Originally Published – Itchy Feet Magazine, July 2003
“Artichoke. It’s like a hard, rough, green flower.” The gears in my head whirred away as I searched for a description. All around me, serene faces carved out of stone blocks smiled. “What does it taste like?” asked Kay with pen poised. I looked to the grey sandstone heads for inspiration and replied, “A bit like… Cabbage.”
During the week, the Bayon and nearby stone temples of Angkor resemble anthills crawling with travellers. Two by two the tour groups scurry around the ancient monuments, up the steep sides and in and out of cool corridors, collecting knowledge, photographs and memories. On Sundays, the 200 carved faces of Avalokiteshvara smile smugly at young Khmers carrying notebooks collecting English words.
Kay is 13. He lives in the small village of Kok Tmey just outside Siem Reap. He goes to the temples of Angkor every Sunday to find travellers willing to spend a few minutes teaching him their language. That week his homework was to learn how to spell and pronounce a list of 28 fruit and vegetables.
In return for running through the list, Kay lead me to the bas-reliefs at the bottom of the Bayon where the first level of carving depicts daily life in Cambodia. “My uncle has one of these on his farm,” said Kay pointing to an ox-cart in a picture of Khmer soldiers off to battle. “And this is the village where the boat comes in from Phenom Penh,” he said, pointing to a panel that included a fish market. “Look at the chickens fighting and the old men playing.”
Kay tugged at my shirt sleeve. “Come this way. This is my favourite.” We walked to the western corner where a slightly faded panel showed a Khmer circus complete with tight-rope walkers and a giant lifting three other men.
From that point on ground level, the Bayon was a jumble of sandstone blocks. As we climbed knee high stone steps to the third level, the giant stone faces appeared in front and in profile, smiling above and all around. I said goodbye to Kay and left him and his school friends interrogating a Canadian girl about the taste of a guava.
“Custard Apple. It’s like a small soft coconut with green skin,” I explained as I sat in a deserted courtyard inside the Preah Khan temple. Bun, one of Kay’s schoolmates with the same homework, nodded and pointed to a small white flower growing in the shade of the rock. “Did you see the movie ‘Tomb Raider’?” he asked. “The girl found the entrance to the temple by finding the flowers. Just like this.” I looked closer at the tiny orchid, not much bigger than a thumbnail with five delicate petals in the shape of a star. It was a great reward for sitting still. We ran through the list of fruit and vegetables and then Bun showed me through the ‘Sacred Sword’ temple. We walked down the main corridor towards the central sanctuary. “Look how the doors get lower as we get closer,” said Bun. “This is to make you bow before the statue of Buddha.” Bun had no problems walking through the doorways as they shrank, but I could not pass through them without bowing my head.
The Preah Khan temple covers an area of 700m by 800m. As Bun led me over a pile of collapsed rooftop, I was glad that I had a guide to show me the hidden details, like an intricate carving of Shiva holding up the mountain and a queen statue that I would never have found on my own. We wandered down lost corridors to the southern gate where two headless statues stood guard against the jungle. “They guard against the monkeys,” laughed Bun, as the screeches of gibbons got louder in the treetops.
Bun and I made our way to the South Eastern corner of the temple where the Banyan trees had taken over from the stone. The thick roots of the trees gripped the 12th century sandstone blocks like the talons of a mythological bird of prey, providing a base for the trunk that dwarfed the remaining towers of the temple. “The jungle tree and the temple need each other,” said Bun, “The tree can not be removed. It holds the pieces together.” He walked with me to the north gate where he was delighted to find a French couple to help him with a postcard he had been sent.
“Persimmon. I don’t know. I’ve never eaten one. I think it might be a bit like this one,” I said, pointing to where passionfruit was written on the sheet. I sat with Jac under the cool canopy of trees covering the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm. Jac pointed to a row of doorways topped by banyan tree roots. “That is where they filmed ‘Tomb Raider,” he said. I could see why. Unlike most of the other temples around Angkor, Ta Prohm has not been restored. Instead it has been left at the mercy of the jungle.
Academics argue about the merits of letting the site decay to satisfy tourists who want to feel like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. Some say it is selfish to want to discover the overgrown entrances as if for the first time. As we sat in a green shady corner, listening to the birds and lizards rustle in the jungle, it was hard not to marvel at how nature had reclaimed the space.
We clambered over stones that had collapsed under the weight of foliage and in and out of courtyards that had been sealed on all sides. We slipped on moss and lichen still eating away at the carved stones and I tried to imagine what the place would have been like when 80,000 people had lived and worshipped there.
Another word was collected on the trek out the long sandy track to the eastern gate, Jac jumped backwards as a foot long shoelace came out of the grass and started to slowly cross the path. “Is it a snake?” asked Jac as I leaned closer. “No. We call it a worm,” I said as he furiously wrote it down in his notebook.
“Adventure. It’s a long and exciting journey,” I explained to Tola, a monk who lived in a monastery not far from Angkor Wat. Like most monks, he had studied English for a long time, but he still came to find tourists on Sundays on the third level of the main temple. We sat and looked up at the steep steps that led to the top of the central tower. Each step was about a foot high but only just wide enough to fit a foot sideways. “You get used to it,” said Tola, “I don’t even think about the height, I just run down.” He pointed to the summit as three Khmer boys threw their sandals off the top and onto the flat stones in front of where we sat. Then they ran, face first, down the steps without faltering. Tola grinned, “There is a hand rail around the other side.”
Tola met me at the top of the central tower. He climbed in bare feet straight up the side, while I used the thin metal handrail to pull myself 31m to the top. Once there, Tola pointed out the significance of the design of the temple. “This tower is Mount Meru,” he said, referring to the place where Hindu cultures believe the gods reside. “That is the ocean,” he continued, gesturing out over the walls to the moat of still dark water that forms a 1.5km by 1.3km boundary to the complex. We walked around the top level, traditionally reserved for Kings and high priests, until we were facing the paved pathways and main gates in the west.
The sun was setting and the Angkor sky was orange, tangerine, melon, paw-paw and blueberry. There was a colour for almost every fruit on the homework sheet..