The Spell of Cambodia

by Phyllis E. Weston

Four of us arrived in Cambodia in one of those lulls which occur in guerrilla warfare. During our stay, there were constant reminders of the consequent impoverishment of the country.

Two friends flew right away to the Temple Hotel near Siem Reap, as the main object of our visit was to see the ruins of the cities Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. Another friend and I had to wait for another plane to fly late in the afternoon. We more or less, philosophically, ate sandwiches saved from our plane journey there and observed the laborious work of men and women engaged in construction around the airport, with nothing but shallow baskets in which to carry the sand and gravel required in the building.

When we two arrived at the Temple Hotel, it was near dinner time. The dining room was a huge marquee set in a paved courtyard a few yards from the hotel. Pacing the courtyard like a dignified gentleman in sober gray was a very large, long-legged bird of the crane family called a brolga. Not wishing to meet it face to face, I was wondering how to avoid it and reach the dining room. Just then I heard the sound of heavy hoofs galloping along a road behind the hotel buildings. I looked up to see a small boy astride an enormous elephant traveling in full tilt, like a cowboy in a western movie. Forgetting the bird, I moved to have a better look at this exotic sight and found myself at the dining room entrance. Suddenly, the air was filled with an ineffable sweetness. Someone had scattered tiny white jasmine blossoms on the tablecloths. That did it: the scent, the brolga, and the elephant - for me Cambodia had cast it's spell.

Not far from the hotel, the city of Angkor Wat lay across a body of water which reflected the noble ruins. That night the scene was bathed in mellow moonlight and floodlit dramatically. We sat near the water to enjoy a program of song and dance. In costumes rich in bright colors and eye-catching design, the actors performed a legend similar to our own fairy tales of a disguised prince and a beautiful princess. We saw and heard the Cambodian violin, a narrower instrument with fewer strings than our own, which was used with drums to provide music for dancing. Chanting accompanied this music.

The next day we went to visit Angkor Thom, the great city of the Twelfth Century within whose walls a million people lived in an area of nine square kilometers. Stone statues and symbols abound: the Buddha is represented with four faces, one for each of the Buddhist virtues: charity, kindliness, kindness, and equanimity. The king cobra and the lotus are frequent symbols, the former because it once protected Buddha, and the latter for purity. The materials used in building were sandstone and red volcanic rock transported to the site on reed rafts.

Eucalyptus trees surrounded the temples. The resin from these provided pitch for torches and for coating boats. Everywhere we heard the cuckoo and saw legions of red beetles.

In the afternoon we visited Ta Polm, a temple named for the teacher of an earlier king. The temple remains as it fell, a prey to the jungle. The roots of the silk-cotton trees, giants some five hundred years old, have wedged into cracks and sundered and gulfed the stone.

Our next visit was to Angkor Wat, also of the 12th Century, the chief temple to honor Vishnu and to be a memorial to the king who built it. The temple and grounds occupy a square mile. Incomplete after 50 years of work by 50,000 people and 40,000 elephants, it was still an impressive sight. Every block of stone was inscribed, the language being Sanskrit. The walls depicted the king's battles. One whole panel was devoted to heaven, earth, and hell, showing the bliss of the blessed and the agonies of the damned. The king's figure is easily recognizable by the fifteen umbrellas which shield him from the sun. The stone roofs account for the excellent state of preservation of many of the buildings.

The French explorer who stumbled upon the ruins in 1908 thought Alexander the Great had built it all. This soon proved to be wrong, but why this magnificent world of stone was abandoned to decay is not known.

The unusual ruins enhanced the spell of Cambodia. Then we almost had a rude awakening. The manager of the hotel sent word that he would not accept our vouchers. We must pay him and recoup our losses from our travel agent at home. Because of my smattering of French, I was sent to the office as spokesperson for our group of four. I seemed to make no headway until, in desperation, I said that if we paid again our travel agent would inform the Cambodian government. Suddenly our troubles were over, our vouchers accepted, and our delight in our visit even greater because of our feelings of relief. The next day we flew to Hong Kong feeling ready for whatever the fates might bring.


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(c) Copyright 1996 - Phyllis E. Weston