I awoke to the sounds of monks chanting. Their melodic chimes echoed against the walls of the ruined temple surrounding the grassy field where I slept. Candles we lit the night before still burned and the sky skirted in a space between darkness and light. I looked at the boys and we began packing up our bags.
I had just spent the night at Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat.
Two days before, I met Dorian at my hostel in Siem Reap. In the bar downstairs I sat writing a commissioned article about Costa Rica for a real estate company. It hardly riveted me. Dorian walked over to use the wall outlet.
He asked where I was from and when I told him Seattle he mentioned that he worked last summer in the country in Northern California. I raised an eyebrow and formed my fingers into a pair of scissors. I immediately knew what that meant.
Our conversation meandered from the most effective trimming shears to the secret underground bar he used to run in the catacombs in Paris. Dorian and his Parisian travel companions were apparently experts at being places where they did not belong at night.
“We slept at Ta Prohm, ya know the temple from Tomb Raider, and we plan to do it again,” he excitedly confided.
After cycling around the temples in over 100 degrees and failing to get any photos without packs of tourists, the thought of having Ta Prohm all to myself sounded incredible. I wondered what energy I might feel among the crumbling rocks and encroaching tree roots without the distraction of people taking selfies.
Though I wondered what punishment I might incur in this corrupt country if I were caught after dark in one of the most famous temples in the entire archaeological park.
When I rendezvoused with the Parisians the next day, I felt dubious our mission would even succeed. I recalled the many security guards patrolling the temples and the numerous checkpoints surrounding the park. Our plan was to enter before the park closed at sunset, discreetly pedal the five-mile path to Ta Prohm, and hide in the bushes until dark. They assured me once inside of the temple we were safe from guards and the flat layout provided visual protection from any outside figures.
We sped to beat the sunset past tuk tuks, motorbikes, tour buses, and vans at rush hour outside of Siem Reap. Dorian and I shouted over the traffic about the Sahara, tropical islands, and nomadic living.
My nerves didn’t kick in until after we cleared the checkpoint. The light was escaping fast and if we passed a guard en route to Ta Phrom they might tell us we had to turn back.
In that case the boys had crafted a lie. Never a good fibber I planned to play the mute. Still, I doubted we would succeed. The last time they completed the mission a guard nearly forced them to turn back until they convinced him they were meeting their tour bus at an alternate entrance.
We pedaled onward against the traffic that respected the enforced hours of operation.
On the bridge at the south gate into Angkor Thom we saw the fiery sun setting along the river. Despite our deadline and our mission each of us individually stopped to take in its beauty.
We passed Bayon with millions of faces softly smiling as if keen to our secret. The flocks of tuk tuks and mopeds thinned. Cicadas sang louder until their song reached a deafening hum. The jungle began to come alive.
In a swift turn the boys headed down the dirt path through the woods outside of Ta Phrom’s temple walls. I followed. Still, no one had questioned us. We stopped here to stash our bikes and hide out until dark.
“It almost felt too easy”, Dorian sighed.
Crouching in the dried leaves along the ruined stonewall the boys chain smoked and we spoke in whispers about our likely inaccurate modern interpretations of ancient civilizations and how we as a society might be remembered one day.
But fear weighed heavily on me.
“I’m scared,” I confessed. “Is it wrong to sleep in the temple?”
“Once we get inside, we are safe. The temple either accepts us or it doesn’t. It’s not nature we have to worry about, it’s people.”
Caught up in conversation darkness came long before we realized. Once aware of its presence we walked to the entrance to Ta Prohm. We heard loud Cambodian pop in the distance and wondered what kind of party might be taking place in the closest village.
Hundreds of Khmers live in simple wooden homes within the archaeological park, running food stalls and simple restaurants or selling cold drinks and souvenirs to tourists in the day. In Ta Prohm’s former glory, nearly one thousand years ago, it housed over 12,000 people and 800,000 workers in surrounding villages serviced and supplied the facility.
That night it would sleep just four.
When we cleared the side of the building the face of Javayarman VII, the king responsible for the construction of the ruins around me, smiled beneath the moonlight. His depiction in stone felt eerily commanding.
Workers drilled in the darkness outside of the gate and the lights from their dirt bikes flooded the pathway into Ta Prohm.
“Walk quickly and steadily and they won’t notice you,” the boys assured me. For the rest of the walk my heart pounded, looking back often to be sure the light did not grow closer.
We figured we were hardly the first people to hide in the temples at Angkor Wat. In fact in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was kicked out of power its troops sought refuge in the protection of the temple walls. The regime knew that international forces would never forcibly expel them if it meant causing harm to Angkor Wat.
Entering the temple I became bathed in a sense of ease. Even in darkness I could see Ta Phrom’s crumbing walls surrender to the silk cotton trees that tightly embrace, choke, each brick and stone and grow into a jungle canopy enclosing it like a womb. Nature and invention in perfect harmony and in constant struggle.
Our eyes now adjusted to the moonlight, we walked through narrow corridors made of stone to the tree made famous by Angelina Jolie. There we placed candles and lights, assembled the tripod, and prepared for our close ups. The boys told stories about the underground bar and we toasted with gin and tonics and ate fried rice out of Styrofoam.
When the rain began we sought refuge inside of a small gallery with high ceilings and an oculus. We lay along the stone walls while rain hailed down on the center. It was March in Cambodia and the dry landscape informed me that it had not rained in a very long time. The tea lights and French music created an atmosphere in this centuries old space that resorts in Siem Reap would have paid millions in Design fees to achieve.
I could have stayed in that room staring at the flickering light that cast shadows on the blemished walls for hours but there was so much more to explore.
We walked past warning signs and rope fences and climbed over fallen rocks to reach the roof where again we lit the divine temple curves and posed for the camera.
On the roof of the temple Dorian and I embarked on a river of flowing conversation. He told me about stringing a hammock between two palm trees and sleeping over the sea on a deserted beach in Koh Lipe.
“I would love to do something like that but you know, it’s different as a woman.”
“Hm, so you mean you’re acting on fear then?”
He triggered my defenses and I justified my case with stories of lurkers who seem to live in all the woodworks of the world. I wasn’t trying to convince him, I was trying to convince myself. I wondered if my response was unadventurous and where I wanted to draw my line between self-protection, or just plain smarts, and fear based behavior. Certainly I never would have slept in this temple on my own, with good reason, and I felt frustrated at the thought that as a woman I had more limitations in where my adventures might take me.
“Let’s go find a place to sleep,” the others interrupted.
We wandered out into the lawn behind the temple and laid down our sheets under a silk cotton tree that stood wider than my entire stature. A train of a thousand ants trucked along the perimeter of the space I claimed. Surrounded by candles eventually the sound of wind, animals, and French faded into my dreams before I awoke to the chants.
“I want to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat,” were the first words to leave my lips.
At the entrance to the temple I looked behind me and saw the sky awakening the gods that live in every tree root and carving; or perhaps rather putting them back to sleep. I reached for my camera to capture its majesty but realized the impossibility of such a feat.
The park had already opened and we rode quickly to the entrance to avoid questioning. Light began to creep up from the horizon and I wondered if we would make it in time for sunrise.
Escaping the gate of Angkor Thom we stopped on the bridge to take in the sunrise, this time on the other side.
Tuk tuks and mopeds played their melody. An endless line of tourists filtered into Angkor Wat while we sat watching outside along the moat. Entering the world of the living felt like being awoken from a dream.
Only in that moment did I finally grasp my experience over the last twelve hours. Only then did I fully feel the magic of what I had already encountered.
Tour buses unloaded and foreigners wearing rice hats stopped to have their photo taken with a young Khmer girl selling fruit. They listened to their guides and gathered in groups.
Dirty and disheveled we sat in silence with our secret
and watched a very different Angkor Wat
show its face.