Saturday, November 15, 2008

Finding Peace in Cambodia

We cancelled our October trip to Cambodia to stay at home with our cat in what turned out to be the final weeks of his life. Only a few days after his death, we were sitting at home trying to absorb the shock of living without him, when I remembered we still had to cancel the plane tickets for the trip that weekend.

To make a long story short, the tickets turned out to be nonrefundable. And rather than face the prospect of a long weekend in a house that suddenly seemed silent and empty in the way of an old, bombed-out building, we began to slowly put the pieces of our trip back together. We would take our grief with us to Cambodia.

Cambodia has had more than its share of unspeakable horrors and tragedies, so it may seem a strange place to choose for quiet reflection and peace. But we were going to wander through the ancient temples of the Khmer empire—contemporaries of the great Mesoamerican peoples and rivaling them in the construction of huge stone edifices in the jungle. Somehow it was fitting to spend time in the ruins of a great and beautiful kingdom lost in the passage of time.

We looked at the smiling carved faces of Bayon, the sweeping grounds and carvings of the spectacular Angkor Wat, the delicate pink sandstone of the “women’s temple,” Banteay Srei. Mostly, with our understanding guide, we wandered quietly, avoiding tour groups and midday heat, preferring instead to creep out in the mornings and late afternoons for the cooler, gentler sunlight and the near silence.

One morning just after dawn we walked down a long path, utterly alone, and came upon the ruins of Ta Prohm, left in their jungle state with banyan trees slowly working their roots through the rock and dismantling the structures, bit by bit. We spoke in hushed voices, feeling as if no one had ever discovered this place but us, walking slowly and turning corners to find staggeringly tall trees whose roots on the walls were several times our height. Huge blocks of stone lay in piles where the roofs of long galleries had fallen (the columns still stood in their places).

A scene of destruction? Perhaps. But there was beauty and even peace in the slow but sure transition. Time and the trees were only taking their natural course, slowly but surely, knowing nothing could last forever.