The temple sandstone retains the sun’s heat, so as we sit here in the late afternoon, lengthening shadows against the many faceted turrets of the Bayon — the magnificent center of the Angkor ancient kingdom — I can still feel the day’s warmth against my hand. “Touch here,” I tell Jonah as we feel along the intricately carved surfaces, “Hundreds of years ago, a real person carved this.” We sit in wonder for a few moments, before the boys return to their endless clambering up one stone staircase and down another.
We are touching history everywhere in Cambodia, though we are almost equally astonished by what is missing. Seth and I were here in Siem Reap perhaps fourteen years ago, and we remembered a very different place — a small village, really, with some little guesthouses and the majestic colonial Grand Hotel of Angkor, but nothing like the tourist center that we find on arrival this time. In our memories, the capital city of Phnom Penh was still quite rough around the edges, and our guidebooks warned us of armed robberies after dark. The streets seemed filled with landmine victims and orphans, the Khmer Rouge still a very recent memory.
All this has changed by 2016: we won’t make it to Phnom Penh this time, but we land in Siem Reap and are astonished by a great highway from the airport lined by enormous hotels catering to foreign tourists. The center of the city has entire streets lined with tourist bars and restaurants. We are staying a little out of this madness, in a lovely small hotel staffed, it would appear, entirely by Cambodians under the age of 25. In the mornings, I go for a run along the river, and within a few minutes the tourist crowds seem a world away. I pass people going about their routines — fishing with nets, grazing cattle, playing soccer on the riverbank, commuting to work by bike or motorcycle, monks returning from their alms rounds — in a rhythm that seems quite unaffected by foreign visitors.
The history, however, is never far away. At the temples of Angkor, we read about the legacy of Jayavarman VII and his empire building. A guide at a local museum tells us about the roads, hospitals, and bridges built in the 13th century, many of which still stand today. We see a statue of Jayavarman and note his Buddha-like, implacable gaze. “A good king,” I comment to the guide. “A hero king,” he responds, with pride. A hero king, still revered hundreds of years later by the people whose features bear a distinct resemblance to his carved images.
But of course there are other ghosts walking with us in Cambodia as well. We visit a landmine museum, built as a labor of love by one of the country’s contemporary heroes, Aki Ra, who was a child soldier for Pol Pot’s army but later defected and has dedicated his life to clearing mines from the countryside and taking in children injured or orphaned by the mines. We hear stories that are impossibly tragic, unthinkably harsh. The message, though, feels inspiring rather than simply sad — in unbearable situations, humanity perseveres. From the most dehumanizing beginnings, a hero can rise up.
My clearest sense of this truth comes from the time we spend assisting at a little school run by one of the town’s monasteries — an experience for which I am boundlessly grateful. In the evenings, the grounds are filled with people coming for worship, for classes, and perhaps just to socialize — there is a gentle buzzing in the air outside, with a cluster of women selling food from stands and children coming and going on bicycles and scooters. The ghosts of Khmer Rouge, destruction, and poverty are here, but so is great vitality and even joy.
“Our heritage,” said the kind man who drove us through the ancient temples in a tuk-tuk. “It is our culture,” says the teacher-monk. Sandstone carvings and the swirl of an orange robe around the corner of a temple. Ghosts of kings and demons, and a gentle determination to press onward. Cambodia is humbling and beautiful. “Will you return?” asks the monk the night before we depart. “The world is big,” I answer, “I don’t know.” “The world is round,” he corrects with a smile as we wave goodbye.