Novice Monks, Angkor Wat

Sunday Afternoon, November 9
Apsara Sunset

The rest of the day would be dedicated to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the Angkor monuments. Occupying more than two square miles and surrounded by a 500 foot wide moat, Angkor is the pinnacle of classic Khmer architecture. Dedicated to Vishnu and its builder, King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat served as the king's funerary temple. The temple itself faces west, acknowledging the setting sun and the symbolic passage from life to afterlife.

Angkor Wat maximizes its symbolic potential by serving as a physical representation of both time and space. As you walk inward - across the causeway and moat through the main gate, along the internal causeway and up the tiers to the summit - you in turn go back through time, from the present moment to the birth of the universe at the top of Mt. Meru. Similarly, by going inward you cross the rivers and oceans, the land of the continents, the sacred foothills, and (again) the summit of Mt. Meru, the symbolic center of the universe and the source of all life.

Angkor Wat

And despite our profane reality of sweat, tourists and children selling flutes and postcards, Angkor Wat delivers a profoundly holy and thoroughly mystical experience. I've got a noticeable bounce in my step as we walk down the causeway to the main gate - I still can't believe I'm actually here. The sun begins to shine brightly as we reach the gate, a shadowy stone arch that obscures the view of the structures beyond it. I'm sure this was the intended effect, for as we cross through the darkness, suddenly the arch opens to reveal the full glory of Angkor Wat itself. Another long causeway terminates at the temple entrance, its column-studded base stretching far to the left and right. Another row of columns cover the second tier of the temple; above these I can see the temple's five towers that make Angkor Wat so recognizable. I wonder how high we can climb inside. As we reached the columned entrance, I am greeted by the first of many old Buddhist nuns inviting me to light some incense. I decline for now - I figured I'd wait til I reach the top. The old nun smiled and said "Sok Sabai." "Aw kohn, Sabai te," I say back - "thank you, be well" - at least I think that's what I said.

Susanne standing in temple courtyard, Angkor Wat
Just beyond the entrance I saw dark corridors extending both left and right, running in a square around the central tier. The corridors were shaded on both sides by stone columns that are chiseled so intricately you would swear they were wood and carved with modern molding tools. It's somewhat difficult to walk through the corridor for each compartment is separated by raised stone blocks as high as 18 inches above the ground. Walking became an introductory step aerobics class as we maneuvered our way down the corridor. Well worth it, though. The path took us about 30 minutes to walk all the way around, so we moved up to the second tier: four stupas stand at the corners of the tier, with large courtyards and courtyards-within-courtyards in each quarter of the tier. We decided to cut through to the back and then walk around along the sides. The view of the surrounding landscape is lovely, and we weren't even halfway up. In one corner we found a western couple who appeared to have claimed the sunniest spot in which to sit and enjoy a soda. Susanne noticed that there was a nice view of them from another courtyard window, so she offered to take their camera and get a picture of them. It turned out that one of the two tourists, was from Bethesda, about half an hour from my apartment in Arlington. Small world.

I've already gone through a roll of film at Angkor Wat and we've only been here for about an hour. I'll relent on my snap-happy enthusiasm but also note to myself that I could always buy more film. Besides, I'm not exactly in the neighborhood every day.

Bas relief detail, Angkor Wat
We decided to climb up to the third tier, an imposing task considering the steps are thin and rise at about a 75 degree angle. We walked around to the south side and found a set of reinforced steps and a handle rail leading to the top. As we began the climb, a nun at the bottom courtyard said something in Khmer that I took as meaning Be Careful, Kid. Luckily we made it to the top unscathed, albeit severely out of breath and sweaty. As with the two levels below, the third tier is divided by quadrants of courtyards (that were once shimmering water pools) circumscribed by dark columned corridors. In the main corridors extending cardinally from the center of the summit, old nuns sat on the floor and chatted with younger women and a couple of park policemen enjoying a cigarette. The nuns smiled as us and laughed as they asked, "Sok Sabai te?" which I now began to regard as the official form of hello inside Angkor. "Sok sabai, aw kohn cheran, sok sabaiiii...." I replied.

At the very center of the tier were four small shrines, one facing each direction, all containing statues of the Buddha at different stages of life. We paused at the Buddha facing north - a reclining Buddha in the midst of achieving nirvana. We had reached the top of Angkor Wat and I felt it was time to give thanks for our safe journey through Cambodia, so I lit some incense and a candle, leaving a dollar on a silver plate in front of the statue. Hopefully the Enlightened One would appreciate the gesture from a couple of itinerant Judeo-Christian farangs such as ourselves. I also thought about Susan Hadden, the former head of the Alliance for Public Technology, who was killed in an ambush visiting Angkor's Banteay Srei temples two and a half years ago. I'm not sure if any of her friends or colleagues had had the opportunity to visit Cambodia since her tragic death, so honoring her memory with some incense seemed like the right thing to do.

It was about 3:45 pm now and we were supposed to meet Rang at 4:45 in order to climb the hill at Phnom Bakheng, which apparently offers the best view of Angkor Wat at sunset. But as we returned to the base of the temple, we found a group of kids dressed in classical Khmer dancing costumes - girls in golden Apsara outfits and boys in colorful harlequin ensembles. In the distance I noticed a minivan and several men carrying xylophones up to the causeway. There was going to be a performance! Susanne and I had been disappointed in our inability to find traditional dance performances during this trip, so we decided to hang out, get a good seat and see what happened next. At first we got a little over-anxious and tried to snap some pictures while the kids prepped for the show. The boys hammed it up for the cameras, but the girls were much more intent on getting ready to dance and ignored our gestures to take a picture of them. Meanwhile a small crew of men set up a red cloth on the causeway - the stage, undoubtedly - and placed their instruments off to the left side of it. Having noticed this, I placed myself strategically at the left corner of the front stage, leaning on an ancient stone pillar next to the gamelan orchestra.

Susanne continued to get pictures near the dancers while I held our place. About a dozen chairs were set up in front of the stage and soon they were occupied by a large tour group made up of French and German retirees. I guessed that explained the reason for this "impromptu" performance. I glanced at my watch and saw it was now 4:10pm, half an hour before our rendezvous. Well, Rang might have to wait a bit - this was the chance of a lifetime, to see Khmer dancers in front of Angkor Wat at sunset - there was no way I'd miss this. Besides, we could always climb up Phnom Bakheng for tomorrow's sunset.

Listen to the Petal Dance with RealAudio!
By 4:30pm the gamelan orchestra started to warm up, so Susanne returned to our front-row position. Within a minute or two, the musicians broke out full swing into an overture. Fortunately, I had just hit the "record" button on my tape player. Soon the Apsara dancers glided gracefully to the stage, bathed in warm orange hues from the setting sun. I couldn't believe our good fortune for being here at this moment. The dancers demonstrated a traditional flower dance, where bowls of flower petals are balanced in the palm of one hand and eventually tossed in the air as an offering of good luck. Susanne and I went trigger happy, taking almost a roll of pictures each in a few minutes. But we knew that some of these pictures would be classics, so it was worth taking extras just in case they captured a particularly magical moment.

The monkey god Hanuman in a dance from the Reamkin
For more scenes from the performance, visit The Children of Southeast Asia

Listen to the Coconut Dance with RealAudio!
We stayed at Angkor Wat for two more dances - a wonderful percussive number where boys and girls skillfully collided coconut shells to a rhythm, and a scene from the Reamkin (the Cambodian interpretation of India's Ramayana epic), a reenactment of the monkey god Hanuman courting a beautiful maiden. The young boy who played Hanuman wore an ornately painted mask, and his movements were incredibly crisp and precise. I ran out of film and audio tape at the end of this performance, so we took this as our cue to meet Rang back at the car. Once again, we found him standing by his Camry with a gleeful grin on his face. Before I could finish apologizing for being late, he said, "Yes, Apsara dancers, I know," and agreed that we could always climb Phnom Bakheng for tomorrow's sunset.

We chilled out at the hotel, writing in our journals on the balcony as dozens of geckos congregated on the ceiling over our heads, waiting for the arrival of the evening mosquitoes. We eventually crossed the street to the Singapore Restaurant for another order of fried rice and some hot Singapore coconut curry chicken. The cafe had a bit of a bug problem, so we spent our meal blowing small flies off the table. More geckos crowded the walls while a TV played Khmer music videos at full volume. The videos reminded me of ones I had seen back in India, though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not.

We hit the sack at 8pm. Tomorrow we would meet Rang at five in the morning to catch sunrise over Angkor Wat. Despite my high level of anticipation awaiting another glorious day at Angkor, I managed to get a good night's sleep.