Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

The days we have spent on this trip so far have been varied and rich, but two days ago in Siem Reap we had an extraordinary experience at Angkor Wat. It is typical for tourists to arrive at the religious site at sunrise, but there are far fewer people in the morning than later at the height of the day and the heat. Our guide picked us up from our hotel at 5 am and we drove in the darkness toward Angkor Wat.

We filed down a long stone walkway only lit by the few flashlights we had with us. Our guide told us to stop and sit, facing east, and though we could not see anything but hundreds of stars in the sky, we knew that in the blackness before us loomed Angkor Wat. Arriving as early as we did, we still had an hour in the morning dark. We watched flashlights bob past us as other tourists arrived and picked their way across the fields. Finally the sun slowly started to tint the horizon. It was almost imperceptable at first, but the shape of the magnificent temple began to appear, written on the skyline in a deep inky blue.

There was a Cambodian man sitting near us, perhaps a guide for another group, who began to talk with us about his life. He was sitting to one side of our long line of students, looking out at the sunrise, and only a few of us at the end could hear him at first. But once it was realized what he was sharing and the significance of his story, the rest crowded around. As the sky brightened and Angkor Wat's incredible silouhette stood before us, the man told of the years leading toward the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. He explained how the Lon Nol period had been so painful and the government's association with the United States so devastating at a time when the country was being ripped by US bombs. When the Khmer Rouge took power in '75 the man said people were genuinely happy, thinking the war was over and the country would be restored to its peaceful ways.

The story of this man's life from 1975 to 1979 was heart wrenching. The Khmer Rouge loaded his family and him into a truck that drove down a road alongside many other trucks loaded in the same way. Miraculously, the truck got a flat tire. The convoy continued without this one solitary truck, stuck along the side of the road and waiting for assistance to arrive. Somehow, just this one deviation from the route allowed the man and his family to avoid being killed that day. He said all others heading down the road were being led to that end.

He, like so many others, was made to work in the fields. He was asked if he knew how to make sugar palm juice and he lied and said he did, opportunistically buying time in a way that must have been common during those years. Out of necessity and the type of fear that catalyzes the mind, he learned how, and therefore provided a service that kept him alive in the coming years. He told of the horror he witnessed befalling men and families around him. We were riveted, and watched the light rise on his face more than on the distant temple.

There was a similarity I felt in the mountainous presence of Angkor Wat and the man's story being told in the morning darkness. The story too seemed to stand alone in emptiness, mysterious, unbelievable, impossible to understand. We come as tourists to the temple to acknowledge greatness, and so did we listen to the story to bear witness to the man's suffering and the country's tragedy. But in the end the history and the mistery stand alone.

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