Down from the Magic Mountain
A Cambodian guidebook that I'd been flipping through one day earlier this year had used the phrase "magical place" in describing Kbal Spean. I was intrigued. Being a frequent visitor to Cambodia, especially to Siem Reap - the closest town to the remotely located Kbal Spean, I decided that I needed to pay a visit.
Also known as "the river of a thousand lingas," Kbal Spean is a combination mountain, waterfall, river and jungle trek. More notably, it's also the site of a stunning collection of ancient Angkor-era sculptures that have been carved into huge boulders and the riverbed of the forested site.
It was a brilliant blue September morning when I found myself hiking up the steep trail that takes you to the spot on the river with all the carvings. Attempting to keep pace with five energetic Khmer boys while trying not to stumble on large rocks and twisted tree roots that laced the dirt trail added another dynamic aspect to the adventure.
Actually, I hadn't intended on going to Kbal Spean on this particular day. I'd been three months previously and had taken more than my share of photos while making the long, exhausting hike to the top. The place was amazing, no doubt about that, but in my mind once was enough. I'd started the day by awakening at the crack of dawn - rousted by cackling roosters and other assorted farm animals - with no specific plans for sightseeing. I'd spent the previous night at the simple thatch-roofed home of a Cambodian family I know in a village outside of Siem Reap - just down the road from Angkor Wat actually. Some of the village kids, on two-week break from school for the Pchtum Ben Khmer holiday, mentioned the possibility of going to Kbal Spean. "Too far," I dismissed with a wave of my hand. "Oh, it's only about an hour or so past Angkor," the kids countered. "We can do it." I shook my head again. "No, there's too many of you, and we only have my driver and one motorcycle." They weren't about to let that fact dissuade them. "But Lyna can take his brother's moto. No problem. Okay? Please?"
Being the soft touch that I am, I relented and agreed to the outing, swayed in the end by the kids' claim of never having been to Kbal Spean before. Yes, hard to believe - a magnificent place located practically in their own backyard - but these kids had never been to Kbal Spean.
So we went: four of the boys (Lyna, Saral, Tra and Heang) on one motorcycle, along with me, my regular driver (Sokcheat) and another kid (Moei) on the second moto. The butt-bouncing 55-kilometer journey down dirt roads, laden with muddy potholes, was nothing short of fabulous. Lush green rice fields shimmered in the bright morning sun. Naked babies ran by the side of the road trying to keep up with their pet water buffalo. Mountains loomed in the distance and friendly village children waved hellos as we zoomed past them. On the road to Kbal Spean, we made a stop at Banteay Srei, one of the Angkor area's most famous ancient temples. Banteay Srei is not a large complex by any means, but is notable for its incredibly well preserved and intricate carvings. The delicate pink-tinted sandstone on which they've been carved adding to their allure and beauty.
When we got to the big open field that serves as the main entrance to Kbal Spean, we fortified ourselves for the long hike ahead (depending upon your pace, it takes about 30-60 minutes to reach the top) by buying bottled water and loaves of French bread from some of the vendors. Talking to one young lady that ran a stand, I discovered that she had lived for a few years in Thailand and could speak Thai. I ended up having a nice chat with her and promised to stop by for lunch later.
The kids had conversations of their own as we made our way up the mountain. Spotting foreign tourists, they'd greet them enthusiastically and engage them in conversation, no matter what the nationality of the person. I watched in amazement as the kids switched effortlessly from English, to Japanese, French, Korean, Thai and even Spanish. Being the veteran Angkor souvenir hawkers that they are (they go to school half the day and sell souvenirs in front of temples the rest of the time), I shouldn't have been surprised. They're a sharp bunch. At various spots along the trail the boys begged me to take photos of them, posing in front of huge boulders, standing atop those same rocks, or just clowning around in trees. I snapped off a liberal amount of photos but advised the kids that I had to save film for the good stuff that lay ahead.
As we got closer to the top, we not only heard the distinctive sounds of a cascading waterfall, but also loud whoops and hollering. It sounded to my ears like an inebriated college fraternity gone amuck in the woods. When we arrived at the falls it turned out to be a group of very enthusiastic Japanese tourists, mostly men, who were frolicking in the water. The boys didn't waste any time stripping down to their underpants (or wrapping a krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, around their waist) and joining the fray. I waded out into the cool water, trying not to loose my footing on the slippery rocks and snapped a few quick photos of the scene. Not wanting to be a wallflower at the water party, I put my camera away and joined the action. I stood under the cool pummeling falls and let the clean water engulf and massage my body. The kids darted in and out of the water and smiled and laughed and shivered and splashed. They were in their glory.
Further up the river we investigated the magnificent ancient carvings of Kbal Spean. Nearly a thousand years old, but these sculpted images - found both under the water and on adjacent rocks - of asparas, serpents, lingas (Hindu fertility symbols) and other objects of worship were still awe inspiring. I took more photos of the boys posing in front of the carvings and then it was time for lunch. We spread out on huge rocks in the middle of the small river - just a narrow stream at this point really - and feasted on the bread, water and a bunch of bananas that Saral had bought from a vendor. I looked around at the peaceful, totally blissful setting and smiled: a magical place indeed.
It was approaching midday when dark clouds appeared in the sky. A rainstorm was on its way, but little did we know the cloud formations were a harbinger of even darker things to come.
On our way down the mountain, the kids spotted a young woman coming up the path and greeted her in their usual friendly manner. Responding to their questions, the woman said that she was from America. I prodded one boy into asking her which state she came from. "New York," she replied, adding; "did you heard the news?" Having just spent the previous night in a one-room shack with no running water, much less cable TV, I had to plead ignorance. The woman then launched into a wild tale about planes getting hijacked and crashing into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, another plane hitting the Pentagon in Washington DC and yet another going down somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. Both World Trade towers collapsed and President Bush went into hiding, she added. I listened attentively, but dumbfounded. It sounded to me like this woman was the type that spent her nights watching too many HBO movies or some equally escapist from of entertainment - clearly not in touch with reality. I wondered, why was she had picked me to tell this outlandish tale?
After some small talk about guesthouses in Battambang (another Cambodian city) we bid adieu to the woman and continued our hike. The boys bombarded me with questions about the woman. They had understood some of what she'd said, but not everything. Switching between English and Khmer - resorting to my dictionary frequently - I managed to explain the details of what the woman had told me. I confided in the kids that I thought the woman might perhaps be a bit "ch'goo-ut" - crazy. They nodded their heads in agreement, but the possibility that such a tragic event really had happened lingered in our heads.
The scenic ride back to Siem Reap was interrupted by another late afternoon rainstorm. Before we totally became human sponges, Sokcheat found a small roadside shelter and pulled in there. The four boys on the other motorcycle jointed us less than a minute later. We waited out the worst of the deluge and 20 minutes later we were back on the road again. Willie Nelson, eat your heart out.
When we got back into Siem Reap, I made a brief stop at my guesthouse to change clothes. The TV in the lobby was on and a group of people - mostly the Cambodian staff - were gathered around the set and attentively watching news reports. It really HAD happened. I saw the replays of a plane hitting one of the towers and exploding. I saw the towers crumble. I felt numb.
Back in town, we stopped at the Siem Reap Central Market to buy school supplies for the boys. While waiting for them to finish their shopping, I went to see a woman I know named Sophea, that runs a small shop in the market. She greeted me warmly, but was near tears. She asked me if I'd heard the news and I told her that yes I had, but only a few hours ago. The distraught young woman - someone who had lost members of her family during the Khmer Rouge holocaust of the last 1970s - conveyed to me her sorrow and empathy for the victims of these terrorist attacks. She also expressed the fear that an American man she knew might have been a victim. He worked at the Pentagon. Not having any idea of the extent of damage to that building, all I could do was try and console her and tell her things would be all right. But would they?
I worried about what sort of retaliation the American government might take in the wake of these attacks. Would the feelings of rage and the thirst for revenge result in more senseless death and destruction? Uncertainty and fear lingered in the air, even in this far-flung corner of Southeast Asia.
Peace on earth? I look around the world today and see a lot of ugliness: far too much hostility, hatred and intolerance. But I see a lot of beauty, too. I see the smiles of Cambodian children - like the ones that accompanied me to Kbal Spean - and I'm comforted by the knowledge that there is indeed hope for this world. People CAN work together and live in peace, in spite of cultural, political and religious differences. I won't lose faith. And to affirm that belief, I plan on returning to the magical summit of Kbal Spean again soon. Very soon.
Published on 10/31/01