I can’t stop talking about this place.

posted by Sarah Lundgren

There’s majestic structures, deep poverty, crumbling ruins, extensive resurrections, honking mopeds, yammering salesmen, child monks wrapped in bright orange garb, and then there’s sweaty, DEET-covered Americans like me. Loaded in bug spray and covering more body parts than I would like to in 100-degree heat, I’ve been overwhelmed by all these sensations in our temple visits.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of our first week here, we’d spent the morning in class, in a frigid air-conditioned room, preparing ourselves for the day’s journey. Then we’d step off into the heat and get slammed with information and ancient majesty and attempt to garnish something more from it than, “Wow, this place is amazing.”

On Tuesday, Lindsey, Kristy and I set out with our guide Chhen to Angkor Wat, the picturesque symbol of Cambodia. It’s everywhere you look—on water bottles, on signs, even on the flag. When people have no idea where I’m at, I tell them to Google Angkor Wat and they say, “Oh yeah, Cambodia!!” One brief tuk-tuk ride and we were standing in front of the moat surrounding the massive temples that make up Angkor Wat.

In all honesty, our very passionate and talkative guide gave us so much information, most of it passed in one ear and out the other. I had been warned, as the idiot who didn’t bring malaria medicine, that Angkor Wat was really the only place I was at risk. So I donned a blue long-sleeve fishing shirt, shin-length white cotton capris, a bandana and pounds of bug spray, while everyone else was a little bit more free in the hot Cambodian sun. My focus was directed at taking pictures and attempting to stop the copious amounts of sweat dripping from every part of my body. I wasn’t even hot—my hometown of Savannah has nearly the same temperature, I keep telling myself I’ve just got a great natural cooling system. I tried to remain a little subtle about it but it became the running joke of the trip so far–how much Sarah sweats. Very feminine.

But through all this, I often was wandering away from the group, interested in the interactions around me. Touring families and monks mingled amongst each other, even little boys no older than eleven were wrapped in the monks’ robes. In between the front and back temples, little shops and struggling families were chatting and working at the same time. There was an old man as soon as we first entered the temple, with a deeply-lined face and sincere eyes, that gave me a look that showed years of experience I wish I could tap in to. I’ve seen many people like that here, even our guides have so many stories it’s hard to keep up.

Chhen loved to talk, even more than I do, and he was filled with information about his religion and the walls of the temple, relating the two together. Built by King Suryavarman II somewhere in the 12th century, it started first as a Hindu temple and later became Buddhist. Throughout the structure, you can see varying representations of both etched into the walls. Because the temple faces west, it’s apparently an amazing place to watch the sunrise, with the building reflected in the water in front of it, probably a religious experience in itself. It was a Buddhist holiday on our trip, so we weren’t allowed to climb to the highest part of the temple, but I’m sure it would have been a site as well.

Like most of the places we’ve seen so far, it’s in a constant state of construction, currently by the Germans. It’s representative of many of the foreign nations who’ve had a hand in rebuilding Cambodia from previous destruction and the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This rebuilding I see everywhere reminds me of how recently hard times have fallen on this beautiful place. As we left the temple, one of the last moments we had was when our guide asked us to stand on one specific square, before telling us it was the center of the temple. He asked, “Sarah, how do you feel?” I replied, “Small.”

At the end of the day, we traveled to Phnom Bakheng, what we’d told was a hill to watch the sunset. Not even close– it was a mountain, with a temple on top, and $20 elephant rides to reach it if you were so inclined. Kristy and I, the resident photojournalists, lingered behind everyone, taking pictures of everything. We missed most of the information from our guide, but we did find a gorgeous green bird hanging out on a trash can. I assume he was used to people because he let us get right up in his face.

When we finally joined everyone at the top, it was crowded, and that crowd continued to grow. It put a bit of a damper on the experience, but not so much as there not really being a sunset to watch. There were clouds in the way and we all ended up just spending about an hour taking pictures on top of the temple, making awkward poses and being loud Americans among the sea of Asian tourists. A couple of Australians next to us even cracked open some beers.

I did find out the temple itself was even older than Angkor Wat, which was visible from the backside of the temple, small, off in the distance. Phnom Bakheng was a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, the god of destruction. To get to the top to see the statue in the center underneath a roof was difficult. I watched as more people joined us, struggling over the narrow steps and struggling even harder on the way down. It was a reminder of how much people have evolved in size over the centuries. My big old feet felt clumsy on the way down, but thankful to rest after a long day.

Our next trip was to Angkor Thom, my current favorite trip we’ve taken. Ancient guards lined the entrance to the gate, and we stopped to take a picture with them. Once a massive city housing some one million people according to our guide, it’s much larger than Angkor Wat. I was literally in awe– constantly saying, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing,” and snapping pictures of every tiny detail. It’s a combination of ruins and beauty. The colors–rust, moss, sandstone–and the intricate carvings were much more striking than in Angkor Wat. Tunnels and halls wove throughout massive spires with Buddha’s face in stone everywhere you looked. It was built by Jayavarman VII, whom our guide said we could just call “7.”

There were multiple temples and areas on the expansive property. Bayon is the temple with all the faces and halls, which is hard to forget–it’s the brand name on all our water bottles. It’s crazy to imagine an ancient bustling city for all its intricacies. There was a temple we couldn’t enter, either because the French are working on it or it was a holiday, I heard both. There was a vast swimming pool, enough to hold the Leper King’s 110 concubines, and his burial area which was graffitied in only one spot–a large ATO on one wall. Fratstars around the world.

Lindsey and I laughed at a boisterous and possibly drunk Australian complaining about the narrowness of the steps throughout the temples. It made me eager to join their group on Pub Street later and bond over our mutual largeness compared to the Cambodians. But my favorite experience was inside the temple itself, in a dark room, next to burning incense and a heavily decorated Buddha statue. A little old woman asked our group of three girls to come pray with her, holding out sticks of incense and showing us what to do. After we got down on the mat, bowed up and down a couple of times, we put the incense in a sand-filled vase. We turned to her and she wrapped a braided, red yarn bracelet around our wrists and thanked us. We dropped money in the offering plate and walked out, feeling a bit light-headed but radiant all the same.

Our last day of temple visits started with a long tuk-tuk ride with a new guide, Vanith, and Lindsey and I left Kristy to fend for herself with Chhen. Vanith was a skinny, happy man, and had his share of stories just like Chhen. When a large red ant flew onto Lindsey, he picked it off and started telling us about how people ate them here. He then proceeded into a lengthy tale about how he’s eaten termite queens because they’re said to make you grow bigger and stronger. Lindsey asked if it had worked and he looked down at himself, patted his body, and said, “Nope!”

When we arrived at Banteay Srei, we saw what was once a land mind field that brought out an unanticipated response from Vanith. Our other guide hadn’t talked much about what it had been like for them growing up after or under the Khmer Rouge reign, but Vanith was open to telling us about the legacy it had left behind. The land mine situation still present in Cambodia serves as a constant reminder to him.

We skipped on to lighter things, like the intricate temple in front of us. It was much smaller than the previous ones and made out of a rustic red stone. It was built in the 10th century and both Vishnu and Shiva are honored here, but in different places. He pointed out three separate structures inside the walls of the temple that were once libraries– the doors on them were meant for someone the size of an 8-year-old. We didn’t spend too much time learning about the temple itself; we discussed the varying groups of Asian tourists under their umbrellas and joked around with Kristy and Chhen who were nearby. Vanith and Chhen asked us if we had boyfriends, and when Lindsey said no, they made her pray to the Kama Sutra gods on the library structures for her love life. We almost got Vanith to eat a red ant at one point, too. Needless to say, the temple was basically a bunch of laughs.

Following a barely-touched meal of what I thought was fish at a local restaurant, we headed to Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm, better known as the Tomb Raider Temples. If I hear another person ask me if I’ve seen that movie or know Angelina Jolie, I’ll fly off the handle. But I can see why she adopted a Cambodian child after being here– even the children outside the entrance, covered in dirt, half naked and harassing me to buy things were some of the most precious gifts I’ve ever seen.

Inside the walls, we were greeted by a beautiful, overgrown temple lost in time. Towering white barked trees with multiple roots had overtaken the light-stoned temple. Ta Prohm hadn’t been cleared out like the rest, but again, there was too much excavating to get the pictures I wanted. We did have a cheesy photo session, posing like Angelina Jolie in front of the trees and sitting in doorways looking stoic out at the sun. Our guide showed his prowess of photo-knowledge and had us posing and pointing out great photo opportunities. As before, I didn’t pay as much attention to the information as I should have; I was distracted by the beauty.  But I did know that King Jayavarman VII, our “7”, dedicated most of it to his family when he built it, specifically to his mother and siblings. It made me sad because we had already seen in many places poor children sent out by their families to scrounge, not knowing they would probably never see the fruits of their labor.

This overwhelming experience has caused me at some point to stop being a photojournalist and start being a tourist- the ultimate sin. I’m fighting with my instincts to tell other peoples stories and to tell my own journey. I don’t want to miss anything so I’m filling up my SD card with pictures I wouldn’t necessarily give to Mark Johnson, my photojournalism mastermind that’s gotten me this far. I’ve maintained a point to not really be in pictures, probably because of my appearance but it’s just become second nature to take them, not be in them.

I also realized I really wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared to be in this surreal environment, sweating to death, surrounded by smells and sights and sheer expanses of land. The adorable children make me smile and want to cry at the same time, I can’t get enough. There’s so much going on here, I feel small and insignificant but have this burning and growing desire to make a difference somehow.

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