How To Ride An Elephant: Cambodia Part 2 The Tomb Raider Edition
“I am a child of the universe.
I deserve total recognition of this in the light of God.
Being a child of the universe,
I want to live in a world without war
I want to live in a world without starvation
I want to live in a world without pestilence
I want to live in a world of love, peace and harmony
Because I am a child of the universe.”
The Cambodian Poem inscribed on Angkor Wat
I get up a little earlier so I could forward my mother a Mother’s Day prose which I then posted on the internet*. The 12 hour time difference made 6am the time I knew she would see it. I was still processing the humanitarian education I received the night before. The rude – almost locked up abroad – Cambodian awakening from the previous night seeps into my overly grateful writing. All I kept thinking about was that haunting little girl with her infant brother hanging off her bony frame, the beggar children, and the teenage prostitution I had witnessed. My letter to my mother looks like a tear filled handkerchief folded into some dinner table origami – morose and yet magical.
I hit send on my laptop then return to my room to smother my emotions in a wake and bake. Kara is already dressed and is rushing me to be done before our driver arrives to take us to the temples. I make fun of her “traditional” Cambodian MC Hammer pants/ tube top. She responds with a borderline racist head nod. I veto wearing chucks and decide on my Jordan’s assuming the day was going to be filled with a lot of walking and climbing – I blamed the counter intuitive white jeans on the weed.
Another day in the orient – another weird-looking fruit and grease breakfast. My stomach is having a track and field day with no winners. Phanna, our hired driver, can’t come soon enough. I speak too soon; he was already waiting for us outside with a couple of bottles of water. How generous. His smile is as radiant as the sun and very anti hangover. We drag our bodies into his car and unravel in the kind air conditioning. Our ride begins with us trying figure out the history lesson he’s giving us through his thick accent and our uncooperative ears. The only thing I gathered was that Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed there. He picks up on the vibe and turns his eagerness to teach down a notch. This guarantees him another day as our driver.
The further we drive away from the hostel the deeper we get into the jungle. I look out the window anticipating Tarzan to appear swinging from vine to vine or a carjacking by the Planet of the Apes. All I see are children frolicking naked in the river along our route while the natives carry the work of the day on their motor bikes. This reminds me of being really young in the Dominican Republic. Kara keeps a look out for the elephants. She’s really excited about the elephants. Back home, our friend Suzan told us about the elephants and attached a rant about the abuse of animals worthy of a PETA Christmas newsletter. Kara, who wasn’t a fan of the lecture, promises to send her a picture of us on top of one. Not one to deter a determined woman, we make a bee line to the temple with the elephant ride first.
“Angkor Thom – also known as the “Great City”- located in present day Cambodia, was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by king Jayavarman VII.”
“Angkor Thom was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s empire, and was the centre of his massive building program. One inscription found in the city refers to Jayavarman as the groom and the city as his bride.” (Wikipedia)
My “bride” handles the elephant better than I could ever, while she confidently feed the mammoth beast and pets it without fear while I squirm and bite my bottom lip into stale chewing gum. I’ve watched enough “When Animals Attack” to know that showing fear around any animal never ends well so I keep a comfortable distance. I only get lost in Kara’s youthful and playful giggle and the overpowering smell of elephant shit. We climb the steps to the pachyderm mounting tree house and steady balance ourselves on the massive beast. With one tap of a bamboo stick we were off on a silent tour of Angkor Thom – silent because the Cambodian that rode the elephant with us didn’t know any English at all.
“The last temple known to have been constructed in Angkor Thom was Mangalartha, which was dedicated in 1295. Thereafter the existing structures continued to be modified from time to time, but any new creations were in perishable materials and have not survived. In the following centuries Angkor Thom remained the capital of a kingdom in decline until it was abandoned some time prior to 1609, when an early western visitor wrote of an uninhabited city, “as fantastic as sustained a population of 80,000-150,000 people the Atlantis of Plato” which some thought to have been built by the Roman emperor Trajan. (Higham 140) It is believed to have sustained a population of 80,000-150,000 people.” (Wikipedia)
As beautiful and epic the view was from atop of the elephant along with the weather and all of the mysterious and exotic energy this ancient site contained I was really excited for my next illegal act that was gently hidden in a box of duty-free cigarettes. The second Kara turned her head to take a photo I light up my joint and let the bad ass’ness of my punishable by many years in jail act envelop me. I was halfway through my wacky tobacco when Kara noticed I wasn’t smoking a cigarette…
“YOU’RE A FUCKING CHILD, WHAT ARE YOU DOING???”
She scolded me, but not before she took a picture of my guilty as charged face. The elephant navigator, along with not knowing what English sounded like, didn’t know what weed smelled like either. Thank Buddha.
There are over 200 temples that have since been discovered in Cambodia, Some small and in ruins and some inexplicably – maybe some aliens helped build this – large. Most were created between the 6 and 12th century, totally backing my E.T. as a celestial contractor theory. Angkor Wat was first built as a Hindu temple city but was then converted to Buddhist when it was taken over by the Chams, a tribe that was the traditional enemy of the Khmer, in the 11th century. The walls dictate the epic battles between the two like some ancient graffiti beef with rock chiseling technology doubling as spray paint. It’s one of the better preserved temples due in part of the large man-made moat that surrounds it, long preventing the jungle from reclaiming it. The moat was once home to over a million alligators, but because of the booming illegal leather goods trade odds are if you are wearing a vintage alligator belt or wallet it came from that moat in Cambodia.
The French explorer once wrote of it: “One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.” I found that funny, considering they wouldn’t let Kara enter any temple with her shoulders exposed. So much for being barbarians.
It was beautiful, but we were tired. You see one temple, you‘ve seen them all. Ohhh stone face here, aaahhhh weird mythical creature over there… We were the typical fat ugly American tourist. So after three hours of fancy rock climbing we met our driver and had him drive us to the on site market for food. The beggar children waited for us like they were paparazzi. We breezed pass them by leaving a trail of one dollar American bills and “I’m sorry I don’t have any more” smiles. They chase us all the way to the restaurant but stop short of the restaurants owners’ silent scowl, almost like there was a force field. I wonder about the blood this understanding must have been written in.
We order one of those traditional Indian fares that you have to eat with your hands and guaranteed to give you a 5 alarm fire on its way out of your asshole. Thank God every single bathroom I’ve encountered in Cambodia has a water hose for your butt. For a “barbaric culture” the farts out here must smell like Irish spring. We pay our bill then ask our driver to take us back to our Hostel. On the way out we spot these monkeys trying to steal fruit from one of the vendors. They chase them off with what appears to be slingshots. I wonder if this is what they do to the beggar children. The minute we step outside they all reappear out of nowhere like poverty ninjas. One of them calls me Michele Obama. I assume it’s the education and not a diss.
“I’m sorry, no more money – finished”
“ohhhh come on juan dallaaaaaa…”
“Love you’re beautiful but I don’t have any more I’m sorry…”
“I no want to be beautiful – I want dolla…”
And with that, I closed the door to the air-conditioned Altima and sunk into the leather seats in a profound sadness.
We return to our Hostel early in the afternoon and book one of those 3 dollar 1 hour massages as a couple while trying to convince myself that I’m on vacation. Before our driver left he told us how some of the fancier 5 star hotels in the area allow you to use their pool for a small fee. Our hostel doesn’t have a pool and the brown water the little children were playing in earlier was never an option. We keep that in mind as we dress into spa appropriate clothing. The mini spa is a replica of our Hostel room with the addition of the stereo playing traditional rub down music and the Buddha be praised incense. Ok this should be relaxing…
What followed was 45 minutes of the worst massage ever. First of all it was a tiny Cambodian lady with the hands the size of a toddler. Although she did put me into some weird positions and cracked a couple of bones I didn’t even know existed – everything about the massage felt like a medical examination. It was got weirder when she turned me on my back and started pressing my upper thigh in what I considered an attempt to feel out the size of my dick. My girlfriend was only a few feet away! Her Cambodian banter with the other masseuse that was attending my girlfriend started to pick up in a mischievous fervor the closer her hands got to my junk. Is this bitch talking shit about me?! But I didn’t draw the line there – I drew it when she grabbed my toe in what I interpreted to be her pointing out the corn on my pinky toe, dropping it like she touched something gross, and making fun of it. I left like an American tornado after a “relaxing” 45 minutes to their faux protest.
We wake up later that night after a long and much-needed nap. By the time we are ready for the pool only one of them was open. We opt out of calling our driver and decide to take a Tuktuk (a carriage pushed by a motorcycle) or a motorbike there. We hit the corner of our Hostel and once again are instantly drowned in people trying to hustle us every and anything. One guy is really persistent. It takes me several – I’m really stoned out of my mind – seconds to realize it was my pot dealer from the night before. You would think after last night’s escapade I would avoid being around this individual, but no. After minor lost in translation small talk he gets one of his friends and they both take us to the hotel on the back of their motorcycles.
Maybe it was the weed or the arrogance that comes from being from New York City, but by this time I felt all too familiar with the dark alley ways our drivers kept turning into. I wasn’t afraid, neither was Kara. We waved our hands in the air taking pictures of each other while our flashes cut through the blinding and humid Siem Reap night. We were both sober, but drunk with the power of us mastering this strange and exotic land. I was on the elephant that was Cambodia, stoned, with the one I loved, lost in this world, and I didn’t give a fuck.
We arrived at the hotel and scheduled our motor cabbies to come pick us up in a couple of hours. The pool is nothing like I expected, littered with cigarette butts and a few empty beer cans. We assume this was all probably left over from last night’s action or some douchey European get together earlier. It’s dark and far from the Hotel receptionist prying eyes and no one else was there, we had that chlorine filled playground all to ourselves…
We jump in.
Whiskey comes out.
Clothes come off.
I go in.
We get off.
We get out.
And this time no European ravers were seen spying on us.**
Our drivers drop us off at the corner of the mini mart from the previous night. I’m too drunk to even pay attention to the hookers and beggars and make my way straight to the bar. I am on vacation I am on vacation. I don’t know what constitute a perfect day but the adrenaline pumping inside of me decides this is very close to one. Something about doing what you’re not supposed to do turns me on. Cambodian street cred? I’ll take it. I’m an international bad ass. Holy shit.HOLY FUCKING SHIT.
I looked at our underage bartender and she’s wearing the same outfit from the night before. I no longer saw someone being exploited anymore. I saw a young beautiful girl doing whatever she has to do to help her family survive. I grew up in dirt poor crack-cocaine Harlem and the burned down then gentrified Lower East Side of New York City. I never saw my friends as people who needed a humanitarian Dumbo drop of food from the U.N. or as props in a Save the Children ad – these were my friends. We lived and died in those streets and if you made it out the hood or not that didn’t matter as long as you didn’t snitch and tapped the bottle when the 40 ounce came your way. If you had a little bit of money to help pay for it that was cool and if not you better be a funny story-teller or you are going to the store for us forever.
This was, and still is, the hustle. I mean hey, what do I know? In the middle of trying to keep the vomit down from my umpteenth shot of Jack I ask the bartender for a photo, and she finally cracks a small and humbling smile…
And so do I.
“I am a child of the universe. I deserve total recognition of this in the light of God…”