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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

nobody here except me and my monkey, and he's got a lot of friends

THAILAND | Friday, 11 July 2008 | Views [452]

Hello there!

I know that I promised to take you more thoroughly through Angkor wat, so here we go!
Rolling up in a cloud of dusty scattered gravel, my tuk tuk driver crazily hisses at me when i start to stand to exit the vehicle. I had no idea the massive scale in store for me when we pulled up at the first ticketing gate. Imagining an Epcot center mecca of culture, I thought i would just flitter about from wat to wat with the monkeys and monks beside me, hacking away at the brush like a proper Indiana Jones.
Quickly, he lurches forward and I slump back in my seat somewhat nervous- where could we possibly be going? Past the ticket gate was another 20 minute drive through parks and wide expanses of forested landscape. The little grey monkeys, obviously reincarnated gurus of tantric powers, greeted me with jolly waves from their peeping trees; their mischievous tails were eclipsed in both scent and beauty by the night blooming jasmine that lifts the woods to a more heavenly plane at this late hour of the evening.
After pulling up to a dirt clearing designated for parking, I am immediately swarmed by tiny little children: "Buy Something. Postcards. Cold Drink. Maybe you come back you buy something...." obviously repeated with practiced care in polite tones to supersede any response issued from the victim.
The first temple I chose to visit was Angkor Wat, the main event- a well post carded warrior with five billowing towers that put the height of the trees to envious shame. The entrance is a whittled concrete sidewalk weaving a careful path between statues of various bodily disabilities, standing in line flanking each side with either Gods (right) or Devils (left) wrestling down the great Naga snake. The glistening mirror lakes on each side reflected this epic struggle with a fierce severity that made me pause to count the number of soldiers on each side of the battle, just to be certain neither was favored in odds to win.
Safe in the even numbers for both yin and yang, I entered into the temple and quietly lit my incense to the honor of the great golden Buddha idol swathed in clothes of brilliant golden orange silk. Beyond the first wall is two football fields of wild grass and flowering weeds with a scattering of gentle chestnut horses wandering about the reeds looking for their lunch. Normally the horses are a part of the tourist torture karmatically reserved for the masochists that drag their children from temple to temple in the sweltering heat. Luckily, the day was done and the little ponies were undisturbed in their happy munching.
Most houses in this neighborhood of the world are equipped with a Spirit House (in Cambodia it must be on the North and East side of the house for feng shui purposes) in honor of the ancestors of the family. The people give daily gifts of food and flowers to their miniature friends (they believe everything is smaller in the afterlife) and with their offering hope that the spirit world will grant them great favor and take care of their property. The wats were no exception. Only their spirit houses are the size of the four bedroom ranch house I grew up in. I guess the ancestors of kings, like the ex-wives of the socialite sect, need more room in the afterlife to be comfortable equal to the lifestyle they had grown accustomed to in life.
The spirit houses sprawled just shy of the lotus flower lake that perfectly inversed the grandeur of the towers and hollowed out the depths of the earth to comb new regions of the netherworld.
Only after I accepted and released the negativity at never being at peace among the crowds was I able to truly appreciate the follies of humanity at play before my eyes and embrace the wonder of the Khmer achievements seducing my imagination.
At Thom the Bayon, thousands of mona lisa smiles coyly flirted with King, telling him that he could have every girl in the nation and still never be satisfied with woman's charms. Their eyes followed me everywhere, as face after face appeared among the rubble. Ta Prohm's elephant trunk jungle trees struggled against the protections of man in the weedy quest to swallow the entire temple like a python eats a cow. If it succeeds its belly will be all swollen fat and protruding with all the angles of the feet of the temple, now that would be a sight! And my favorite, the whispering gossip frozen in the stone of Shra Srang, the temple dedicated to love with huge pooling baths- supposedly separated by male and female, but the limestone warriors tell me differently and I believe. The best part was giving a little hum and time step to the waltzing hall of dancing that still had the vibrant green mossy feel of life that refuses to give up its certainty that it will survive.
Truthfully, it is very difficult to grasp what sacrifices went into making all of this happen. Being from a world that craves architectural perfection in every ikea couch, how can I possibly understand the hours of life that one man spent carving lady after lady Apsaras dancer with intricate detail of face and style so specific that it had to have been modelled after real life? How can I put into words the depth of commitment that cry out from each scene of war and strife filling the walls with their story without so much as a seam in the limestone bricks that bridge each spear and lance? And what of the sadness that fills me at each section where the unfinished creation lies neglected and forgotten as the man's life was cut short from fulfilling his purpose?

I know I am failing you in this squeamish description. Even in the harrowing adrenaline of the hot air balloon view from above, I could not encompass the grandeur before my eyes. No matter how hard I try to imagine myself a Khmer priestess of the King, dancing about with my hair whipping like Medusa's snakes in halls shining with more gold than the all of the coins in Ali Baba's cave, the acid rain melts away my imaginings like it melts the crumbling piles of stone that fall over each other faster every day in an attempt to win the race to the finishline of returning to the arms of mother earth.
Angkor served as a lesson to me that one day soon, no matter how impressive our resume of accomplishments grows to be, we will all be racing to return to the same mother waiting for us at the end of our purpose.

Our last night in Cambodia, my guide Bo (in complete disbelief that I was actually curious and interested) took me to a Cambodian priestess fortunes teller. When we arrived at her house, it was not what I expected at all. No crystal balls, no palm reading or pulses, just a large alter filled to bursting with fruit and offerings to Buddha. As Bo guided me through translation, i gave an offering of candles, incense, and money, and then lit five sticks of incense while praying to Buddha for what I wanted most in the world. I put them with the burnt out sticks that wished for those before me and returned to take my seat on the floor next to her while she in turn lit incense and began to pray. She talked to me very simply, Buddha telling her about my life and my quest that brought me to this seeking juncture. As the things she said sounded more and more familiar and pretty specific to my experience, I did feel myself being drawn into the experience. There are some things in life you just don't question. How she knew those details that I had not even shared with my best friend or mother, I will leave in the hands of the glistening gold wisdom of Buddha. The things that she predicted for my life will stay here inside my heart, too precious for mass emailings or blogs to the outersphere, but suffice to say she put to rest some of those yearning anxieties that have plagued me so in the past few years. I have time, she said in very specific detailed sentences, and all will sort itself out in the next few years if I am patient enough to wait for it to arrive.
When we made it (after a horribly grueling eight hour bus ride!) to bangkok the next day, I gave myself over to the proper goodbye festivities due to my campanions for just over a week. Dinner in the Hippie mecca of Khoason Road begat streetside spectatorship as the parade of people fit for the model UN began when darkness fell. The bustle of the beer shacks all huddled up against the street with tiny uncomfortable stools, the Night Hawkers trying to find that last buyer to float their midmonth fiscal crisis, the drunken fervor of the fans watching the Wimbleton match and cheering more loudly than the walls could contain, it all melded together in a busy collage that has the same effect as neon signage but not the harshness of the eyeball searing light.
The next day I was off on my own again, wandering the streets of the city through the obstructing blur of rain until I had mastered the entire width of Downtown. Chinatown was the same wreck of plastic and sea creatures that it is in every city; the River was a beautiful girl too shy to meet your eyes in the state of her dishevelled polution plague. The sky train was a bright and shiny pillar of modern efficiency and so clean that it trumped many a hotel room I have seen upon this trip. I found a dream home in the silken teak wonderland that is Jim Thompson's house, a famous expat american who ressurrected the Thailand Silk establishment and then mysteriously disappeared at age 61. Such clean style, such rich tapestries of color and simplicity of design. I never would be able to limit myself to such a minimalist virtue.
That night, I climbed aboard a public bus bound for Krabi, a small town along the Andaman Sea from which many tiny little beaches are accessible.
An American girl named Lauren sat next to me, not by choice but by the barking insistence of the seat assigning Nazi. We shared our stories and figgited our way through the evening until finally I just took some NyQuil and had done with the whole process.
As we both decided to journey to Railay, we helped each other navigate the tourist wheel greased thoroughly by the thousands that had come before us. Everything in Thailand is easy. No real arrangements to figure out, no secret passageways, anywhere I want to go is open and available to me for the right amount of money.
When we got to Railay, we parted ways as she began to arrange a climbing class and I followed the lead of an Aussie miscreant to find Tonsai Beach- a yawning peaceful haven of isolation. We were four in total: Me, Aussie (appropriately named Adam), a frenchman named Mattieu, and Silke, a german girl who would be my roommate as we settled into our dysfunctional little family-to-be. The road to Tonsai was insanely treacherous with heavy packs. Because I am a genius, I decided to leave my big bag in Bangkok and just day-sack it this last week. I was thankful for the lightened load as we stumbled up and down the 45 degree slopes of the jungle deerpath for half an hour. Before we even found rooms to house us, we stopped at a bar and started on cold beers. This should have been my first clue as to what my next few days would have in store!
The next day, I was up and about before anyone could try to join me or sway me from my task. I failed in finding a dive shop that was open during low season, so instead I set out to find the mysterious lagoon hidden in the towering cliffs of the beach.

I balanced across the rocks the tide left behind as the currents pushed farther and farther away from the beach. The rocks were slippery and my Keen sandals were pushed to the limits of their useful boundary. The worst part was when I was pushed just a little too forcefully by the curious waves, and my left hand was shredded by the evil controlling dominators of the sea: the zebra mussels. Sharper than the glass bottles used in bar fights, the stinging bacteria had free access to all of my juicy blood.

When I finally found the path that led to the lagoon, it went straight up the side of a cliff built for mountain goats and intense climbing fans. Feeling my hairs prick up on end with shouts of "Adventure!" I scrambled my way up finding natural hand and footholds in the pourous coral structure that had pushed its way skyward from the sea. When thoughts of my imminent death crossed through my mind, I heard shouts of men before me telling me there was a foothold to my right, and I should come climb along with them. Two brits from the south of England were the only two souls I saw along the way, and I was more than happy for the company to ensure that even if I did die my mom would not worry what had happened. After two hours amid the mud and grueling heat pushing myself farther than I had ever imagined I could go, I now understand the draw of outdoor climbing.

Humans naturally find the ways to limit themselves and emphasize those hanging doubts of mind. "Bring it on!" I said ferociously, and I realized that this day was about proving to myself that I am capable of more than I know.

Broken, battered and full of conquering spirit, I followed the next path to the most beautiful beach of my life. White with crystal clean sand kissed my skin and then let go so I could test the warm clear turquois waters of the sea, I floated along for an hour letting the water infiltrate and heal the many cuts and sores I have begun to amass as Thailand kicks my ass.

That night began innocently enough with a dinner and a drink at an abandoned beachside bar. Then the Aussie began to hint at parties across the island: an hour's hike through either dark of jungle, beachside attacking zebra mussel rocks, or a third untested path of mountain climbing and repelling above the beach's cliff. As one by one we admitted that we were not one to turn down another chance at living, we drank our coffee and steeled ourselves for the long night ahead. The hike above the cliffs was rough and I definitely was the beraggled, sweaty, fallen beauty queen among the pampered high heeled girls lounging around the pulsing bar. Luckily, neither silke nor I were ones for fussing or picking up guys, so we had our beers in harmonious ambivalence to the flirting scenes around us.

Aussie kept trying to hook up the frenchman and Silke, so he and I left them to the night and started requesting songs for dancing. We invented a rhythmic olympic worthy sport that night: dancing with balloon. Among the Russian Judging eyes of cool, we amused ourselves until the waning hours of the night.

When we finally decided to start the long road home, we were distracted by the perfect moonlit beach and decided to be wild and reckless children playing in the surf. None of them had ever seen the phosphorescent plankton that light up like fireflies as we move through the darkened water, so that held their fascination for the hours while I stared up at the stars, wishing fervently on every shooting star.

By the time we made it back to our bungalows, the night sky had given way to the glowing light of day. Knowing that I was determined to leave and strangely attached to my company, the boys insisted upon breakfast on the beach as they tried to persuade me to stay. As my days of freedom are dwindling down, I just didn't see enough of a reason to stay. I am not one for too many long nights in a row, nor a player in the allure of romance among the backpacker set.

I made my way to Ko Phi Phi, fully intending on making the ferry to Phucket to see what the grossly obsessive stories of depravity on Patong Beach were all about. Once I saw the pristine perfect of the Phi Phi beach before me, I booked myself a tiny little bamboo hut upon the sand.

I found a scores of diving shops all open for business, but with no one else to match my pair, I didn't merit a solo boat for a night dive. I resigned myself that my goal of diving Thailand was just not meant to be, and I boarded a snorkelling sunset cruise full of huge groups of young people all too involved with their own friendships even return a hello in my direction. As we swam from bay to bay, played upon the beaches made for movie sets (including the one in The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio), and finally gathered for the showdown of the sun versus the sea, I was pretty content to be the lone single among the throngs of chatter.

I spent my evening wandering the town and watching the world from the hammock on my hut's front porch, saying my goodbyes to Thailand peacefully to myself. I am almost returned to stateside, my friends. Just a few more days to pack full of life and beauty, maybe one more email of reflection upon the countries as a whole, and then I will be there among you once again. Save a beer or two for me, I will talk to you soon, Emily

Tags: angkot wat, bangkok, cambodian fortune teller, emily predny, ko phi phi, krabi, predny, railay beach, thailand


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