The sun was sinking into the jungle turning the horizon orange and throwing long shadows across the ancient ruin. Drenched in sweat, I rushed around the surprisingly empty rear portion of Angkor Wat, snapping as many photos as I could during the golden hour. I left the temple and headed toward the exit. With a few minutes to spare before the ruin closed for the night, I walked along the outer wall toward the jungle.
As the sun went down a high-pitched scream slowly rose from the jungle like a sound-effect from a horror movie. As the ancient ruin darkened, and the scream filled the night, the moist night air felt thick with ghosts.
As I rode my mountain bike back to town, I turned off the road into a rice field to record the sound. In the distance, a khmer flute began to play.
This is what it sounded like.
This is the recording of the insects that I took. The flute was too faint for my microphone to pick up, so I’ve added one that sounds almost exactly the same by khmerangkor on YouTube.
Death and sadness seemed to hang in the air.
Some trips cannot be separated from the circumstances under which they took place. My trip to the ancient city of Angkor was one of them.
Three years before I visited Angkor Wat, I moved from home from Tainan, Taiwan back to Canada when my father nearly died from heart problems. Eventually, he got better. Then, just when I was ready to move back to Taiwan, my girlfriend’s sister was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, so, instead, we moved to California to help care for her.
Two very difficult and grief stricken years later, my girlfriend and I broke up. No longer having any reason to stay in North America, I decided to return home to South East Asia. I put all my things in a storage locker, packed my bags, and one month later I was laying on a hard bed under a fan in a guesthouse room in Siem Reap that I’d rented for 10 days.
Gaining distance from the events of the preceding years gave me opportunity to reflect on them.
So, when I say that Angkor Wat is a haunted place, I can’t tell you whether I was given that impression only by the grand ancient Hindu structures slowly being eroded by the elements and consumed by the jungle, or by my reflections on a family that was robbed of a kind-hearted young mother, sister, and daughter.
It was probably a bit of both.
Angkor’s eerieness had no quality of fear. It was a still sadness. A melancholy calm settled on the ruins each evening. As the sun set the azure sky turned orange, and then yellow, and then purple. As the dusk dissipated and night flooded in a scream from the jungle would gradually and steadily grow to a maddening pitch. Then it would rise and fall unceasingly—the sound of the insects in the humid jungle night.
I rented a mountain bike for my ten days in Siem Reap. Most days I would work until about 2 or 3pm. Then I would get on the mountain bike and ride 10km to the ancient city which, was, historians say, the largest city on Earth before the industrial revolution. It is said to sprawl across 1000 square kilometres and dwarfs the next-largest ancient city in the world, the Mayan city of Tikal, which covers just 150.
I wandered the ruins alone for 5 or 6 hours most days, returning to the city only when it got too dark to take photos. I had a lot of time to think. I often found myself thinking about the mystery surrounding the fall of Angkor. There are several theories about why the city was abandoned, most of which involve catastrophes such as plagues, earthquakes, and war.
I also thought about the holocaust that brutalized the country less than 30 years earlier, and the enduring poverty experienced by the survivors.
I would spend the hours before sunset exploring the ancient ruins on my bicycle. After I’d seen most of the major temples, I began riding down random paths into the jungle to see what was there.
I found half-buried statues of lions, strange artifacts that I couldn’t explain, and small, seemingly unvisited temples. I found unrecognizable structures choked in tree roots and overgrown with vegetation that were slowly being devoured by the jungle.
Each night I would ride my bike back to town on the narrow strip of pavement that split the thick jungle, light dwindling, sky turning yellow, orange, and purple, the jungle the insects screaming all around me.
During my trip I struggled to find some kind of lesson in the morbid unfairness and suffering that I’d seen during the preceding years. The experience was too awful to have been in vain. I must have learned something from it.
I don’t think they’re very profound—and they’re certainly not unique—but these are the conclusions I reached.
Death is inevitable, and therefore not worth worrying about. And, although it may sometimes feel that way, the inevitability of death doesn’t remove the meaning from life.
The jungle consumes all. With enough time, it will devour the greatest city in the world, but that doesn’t mean the city isn’t worth building. The act itself is a thing of beauty. And, if it’s built well, it will be remembered and appreciated for a long time.
There is only one worthwhile thing we can do in life: build temples to the people and ideas that we love.
The jungle consumes all, and it will consume me. The best I can do is leave behind my own slowly eroding, root-choked temples.
If I’ve built them well, then it will mean two things:
First, it will mean that I lived a purposeful life and stayed true to those things that mattered most.
Second, it will mean that, just maybe, my temples will be appreciated and remembered…for a while at least.
The jungle will eventually consume them too, but that matters not, for the act of creating them was a thing of beauty, and that is something not even the jungle can erase.