It is early enough that the sun is still slowly pulling back its covers, glowing red on the horizon far beyond the city, giving the dirt street in front of me an ethereal, otherworldly glow. The bike chain between my feet frequently sticks in between two gears, giving a loud “CRUNCH CRUNCH”– my signal to give it a swift kick to propel myself onward.
The ride to the temple ruins takes about 30 minutes. Despite having to occasionally dodge moto drivers, the road is clear and peaceful, giving me time to reflect on the events of the past few weeks.
We had left Koh Phra Thong, and headed first to a national park, Kao Sok, then later to a small town on the border of Cambodia. The guide books had indicated that this town called Chanthaburi didn’t have much to offer, but I found it to be charming in its simplicity. Nestled around a river, the entire downtown could be walked in a little under an hour. The streets smelled of an oddly comforting combination of anise and incense, and the temples that dotted the city were lit up with tiny colorful lights at the first indication of sundown. I marveled at the architecture– the French and Vietnamese influence seemed much more obvious here than anywhere else I had visited. The tiny cobblestones roads were oddly reminiscent of the labrynthian streets of southern Spain. More than once, a police officer would approach to offer directions (but out of the corner of my eye I could see his friends taking photos of us with their phones.) I got the sense they didn’t see too many tourists taking interest in their town.
Then onward it was to Battambang, the 2nd largest city in Cambodia but with the soul of a small town. once again, the reviews from other travelers and guides overlooked the town, even calling it “dinky” but I found it wonderful and artistic. The nearby arts school obviously influences the town, and there are many galleries and quirky stores hidden down different alleys and back roads. As one of the last regions to battle with the Khmer Rouge, history felt tangible there. There was no balking at the violent topic, and I was even approached by a tuk tuk driver who casually told me his family had been murdered by the regime in a nearby cave (he then offered to take me there to see it myself.) With all this in mind, it seems like the intellectual and artistic ferver of the youth in the city is a direct response to the near-snuffing out of culture in the recent past. It almost has a defiant edge, and in many ways reminds me of the excitement of American millennials, jumping at the opportunity to recreate, to rebuild, and to redefine what art even means. Perhaps this is a trait we all share.
Today finds me biking through the touristy city of Siem Reap towards the Angkor ruins. After about 10 minutes of biking, we exit the busy city. The street transforms into a country road, lined with huge, silent trees, leaning forward slightly and creating a canopy above us. The sunlight speckles through the leaves, and there, in the distance is an ancient stone wall, lined with carvings of snakes and serpants and meditating characters. Once through the entrance, there are the ruins. It is early enough that they aren’t overcrowded with tourists, and we decide to bike to remote temples first. Sitting down on a stone slab, I look take in the scene– an impressive battle between stone and wood; resistance and impermanence.
Places like this make it impossible to ignore the passing of time, and the fact that our lives are minuscule. These temples were created in the 11th century. While European cities had thousands of people, millions of people lived inside these walls. And what remains? Carved stones. And forest.
Realizations like this used to freak me out. I’d have them often as a child, randomly. One time I remember putting on a pair of yellow gym shorts, and all of the sudden time became salient for me. I sat down in terror, realizing I’d never be 12 again, never be putting on these ugly yellow shorts again. Nothing mattered, everything was fleeting with the seconds. I thought I was crazy, and never told anyone about it. But now I find those moments oddly comforting. It reminds me of watching monks in Ladakh make mandalas. Meticulously crafted out of colored sand, the entire project would take weeks to complete, only to be brushed away in a matter of minutes.
The impermanence and seeming insignificance of our lives is what makes them beautiful. Each one a perfect work of art, and then swept away at the end of a few decades. We can have all the accolades or wealth in the world, but even that fades with time. What remains, if we are lucky, is our legacy– a few carved stones and whispers of legend.