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The Remaining Right Side of the Buddha
Part 10: A Day & Night Amongst the Temples

Thursday - May 27, 1993

The next morning Jack and I found two local teenagers named Pete and San. The two had been among a group of enterprising youths that we had met the day before. They had offered their services as hired motorcycle drivers to take us to the sites of Angkor. Alternatively, we could rent their motorcycles while they stayed at home. Pete and San appeared to be bright and friendly and so, we decided to enlist their services. We rode the short distance to the central market where we met Paul and Ken for breakfast and then headed out of town.

A short distance beyond Angkor Wat we came upon the south entrance to Angkor Thom. The approach to the arched entryway, through which the road passes, was lined with gargantuan stone figures - a churning serpent drawn by 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. The grand archway itself was adorned with four beatific faces of the Bodhisattva, Avalokitisvera, each face gazing from high above in line with the four points of the compass. The road crossed what was once a moat filled with vicious crocodiles and entered the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom.

There were approximately 100 temples constructed at Angkor between the 9th and 13th centuries. The ruins of some of these adorn the grounds within the walls of Angkor Thom. The temples are all that remain of what was once a major administrative and religious center. Houses, palaces and other buildings are long gone as they were constructed of wood - the right to dwell in brick or stone structures was the exclusive right of the gods. At its most populous, as many as a million inhabitants resided in Angkor Thom making it larger than any European city of its time. The Khmer Empire extended from what is now the tip of southern Vietnam northward to Yunnan and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal.

Amongst the ruins of Angkor Thom, the Bayon was the most awe inspiring. Early (19th century) French explorers reported that the Bayon was referred to by villagers as the "hide-and-seek sanctuary". Some 172 Avalokitisvera faces look down with awesome power upon a complex arrangement of passageways on many levels.

After some time at Angkor Thom, we rode out to Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm was the highlight - absolutely amazing. It was built as a Buddhist temple in the 12th century under Jayavarman VII. Whereas the other temples were cleaned up by the French, Ta Prohm was left just as it was when the French discovered it over a century ago. Enormous trees with stone wrenching roots were in the process of devouring the structure; testament to the power of the jungle.

Dusk was fast approaching when Jack and I gave up the deep solitude of Ta Prohm and made it back to town for a trip to the central market. We had decided to sleep at Angkor Wat that night. Jack and I would meet Paul and Ken there at dusk.

By the time we arrived at the market, many of the merchants had already packed up and headed for home. We had chickens in mind for dinner and planned to buy extra to share with the refugees living amongst the ruins, but there were no chickens to be had. We asked around and soon found ourselves being lead into the residential compound adjacent to the market. We were brought from the muddy roadway into a home where a half dozen or so live chickens were brought before us so that we might choose our dinner.

We selected two rather plump birds and agreed on a price; 6000r per kilo - about US$4 for the two birds. The legs of the chickens were bound together and they were then handed to me by the ankles, squawking all the awhile at the inconvenience. We returned to the market where we rounded out our take with bread and vegetables. The market was fairly empty by then but we did run into three election monitors recently arrived from Ireland. As we chatted, their eyes kept drifting down towards the chickens as they tried to make sense of two foreigners shopping this way. Their eyes really bugged out when we explained that we were preparing to sleep at Angkor Wat that night.

On the way back to the Wat, it started to rain. I strained to hold the chickens clear of the motorbike's rear wheel - the chickens hanging upside down and their legs still bound together. The rain and wind picked up and with it, our driver's speed; the chickens were more distressed than ever. They tried desperately to escape their fate twisting their heads up in an attempt to peck at my tightly gripping hand.

Paul and Ken were glad to see us arrive - by this time they thought we weren't going to show. We entered one of the two library buildings and met some of the folks living there. Families of village people were camped out on the hard stone floor. We also ran into a monk we'd met the day before who happened to be visiting the refugees.

The monk's name was Kom Sothea. He grew up at Site-2 (a refugee camp) in Thailand. He had left his home in Phnom Penh for the monastery at Angkor Wat during the elections thinking it would be safer there. His English was minimal but the refugees spoke none so he was our translator. We determined that the refugees had already eaten dinner so we gave them one chicken as a gift and started cooking the vegetables for ourselves. We darted through the rain to the other library and made a gift of the second chicken to the folks there.

Then the shooting started. It was very close - perhaps in the jungle just outside the walls of the temple complex. We looked out into the rain and darkness and imagined the worst. Later we learned that it is common to hear an increase of gunshots during a downpour. Apparently, government forces would fire at the sky in an attempt to stop the downpour.

As the rain continued, the libraries, with their exposed window openings and doorways, began to fill with water. Sleeping space on the floor became tight as the villagers clustered into the few dry corners. All along, Kom Sothea could not fathom why we would choose to sleep in such a place. After dinner, we took him up on his offer to sleep in his room at the monastery.

His room was small and simple but he had it to himself. The five of us lay down in a row and took turns reading out loud from a book about Buddhism written in English - the page illuminated by a flashlight. Then we slept to a cacophony of loud frog croaks and periodic gun-fire.

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