18 July 2018

Waves Rise, Empires Fall, Temples Remain

Some do it because they must; others do it because they can.  Sometimes it's easy to tell who fits into each category.  Other times, not so much.

I'm thinking now about the folks who live on Tonle Sap, often called Cambodia's "Great Lake".  Like the Great Lakes of North America, it has its own climates and ecosystems.  It also has its own distinct human communities which, for all I know, Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan may also have.  

I took a tuk-tuk to the shore of Tonle Sac, about an hour from my hotel.  The ride took us from an industrial area on the edge of town into expanses of rice paddies and forests.  At times, the pavement on Highway 6 gave way to dirt, which turned to mud when it began to rain.

The road also narrowed, which meant that my tuk-tuk driver had to follow the unwritten, unspoken rule of the road in this country:  You move over for anything that's bigger than what you're driving (or pedaling).  That, at times, meant swerves through potholes of some liquid about the same color as an iced blonde macchiato at Starbuck's.

(Why am I mentioning the Evil Empire of coffee when writing about Cambodia?)

Oh, and all manner of living things cross the road--including oxen and cattle.  One of them might've impaled me on his horns had my driver's reflexes been any slower. 

But he got me to the shore.  I didn't uncross my fingers, though: It seemed that we'd been riding in and out of downpours.  

That tuk-tuk ride was a harbinger of things to come. Or maybe I hadn't "seen nothin' yet".  For all I knew, Tonle Sac might be like an inland sea, with all of its caprices in currents, tides and the like.  

Turns out, I knew more than I realized.  The boat I took could've been built by a Khmer farmer a century or two before any Europeans showed up.  The only difference was that it had an engine.  

The driver of the boat took us through a community of floating houses, which includes the school he attends.  He is 16, he told me, and had been driving the boats since he was 13.  He enjoys it, he said, but he wants to continue his schooling to so he can "help out" his family.

Would "helping them out" mean getting them out of that floating community--or simply finding a way to live better in it?  

One thing I must say for him is this: He isn't stupid.  I asked him to take us out into the open lake, where no land was visible.  There, choppy waves turned into walls of tide that bounced us like a beach ball off the nose of a circus seal.  He told me he could continue if I wanted to, but I could tell that he would have preferred not to.  And I didn't blame him, so we didn't.

But I did get to see fisherman unfurling, fixing and casting their nets; women cooking and cleaning. (On most of those houses, at least two sides are open.

Out in the open lake, all four sides are open--to the wind and storms as well as the decisions made by young captains and their passengers! 

Once back on shore, my tuk-tuk driver suggested two temples about a third of the way back to Siem Reap: Bakong and Preah Ko.  

Bakong, one of the oldest temples, has been called the "Khmer Pyramid" due to its shape.  It also has, perhaps, the steepest stairs to climb.  Like Angkor Wat, it was originally built as a Hindu shrine; other temples constructed for Buddhists tend not to have such steep stairs.  My theory is that Buddism stresses the importance of learning and--in some branches, anyway--an ordinary person is capable of becoming a Buddha, or enlightened one.  Hinduism, as I understand it, is like other theistic religions in that it says people have a long, steep climb to reach the Gods.

Preah Ko was built a bit later than Bakong, but is still one of the oldest Khmer temples.  King Indravarman built it late in the 9th Century CE to honor members of the king's family, whom it relates to the Hindu god Shiva.  Interestingly, it was built from bricks on a sandstone base, in contrast to later temples made from sandstone and lava.

(Note:  Both of these temples are accessible with an Angkor Wat pass.)

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