Three people you should meet in Siem Reap
I never cease to be awed by Angkor Wat.
The first time I stepped on the once- sacred grounds of the sprawling (covers an area of almost two hectares), 2,000- year old temple was an overwhelming experience. That was in 1987. I was with a group of journalists of different nationalities covering Southeast Asia. It was a side trip from our main coverage which was an interview in Phnom Penh with Cambodian officials led by Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge commander who abandoned the genocidal regime in 1977 and emerged as the leader of the Vietnamese-backed government. He is currently the prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Last week, I went back to Siem Reap with my friend, Marilyn Robles. For three days, we went temple-hopping – total of 23 temples in three days. In the process of being enthralled by the distinct features of each temple, we met interesting persons.
One was Muk Moon, former monk and a resident of Angkor Wat.
He approached us as we were about to enter the main gate of Angkor Wat, asking if we needed a guide. “This is my hotel,” he said to underscore his familiarity with the place.
Indeed, he knows Angkor Wat like the palm of his hands.From the information he shared including his views about life, once can sense his innate intelligence.Moon (pronounced Mawn), 37, learned English at the United Nations refugee camp at the border Cambodia-Thailand. He said his parents are gone.
He was born in the year (1975) that the Pol Pot-lead Democratic of Kampuchea started implementing their experimental “socialism without a model.”
Cambodia expert,David Chandler, said in his , “A history of Cambodia”, “To transform the country thoroughly and at once, Communist cadres ordered everyone out of the cities and towms. In the week after April 17, 1975, over two million Cambodians were pushed into the countryside toward an uncertain fate…”
News accounts put the number of those who died of famine, disease, and torture during the Khmer Rouge short-lived regime to two to three million.
Moon said at age 14, he was recruited by the Vietnamese-backed Cambodia Army to fight the Khmer Rouge.
He didn’t like the war, he said. He left the military and joined the monks.
He is no longer a monk but he continues to live with the monks, who have their living quarters in Angkor Wat. Some days, he said, he spends the night in one of the many rooms in the temple.
He exudes an air of serenity. Although there are things that he laments about life in Siem Reap (the loss of huge part of the forests), he has learned to accept things as they are. “Big talking, big smiling,” he said of his life, the same description he used to describe Heaven symbolized by the northern Library on the side of the grand causeway leading to the main gate.The other interesting Cambodian we met was So Rith, a history student, who works as guide when he has no classes. We met him at Preah Khan temple last Sunday.
We noticed a lot of uniformly-spaced holes, about one inch in size, on the walls of some rooms of the temple. So explained that diamonds were once embedded on those walls as décor. Thieves, known as tomb raiders, took them out.
Just like Moon, So also called our attention to the headless Buddhas – the handiwork of tomb raiders.Parts of figures from Cambodian temples are worth tens and thousands of dollars in the antiquities blackmarket.
Preah Khan has four medicine rooms. (Angkor Wat has one). Moon explained that the room is where the medicine man performs a ritual to cure those who consult him. To test if a person is well, he is made to stand against the wall, and is made to tap his chest three times. While doing that, if one is healthy, he would be able to feel and hear the echo of the breast-tapping.
Like Ta Prohm,location of the Angelina Jolie movie “Lara Croft:Tomb Raider”, Preah Khan has centuries old trees grappling the stone structures. It’s an awesome sight.If you have more time, visit the St. John Catholic Church at East Riverside Road at Slokram Village. The parish priest is young Indonesian Jesuit priest, Fr. Stepanus Winarto, S.J. He said he has spent time in “Ateneo, Katipunan.”
Fr. Winarto said he has a lot of Filipino parishioners. The church has a gift shop with items produced by victims of land mines. Their Jesus Christ has one leg.
One remarkable thing about Siem Reap: You don’t see any sign warning tourists about pickpockets because there are none.
That’s one of the things Filipinos should learn from Siem Reap.