Siem Riep, Cambodia: March 2002
So, here I am, on the back of a motorcycle that is being driven by a teenager. We are traveling on a very rough dirt road through the jungle somewhere in Northwestern Cambodia. There’s not much to see; just endless dense jungle and the occasional roadside shack. I notice something strange, however, over the course of our 3 hour ride. All along the route, in various places throughout the jungle there are metal poles sticking up from the ground with red flags attached to them. Sometimes there are huge groups of these poles with flags all clumped together and sometimes these poles with flags are scattered more randomly and sparsely. There are even a few poles with flags standing more or less by themselves in the middle of nowhere. When we stop at a roadside shack for a rest and a drink I ask my driver/guide about the flags. “Those are warning flags,” he says, “to indicate the presence of land mines and unexploded ordnance. Don’t go to close to them or you might get blown to bits…”
I arranged this little adventure the evening before at a guesthouse in Siem Riep. It was an opportunity I could not resist. I had just completed a fairly extensive tour of the various amazing stone ruins in an around Angkor Watt. I had purchased the three day pass and spent one day with a guide on the back of a motorcycle and two days on my own with a regular old bicycle. It was incredible. Indeed, I’d even suggest that Angkor Watt is perhaps the greatest human creation in the history of the world. Of course I work with stone myself so I am a bit prejudiced in favor of the stone arts in general. But still, from any perspective, the place is pretty damn impressive. For me at least, it stands as a monument to what is possible. But this story is not about Angkor. This story is about another temple; a temple that I first learned about on the evening after I finished my tour of the famous ruins. I’m in the courtyard of my guesthouse smoking a joint with a young local scoundrel and I’m going on and on babbling away about how cool Angkor and the Bayon and The Women’s Temple are when the scoundrel interrupts me. “You think that shit is cool. You ought a see the illegal temple.”
“The illegal temple,” I say, “what illegal temple?”
“It’s the best temple of them all. But it’s over a 100 kilometers away from here. They call it _____________. It’s not part of the official national park of the Angkor Watt Temple complex and it’s supposed to be against the law to go there. But if you give the military guard a 10 dollar tip they will let you in.”
“Really, that sounds interesting; how do I get there?”
“I will take you there on my motorcycle for 25 U.S. dollars.”
The next morning at 8:00 am, I climb on the back of the motorcycle and head out on the long bumpy road through the jungle. The red flags in the jungle are freaky. The poor shacks on the side of the road are depressing. The jungle sun is unbearably hot and my ass is very sore from the long ride. We finally arrive at the site almost 3 hours later.
The motorcycle stops at the entrance to a footpath through the jungle and I get off. A short distance ahead on the trail I see a cluster of Cambodian military guys with guns. “You have to pay them ten dollars,” says the teenager, “and then follow the path to the ruins. Whatever you do, stay on the path and inside the ruins. Don’t wander into the jungle. I will wait for you at that restaurant over there.” He points up the road a short distance to a few huts with a couple tables outside them. “Take as long as you like inside.” He drives off on the motorcycle and I head walking down the path.
I can’t believe I am doing this. Could I get into trouble? I wonder why it’s illegal. A solid pit of bundled nerves sits in the center of my stomach. This is weird. My legs shake as I approach the military guys. I reach in my pocket and grip the ten dollar bill. I try to be calm and casual as I reach it out in the direction of the first uniformed man that greets me. He takes the money and smiles. “Stay on the path and in the ruins,” he says, “the jungle is very dangerous. You don’t want to go kaboom.” He laughs as he steps aside and lets me pass.
Shortly after the military guards I see a couple of those metal rods with red warning flags to indicate mines or unexploded ordnance just off the side of the trail. And then I see a couple more and a couple more. It suddenly occurs to me that this explains why the temple is illegal or technically prohibited for tourists. The landmine danger is too great. The area hasn’t been completely cleared yet so they can’t open it to the public. Perhaps it’s not too smart to be here. Maybe it’s dangerous. But both the guard and the teenager said as long as I stay on the path and in the ruins it’s okay. I’m sure the main route has been cleared. It can’t be that dangerous or they never would have let me in. I try not to think about it. I’ll be careful. There’s nothing to worry about. I walk slowly down the path watching every single step.
And then I see the temple….mindblowing…a fantastical interface of jungle and stone. It rises up before me like a strange mirage. It blends so well into the background that it seems to fade in and out of sight. How can something so big seem so invisible? I don’t see or hear any other people except the military guys back the way I came. Do I really have this amazing place all to myself? Why is there nobody here? I pass under a stone archway to reach an inner courtyard. Tumbling walls overgrown with jungle surround me. Where does the temple end and the jungle begin? I duck under another archway and find myself in an enclosed room barely lit by tiny shafts of sunlight that make their way through dense jungle and crumbled walls. I walk across the room to another doorway which leads to a long passageway and then a staircase. I move slowly forward. The labyrinth welcomes me in. Where am I going? I lose myself in a maze of passageways and courtyards and fallen walls and overgrown jungle. I feel like I’ve gone back in time? I feel like I’ve entered another world.
After a while, I stop for a rest in one of the overgrown courtyards. I sit on a boulder and smoke a joint. Stone walls entangled in vines surround me. The hot sun filters hazily through the dense canopy above. My brain wanders. For no reason in particular, I start to think about something a French traveler told me the week before in Phnom Penn. It was a story about the Kmer Rouge and PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome). Apparently, between 1968 and 1973 the US bombed the living fuck out of the nation of Cambodia as part of their war against communism in Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of people were killed and large portions of the landscape were rendered unlivable because of so many unexploded ordnance left behind in the soil. Most of the peasants from the countryside fled the deadly bombing zone to go live in the capital city of Phnom Penn . Only a small percentage stayed behind to endure the bombing. That small percentage of crazy peasants who stayed in the jungle for five years while the greatest military superpower in the world bombed them relentlessly later became the Kmer Rouge government. After the US withdrew, the rebels from the jungle marched to victory in the capital. Initially, they were welcomed by the people as heroes. Shortly thereafter, they attempted to impose a communist ideal. They force marched the people out of the city and back towards the fields in order to establish their perfect communal farming world. They tortured and killed anyone who attempted to stop them. It was one of the most horrific genocides in the history of the world…the killing fields. Over a million people died. In US political science and economic courses, they like to use Cambodia and the Kmer Rouge as a historical example which demonstrates the failure of communism. In the French guy’s story though, the horror in Cambodia had nothing to do with communism. The genocide wasn’t caused by some systemic flaw or theoretical miscalculation; it was caused by psychotic leaders who were suffering from really bad PTSD.
As I sit here, surrounded by jungle walls, paranoia invades my brain and I imagine the bombing campaign; burning jungle, loud explosions, foul smoke, dead bodies, missing limbs, screams of pain, agony, and horror; But most of all fear; constant, continuous and never ending fear. Where’s the next landmine? When will the next bomb fall from the sky? Jump at every sound. Always on the lookout. How can a person live like this? Never a chance to relax. Always on guard. Watch out! Careful! Quick, run for cover….
But alas, that was thirty years ago. There’s nothing to worry about now. Or is there? I stand up again from the boulder and begin walking through the labyrinth of fallen stone walls and overgrown jungle. I listen for the sound of other tourists or trespassers but I hear not a thing. Only the distant screech of monkeys and the constant buzz of insects. A sense of uneasiness and anxiety starts to grow within me. This place is so incredible. Why am I the only one here? Something is wrong. Paranoia grows. What started as a seed of intellectual concept in the back of my mind now occupies my brain just as the jungle grows to occupy this temple. Landmines? Unexploded ordnance? Could there be some here….close by…within the ruins. But the teenager and the military guards said no. They said inside the ruins is safe. But I paid them money to let me in. Maybe they lied. Would they really risk my life for ten bucks?
The scary truth is that America’s secret war against Cambodia continues even until this day. We have dropped no more bombs in the last 30 years but the bombs we dropped so long ago continue to explode. There are hundreds of thousands of little hunks of death hiding under the soil waiting to be found . On average, there are 100 accidental encounters per year in Cambodia alone. Usually it’s children playing in the fields or farmers trying to harvest food. Only some of the explosions result in death ; more frequently they simply blow off limbs. But the worst part is the fear. The Cambodian people will never again be safely able to walk peacefully through the jungle; a jungle that they have lived in for centuries. Even when an area is investigated, de-mined and declared safe, the declaration of safety is only good for one year. The annual monsoon rains bring floods that move the mines and ordnance around. That’s why this temple is illegal. That’s why I’m not supposed to be here. Maybe the last monsoon washed into this temple a great pile of this deadly detritus All of a sudden I feel the fear that Cambodians have to live with every day. And I feel it at the core of my being.
Holy shit. How the fuck do I get out of here? Jungle everywhere growing over the stone walls. Where are the bombs? They could be all around me? I’m too scared to move but I have to move. I climb over trees and up stone steps. I push aside vines and step through doorways. Kaboom kaboom. I expect an explosion at any second. Turn left, turn right. This way no that way. Which way did I come in? Some passageways are dark, some are dimly lit by shafts of sunlight. Where am I? Fuck, how did I get lost? It’s like a goddamn maze; a labyrinth; a crazy game with deadly hidden pieces. My heart beats loudly in my chest. Sweat pours off my face. I have to stay calm. I have to find my way out of here. It can’t be that hard. Just re-trace my steps. But what way did I come in? I can’t go back out through the jungle. I have to find the path and not find any bombs. Holy shit. What the fuck am I going to do? Racing around in this crazed state of confusion it would be quite easy to stumble upon disaster. But I don’t. Instead, I stumble upon …
Wow. Incredible. On the other side of a dark doorway I find myself at the beginning of a long corridor. 50 or so feet ahead of me at the end of the corridor is a wide stone staircase. And the staircase is immersed in very bright glowing sunlight. At the end of a dark tunnel, I swear it looks just like a stairway to heaven. Maybe I found the secret center of the sacred labyrinth? Or maybe I got blown up and I’m about to meet God. I don’t know. But I walk slowly forward to discover what awaits. The stone ceiling above me is composed of row after row of dry laid arches all fitted together perfectly and still holding strong. The walls supporting the arches are cracked and crooked but not ready to collapse Unlike all the rest of these ruins, this one particular place is not consumed by growing vegetation. There are a few vines poking through the cracks and creeping along the edges but mostly the image around me is one of stone and shadow and light. The floor is strewn with rubble and dirt. I step carefully to avoid the big pieces for fear of hidden dangers. I don’t speak or whistle or sing. The sound of the jungle seems blocked out. Silence envelops me. The only thing I hear is my single solitary footsteps as I slowly move forward. I reach the heavenly staircase and step upwards into the light…
It’s 24 steps to the top. And with every step up, the sunlight gets brighter, warmer and more intense. I go slowly…. One step, two step, three step, four…. A strange sensation envelops me; the world takes on a dream like quality; after all this time in the shadowed temple the direct sunlight is blinding. I can’t see. It takes time for my eyes to adjust. I reach the landing at the top of the stairs and stumble forward… And that’s when the vision of absolute horror comes into focus. I’m standing on a landing that overlooks the eastern wall of the temple. There, right in front of me, is a wide angle view of a large section of jungle. Littering that jungle, in a seemingly infinite number are the familiar metal poles with red flags of warning. I feel anguish at the center of my soul. Is this what human’s are capable of? A living, breathing, abundantly growing beautiful fantastic jungle… and all we can do is this? Fill it with nodules of death and destruction. Not just here, either, but everywhere. This tiny patch of jungle before me is a metaphor for civilization. It’s a symbol of the triumph of Capitalism. Is this complete madness really what humanity is all about? The thought runs through my head over and over as I stare outward at this bizarre apocalyptic jungle wasteland… Is this what humans are capable of? Does this scene before me truly represent my species?
No, not exactly; we have a choice… In retrospect, I’m not certain that I heard an actual voice. But that is what it seemed like. Perhaps it was simply an intuition or a very active and loud thought arising in my brain. I don’t know. But as I am standing there looking out at this metaphor of human madness, with a feeling of emptiness and horror overwhelming me, it seems to me like I hear some kind of disembodied voice. The words are clear and understandable; “turn around,” says the voice. And so I do.
Wow! Rising up in front of me is one of the most amazing human creations I have ever seen. A tall stone tower that is dressed in a robe of jungle. There are stone sculptures of four legged creatures, demons and gods protruding outward from the ledges. There are intricate bas relief carvings decorating the windows and doorways. The entire structure is a perfect manifestation of masterful human creation through the medium of stone. With the dense jungle green background and the bright sunlight shining upon it the image before me is a perfect example of humanity’s potential for greatness. Is this what humans are capable of?
To the right of the tower there is another staircase down that leads to a clear pathway which connects with the main trail that leads back to the military guards. I can see the way out. I’m not lost. As a matter of fact, I’m not lost in more ways than one. As I make my way towards the exit, I feel found. And that’s when the notion first appears in my mind. I know exactly what I want to do… I want to build a temple of stone…. Yeah, I know, it’s a crazy idea. Not very realistic. Who builds stone temples in the 21st century? I don’t even belong to a religious organization. Wherever will I get the funding? Sell the idea to a venture capitalist? Yeah right. No doubt if I had a brilliant idea for manufacturing cluster bombs and landmines, I could get funding. But if I want to build a giant stone creation in the middle of nowhere, I’ll never get a dime. Oh well, what can I do? It’s an unfair universe. I pass the military guards on the way out and give them a friendly hello. The guy who took my money says, “you lucky, no go kaboom!” And the whole group starts laughing. Down the road at the “restaurant”, I find my guide with motorcycle waiting for me. During the long ride back to Siem Reap I see a lot more of the deadly warning flags and the idea becomes clearer and clearer in my head. A temple is the opposite of war and conquest and capitalism. And that’s why I want to build one…
Of course, the only way I will ever be able to build a fantastic giant stone creation in the middle of nowhere as metaphorical opposition to conquest capitalism is if I sell a whole lot of books. So why don’t you click on this link and buy one right now: The Way to Timbuktu.
Or if you have one of those electronic book devices you can purchase the cheaper e-book version by clicking on this link: The e-book.