and dreamy, the classical and folk fine arts were otherworldly. Certain restaurants around Siem Reap host the dances but few are close to the authentic. The La Résidence d’Angkor and Apsara Theatre were found to host most celebrated artists. Where the light hearted folk dance of Chayyam depicted a scene of frolicking men and women, the grace and beauty of the Apsara Dance would make a running gazelle look like an uncoordinated drunk. Methodical, flowing and perfectly controlled movements gave an impression of elegant slow motion. The ornate dresses with work of gold shimmered under the stage light, the audience looked upon mesmerized. I suspect, for some it was the Angkor Beer that was to share the blame.
We see the zestful performances, the colorful night life of Pub Street, delicious smells and sizzles of street food; but there was a time when all was lost in Cambodia. The country had been pushed around from being a French Colony to a victim of the Vietnam War to the ruthless regime of Khmer Rouge. Years of unrest before it could find its footing has affected its people deeply.
The War Museum in Siem Reap has a collection of arms, ammunition, artillery and planes used during the wars. But what it truly has to offer, is a lesson that there is no glory in war. Perhaps wars are a way of life for humans. We definitely have not chucked the habit even after going through the brain-boosting cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago. If at all, wars have steadily gotten bloodier.
The collection of tools of destruction displayed there exhibit the keen human capacity to come up with the most innovative ways to destroy each other. The amputee mines are designed to blast off limbs but not kill, leaving the enemy state to spend resources tending for the injured. Injured are economically more cumbersome than the dead. The winner here, however, forgets that all the resources of the world, including money are finite and interconnected. Where one country is devastated in war, the debt continues in the form of grants and aids. The loss of environmental resources in one part of the world need to be compensated for by supply from other parts of the world.
War makes room for unrest which in turn leads to more violence and more wars. Help arrives in the form of better weaponry, further exacerbating the situation. When the powerful tire of war, the people continue their fight against hunger, poverty and post-traumatic stress. Not a good bargain for monarchs, democracies, communist states, commerce, the environment and the people alike. In fact, if you’ve chosen otherwise, you’ve just failed governance 101. However, you’ve successfully become a live example of the Theory of Mutual Assured Destruction. Quite a silver lining there!
Cambodia did not have a choice though. Its unfortunate geographical seat, allowance of sanctuary to Vietnamese troops and the enormous protruding noses of “international powers” cut a horrible deal for Cambodia. But its spirit survives. The strength and the will of the people, visible in the youngest students and the oldest handicraft workers makes one feel like a yellow-bellied putty ball.
The Spirit lives on
Art, in Cambodia is not an engagement that the rich dabble in. It is all pervasive. It is now a harbinger of hope and a peaceful future and even a way of survival. Stunning wood sculptures, paintings on bamboo canvasses and handicraft are now a source of income for the victims of war and mine amputees.
Batambang, a small town about 3 hours away from Siem Reap hosts several buildings with colonial architecture. Still well maintained, the white and yellow buildings shine against the bright sun. Smell of freshly baked indulgences fill the air and one is drawn to the many cafes of Battambang. The food is delicious, a mix of Cambodian and French cuisines makes even a full stomach rumble for more. If one gets even a taste, repositories of fresh yoghurt and honey would find themselves polished off. The most remarkable of revelations at Batambang are the Butterfly Tours. A student initiated walking/cycling tours where one is acquainted with the local folklore, the temples, colonial buildings and architecture.
Meeting them, one realises that Cambodia does not require our sympathy or our help. We are to learn from it.
We are to learn that the fiction of religion, monarchy, nationalism, democracy and even communism can unite people by making them believe in the ideologies. But the ideologies are the fiction and the people the reality. Force feeding the fiction at the cost of the reality leads to only instability and grief. The world is one and deeply connected, all actions transcend time and space. Our thoughts live beyond us. If we leave behind a legacy of pain, it circles around the Earth like an abandoned satellite. Perhaps we can’t prevent wars and violence, we can’t leave behind monuments to be remembered by. In fact, it does not matter if we are not recorded players of history. We do have the power to leave behind the forces of kindness and empathy to play their part.