Cambodia’s temples—Angkor Wat, Pre Rup, and Beng Maelea—invite reflections on land mines, Buddhism, and photography.
All images courtesy of Erik Wennermark.
By Erik Wennermark
Visitors take as many pictures of trees as they do of temples. Trees wandering through temple walls. Trees opening temple roofs. Roots become steps and trunks become walls of wood. Gnarled tendrils cover the grey stone, alive with moss and lichens.
There are many Facebook status updates: Sunrise at Angkor Wat! Sunset at Pre Rup! These are (and should be) accompanied by pictures. We stand casually and smile, holding our water bottles, our guidebooks. We bury our noses and read: Angkor Wat means Temple that is a City; Pre Rup means Turning the Body and refers to the shape of a cremated corpse traced in the outline of ash. We arrive at dawn to escape the throng, but there is no escaping, and the bas-reliefs circle the massive structure wheel in a never-ending war of Gods and demons. We complain about the heat, yawn, say Cheese!
The assembled crowd cheers at nature’s subjugation.
The guide says, This is a nice picture. Stop here, take a picture, move on without looking. You can look later or even directly after, eyes shining the reflection of your tiny digital screen. The sun is a distant object; if incorrectly placed it is abhorred, if cooperative, blessed.
In one particularly outstanding photo-op, a formation of ducks flies through the sunset (at Pre Rup). The assembled crowd cheers at nature’s subjugation.
Along with pictures there are many missing limbs. The Khmer Rouge laid mines here. Their gifts decorate the country; hundreds of miles to the south, in the killing field outside Phnom Penh, is a pyramid of skulls—the audio tour offers visitors a rest in the shade of a tree fed on the blood of infants.
Beng Mealea, a long tuk-tuk ride off the well-worn tourist route, has been left to the jungle. They say it is the “Indiana Jones experience” of the temples. Cinematic dangers abound. The Germans found 438 mines at Beng Mealea; do not stray off the path! The guide who shows me the ruin of Beng Mealea, a woman name Mai, has a wooden leg. I know this because she raps on a tree and then her leg and it makes the same sound. Mine, she says. Still, she hurtles the ruins with aplomb, even offering to carry my water bottle after I slip, which I shamefacedly hand over.
Along with guides without legs, there are musicians without arms or legs or both. You see them often. Ensembles of armless, legless musicians playing a lonely tune amidst the ruins. It is a pleasing sound though sometimes you long for quiet or birdsong. You give them 2000 rials (50 cents) anyway.
She raps on a tree and then her leg and it makes the same sound. Mine, she says.
[Inhale the leaf: the leaf on the tree in the wild, unmanicured jungle. One tree among tens of thousands of others trees, one leaf among hundreds of thousands of other leaves. Retain the leaf: Watch it sprout from the branch, slowly grow, change color, texture. Watch it fall. Watch it join the other leaves dead and dying on the ground; crunched under foot, mingling, eaten by insects and the rain. Exhale the leaf: it turns to the earth, the dirt. In another forest on another continent on another world, other leaves are being trod upon by other beings who share your fate. Retain your size in this picture. Contrast this with your place in the whole.]
I often see monks talking on their cellphones. The monks are crazy for their cellphones! I try to reconcile their peculiar embrace of technology with Buddhist thought. I only know, Life is Suffering.
In another forest on another continent on another world, other leaves are being trod upon… Retain your size in this picture. Contrast this with your place in the whole.
Five monks in a tuk tuk. How many monks can you fit in a tuk uk? (I’ve seen five.)
They are radiant in their saffron. One takes a deep drag on his cigarette, exhales his satisfaction and grins. One carries a saffron umbrella. In the temples, many of the Buddhas are draped in saffron, some have umbrellas. Burn incense and sampeah, perhaps life will improve, but that is not the point, one should only grow progressively more tolerant.
[Instead of the leaf, imagine your decomposing body. What will remain when your body becomes the earth?]
I am charmed by the elephants, not the real elephants mind you—they are wrinkled and liver-spotted and drop hayballs of shit from their wrinkled anuses—but the stone and cotton elephants. Ganesha is a popular T-shirt for sale here. He’s like Babar but he’s a god.
Erik Wennermark writes prose and teaches English in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Follow him @erikwmark or visit erikwennermark.com for more.