Mornings at Angkor

by Socheata Has
Pasadena, CA

How do I tell you about the mornings at Angkor? 

Everybody goes to Angkor.  They all go these days:  Frenchmen, Germans, Americans, Japanese ladies in Louis Vuitton.  They go toting guidebooks, sunscreen, and toting still more expectations of wonder and that strange mystique that is glory long dead.  The year of their lord had just turned 2002 and I finally went myself to my birthplace.  Cambodian, with an American passport, with memories 18 years old, I went in deliberate ignorance: eschewing the Fodor's and Frommor's, dodging the well-meaning advice of friends and turning a deaf ear to the iffy histories culled by a perjured public.  Though in the end, I could not hold on to the ideal of ignorance.  The sun got too hot for blind adventure so I broke down and read the guidebook.  I packed toilet paper.  At Banteay Kdei, I gave up, joined the crowd and drank in the words of a man who must have grown up under the insignia of Hun Sen.

That morning, before January said her goodbye, under the aegis of an Angkor moon, before the rise of an Angkor sun, I found why and why and why again everybody goes to Angkor…

We woke at 5.  After a grueling day on the Grand Circuit and some bad baloot, I had spent the previous night retching in the hotel toilet bowl.  But the morning was our last in Siem Riep, and empty as I was, I was going to catch the sunrise at Angkor.  So we went down at 5:15 and met our driver, hunched in his American sweatshirt underneath the awning of our cyclo buggy.  We rode into Angkor with the moon on our left and the rising sun on our right.  The road in was quiet, our motorcycle carriage luminous in the waning glow of the moon. 

There were people there, already, when we arrived at the entrance of Angkor Wat.  We all walked, as the others, by ones, by twos, through the predawn chill towards the first arch that is the first window into "the greatest city that is a temple."  Someone snapped a photo, and today it shows me, a sliver against the murky darkness, a moon high above.  It is my favorite picture from Angkor.  I look at it and I remember the ascetic peace that was with me through that morning, when I was wavering between utter exhaustion and the keenest of joy.  We were never alone at Angkor, yet there was never a dearth of privacy in its hallowed walkways.  Every corner I met my history, every pillar spoke a story to me. 

At Bayon, I kissed the stone lips of Jayavarman.   Here was the hero of my youth, the stuff of which my dreams were made, the password of my college accounts.  I lit incense and prayed at the foot of an ancient Buddha, coached on by the nearby nuns to whisper reverential petitions of peace and good tidings.  I squinted at the faded inscriptions on the bas reliefs.  I could almost make out the words.  I could almost understand the language.  I saw the letters form into words, and I could almost understand their meaning.  Almost.  I could hear my mother telling me of the time she came here when she was young.  I could hear the songs she sang, the music, the anthem that gives tribute to the stone pillars.  I could hear the schoolroom lessons decades old of this place centuries old.  The wonder of Angkor is in the endless paradoxes.  It stands aloof, yet it welcomes.  I felt a foreigner.  I felt a visitor.  I felt home.  I felt Khmer.  I felt the heat of the rising sun, and the cool assurance of the impervious stones.  Here was the immovable, the grandeur, the simplicity that could be me.  Here was the immovable, the grandeur, the simplicity that exists regardless of me, outside of time, beyond any of my inadequate rhapsodies.

How do I tell you about the mornings at Angkor?  It isn't a thing that could be told.  It is a place to be, and if you were privileged enough to be Khmer, it is a place to be in your heart.

© 2002 Khmer Institute. All rights reserved.