Lost Gods of Siem Reap

by Susheela Menon

Siem Reap’s crumbling temples and vacant shrines reflect the glories of erstwhile Khmer kingdoms that gradually succumbed to the vagaries of time and human politics. Susheela Menon searches for the lost Gods of this war-ravaged town and finds them where they rightfully belong

It is half past five in the morning and the sun is expected to emerge any moment. A large crowd sits near the moat around the ruins of Angkor Wat when it starts to drizzle. I can see the temple straight ahead, its spires seeking the heavens above. The sun suddenly rises from behind the ruins, and I realize why there are hundreds of people crowding around me as if they have never seen a sunrise before. If you haven’t seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat, you haven’t seen a sunrise at all.

Angkor Thom — the capital city of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century – dazzles under a blue sky as it welcomes hundreds of camera-wielding tourists into the vast galleries of Angkor Wat. Elaborate bas-relief carvings that depict the battle of Kurukshetra occupy an enormous wall of the stone temple, and steep columns of stairs lead to lonely shrines. Headless torsos of unknown divinities line the corridor while mutilated sanctums grieve for deities that went missing after the temple was discovered. Outside, flocks of birds fly in perfect coordination to circle the temple and glide back to perch on silvery stones that gleam in the morning light. A boy monk walks about in his robes while a couple of horses graze in the surrounding ground.

I trudge towards a giant stone arch built as an entryway into Angkor Wat, and almost stumble into a young man who urges me to eat breakfast at his stall near the temple. “Stall number 007!” he yells. “Like James Bond!”

I smile and lean on a long balustrade that stretches to form serpent God Naga. It watches me with a multitude of heads, its hood spread out in defence of its territory. Snake worship has its roots in Cambodian folklore; it is believed that serpents and humans had once come together to protect Cambodia from numerous invaders. I think back to my days in India where snake worship is common. My ancestral house hosted an army of serpent gods that struck such fear in my heart that I walked past them without a word, shoulders stooped and head bowed. The Naga of Cambodia looks angrier than the army at home but I walk without fear. I know that for all its ferocity, it could not prevent the violence that seared the country decades ago when political wars transformed a kingdom into the killing fields I see today. I know that the land I stand on has endured years of invasions, bombings and mass murders that left it gasping for breath. Its people struggle to find ways to escape poverty, and a huge influx of tourists has helped.

Nak, my countryside guide, is the son of a farmer who lives in a rural settlement far from town. Nak chooses to work in Siem Reap – a town that sees many tourists every year because of its proximity to Angkor Thom.

Of paddy fields, canals and earth the colour of blood, Siem Reap’s farmlands are a refreshing change from its dusty, chaotic streets. It’s also a great place to enjoy a calm sunset. I venture out on one such trip with Nak to find men and women bent over fields that bake in the tropical sun. Children cycle to schools, their bags thumping their backs as their cycles manoeuver potholes on dusty roads. Our path suddenly opens up to a beautiful pagoda with stupas surrounding it. Rainwater flows along a narrow canal near the road and is a source of nourishment for the fields and birds. A few are rich enough to use machines for farming but the majority can’t afford anything beyond the very basic needs of life.

I realise that Nak misses his life back home as he tells me about the rain, soil and harvest. We stand for a while watching white herons glide gracefully upon the waterlogged fields, and head back to where his employer runs the small bike agency – a two-storeyed house that has many quad bikes parked before it. A television hollers aloud the news of the day while a cat licks her paws atop a table. Nak awaits his next client as I walk back to my hotel, red earth clinging to my clothes and hair. The soil doesn’t leave any stain though. Unlike the past, it can be expunged easily.

I sit outside a small café the next day with Chenn, a tuk-tuk driver. As Chenn leafs through the pages of a Khmer newspaper, I ask him if he could show me a local temple that sees native Cambodians. A young man in his 30s, Chenn takes me to a small Hindu shrine near a Buddhist temple close to the royal palace. The deity sits under a tree where a few people gather to shield themselves from the sun. I recognize the Goddess as Bhu Devi or Mother Earth. As we pray, a low, meditative chant rumbles across from the Buddhist temple, which is dedicated to two Angkorian princesses. Chenn tells me the locals, and even King Sihamoni, believe the female deities to be very powerful.

Many stories are woven around the many gods in this country, who have remained silent and smiling for hundreds of years. I had read that the Khmer Rouge outlawed religion and destroyed monasteries in the late 1970s, but Pol Pot’s godless army failed to drive faith out of the hearts of ordinary Cambodians. Cambodia’s gods have flocked back with a vengeance and installed themselves on most streets and homes.

Chenn drives me to Bayon, which is also in Angkor Thom, and at a short distance from Angkor Wat. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century, it was the official state temple of Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. Chenn isn’t sure if the faces are of bodhisattvas or portraits of King Jayavarman himself, who liked to think he was Deva Raja or God King. He turns away from the serenity of this vast temple to climb back into his tuk-tuk while I wander about. A group of Cambodians in ethnic attire pose with tourists for money, their headgears sparkling in the sun. A damaged stone face – its smile eerily perfect – looks at me with a solitary eye. I suddenly sense hundreds of bodhisattvas gazing at me, their silence unsettling yet passive.

After a quick meal at one of the cafes near my hotel, I wait for Chenn to drive me to Tonle Sap, a lake that grows into a river to meet the mighty Mekong. Chenn tells me that floating villages adapt to the whims of this lake by rising along with it in the monsoon and anchoring themselves on the surrounding mangroves when the water recedes. A young guide takes my hand and guides me into one of the boats. As it races through the brown waters of the Tonle Sap, I see men fishing and women on wooden slats, their children splashing about in the murky waters. A church floats nearby. A school bobs up and down as students scramble from a classroom, signalling the end of a busy day. I am helped aboard a floating orphanage that has a prayer room next to it. A handsome Christ gazes at me, smiling but silent.

On our ride back to the shore, my guide shows me his house on the lake. As our boat speeds along a cemetery, he adds that the life expectancy of an average fisherman on the lake is about 54 years.  A young girl smiles at me from her mother’s lap and a group of teenage boys pose for a shot.  A fisherman whirls his net over the murky waters of the Tonle Sap while the sun begins its slow descent towards the horizon. My boat thunders past as I capture his silhouette on camera.

Chenn drives me back to the hotel, nodding at fellow tuk-tuk drivers, who shout out to prospective customers on the road. He tells me he is leaving Siem Reap the next day to meet his parents in a village very far from town. Like Nak, Chenn is a farmer at heart, but he has ventured out to earn a living in Siem Reap, his tuk-tuk sputtering on the streets of this growing town.

I hear bits and pieces of the Khmer language in shops and on the roads and struggle to decode the words, but the language is alien to me. I am surprised then to hear that Khmer has its roots in Sanskrit and Pali, both native to the Indian sub-continent. I learn this from So Phea, my guide at Ta Prohm.

A local Cambodian man with kind eyes and a ready smile, So Phea tells me that the temple of Ta Prohm derives its name from Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation. His smile doesn’t leave his face as he explains – in broken English — that different monarchs manipulated Cambodia’s temples to plant their own religious beliefs. As rulers changed, Cambodians grew to imbibe Hinduism along with Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

So Phea and I walk towards Ta Prohm to see a thickset tree lurching out of a stone structure that forms part of the ruins. As we explore the shaky structure, So Phea talks to me about rampant corruption in his country and says it is tough to make ends meet. He feels let down but is optimistic about the future. His hopes lie with young Cambodians, who are not bound by the paranoia his generation struggles with. So Phea is confident the youth will vote in saner leaders. They are more aware, he says. They can’t be fooled.

Inside, the temple tries not to crumble as large, gnarled roots of gigantic trees stubbornly wrap themselves around its doorways. I wander into one of the damp corridors where a bald woman sits. She ties a sacred thread around my wrist and wishes me luck. A bowl with some cents and dollar bills rests near a shrine she has installed. The ruins are her livelihood.

We drive back to the hotel, stopping a while near the military cemetery dedicated to Cambodian soldiers who died fighting the Khmer Rouge. I notice an impressive periphery lined with sculptures of Hindu gods and demons churning the ocean of milk with Mandhara, the mountain, and Vasuki, the snake God.  I wish So Phea good luck and walk towards my room, stopping at Artists Angkor where native Cambodians use wood, tile, fabric and paper to create souvenirs for tourists. I see a middle-aged man teach Cambodian kids for free at a little street side shelter that has a donation box tied to its gate. A few children stand next to the box – their school bags clinging to their backs – thanking all those who contribute.

A few hours before my flight, I find myself smiling at Songkhla, a masseuse at one of the massage parlours near my hotel. She is a small woman who surprises me with her strength as she bends my knees and twists my feet in a splendid, fluid motion that tells me she is not a novice. Her fragile hands move swiftly as she uses hot bundles of herbs on my tired body.  She tells me she has a daughter and complains about the stretch marks on her stomach, but I want to ask her many other things. I want to know where she is from, what her daily life is like, and if she is happy. I want to talk to her about so much more but she is too busy drawing out my muscles, her elbows pushing deep into my shoulders.

As my plane shudders through heavy clouds that cloak the view below, I think about the millions of people – including me — that enter Cambodia to make sense of the debris left behind by its missing Gods. The futility of seeking the remains of an empire or hidden divinities dawns on me as I sit back and swipe through the many photographs I have clicked. I realize that I no longer look at mutilated deities or dilapidated shrines. My eyes have stopped seeking dead kings and battered buildings. Instead, they look for ordinary souls – like Chenn, Songkhla and So Phea — that have risen from the debris of a devastated nation.

For I know that the lost Gods of Siem Reap exist not in its ruins but in the lifeblood of Cambodians who continue to steer their country into a future free of war and poverty. The past lurks in every corner as a reminder of what once was, but there is enough positivity in the air. If there’s anything I learn from my days in Siem Reap, it’s that Cambodia’s future rests not in its gods but in its people.


Editor’s Note on Lost Gods of Siem Reap:

Lost Gods of Siem Reap is not Susheela Menon’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:

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