The Biggest Temple in the World

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The Angkor Temples

Five kilometres north of the city of Siem Reap, in Cambodia’s north west, lies the largest religious complex in the world. Built by the Khmer King in the 12th Century, it was first Hindu, then a Buddhist temple complex. It is so vast, one day of tourist-ing doesn’t scratch the surface; one could spent lifetimes exploring these ruins.

Climbing through the arches and hallways and nooks of Angkor Thom, feeling the cool roughness of the stone under my fingers, and gazing up at the huge halcyon faces carved into the stone, I felt a small circle of lightness and peace settle underneath my ribcage, and start to spread. The entire complex has an air of graceful, effortless greatness; peaceful and powerful.

A wrinkled arm reached out from an alcove tucked away in the stone, and pulled us into the small, cool space, like the inside of a cave – Buddha shrine in the centre, the air thick with incense. The old, stooped woman murmured softly in Khmer as she lit joss sticks for each of us and tied bright pink bracelets around our wrists. We placed the joss sticks and some money in front of Buddha, and she smiled up at us, pointed at Buddha and at our bracelets and said, “Luck”. Then she ushered us out, blinking in the sun.

*

We wandered aimlessly past mounds of broken stones, low crumbling walls and Buddha statues, and into the shade of a copse of trees. Men’s voices, chanting rhythmically, floated towards us. It seemed to be coming from a wooden building on stilts a few meters ahead of us, and so, curious, we walked in the direction of the deep thrumming sound.

We stood at the bottom of a set of rickety wooden stairs, peering into the cavernous room where the chanting was coming from, conscious of being intrusive, but curious still. After an awkward minute or two, a woman went up the stairs, and beckoned for us to follow.

The whole building was one large and airy room, softly lit and filled with people. We sat along the back wall with the old women and children, careful to point our feet away from the Buddha shrine in the centre of the room. An elderly monk with a kind and sort of sad face sat in the middle of a circle of chanting monks, with his back to Buddha, feet outstretched. There were lines of string attaching him to Buddha and to a small, wooden box adorned with flowers and joss sticks at his feet. The monk who appeared to be leading the chanting, periodically touched the old man’s back gently with his fist and threw rice towards his feet and the wooden box. This was repeated a few times; the chanting swelled and ebbed in softly crashing waves. When it was over, they burned the lines attaching the old monk to Buddha, and he turned to face the shrine, head bowed reverentially. The circle of monks broke and moved on to other clusters of people and started to chant for them. We slowly got to our feet, smiled at the women beside us and descended the stairs.

*

Our tuk-tuk driver returned us to Siem Reap late in the afternoon, all templed out. We went to the night market to poke around, and were – easily – enticed into foot massages in front of a large stage with loud thumping pop music. As we were getting the day’s walking massaged out of our feet, the curtain went up and there on the stage were five Cambodian men, dressed extravagantly in drag. They alternated between performing Cambodian songs and Western ones, lip syncing badly and dancing; comically overdone in every way. At one point in the show, two of the men in drag play-fought over a third man, and by the end of the song, each had dis-robed the other. Florian and I trembled with laughter through the whole show.

This day could not have been more perfect.

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