by Meg Hamilton
I came across a book today that put into words much of my experience at Angkor yesterday. The book was Elegy, a compilation of photographs of the temples at Angkor by John McDermott. In the introduction he spoke to his first experience of the place- of being confronted with these massive artifacts of legacy and story, of being enthralled by the history of the temples, of hearing the giant stones whisper.
As I flipped through the pages of the book I settled into his words and images and reflected on my own experience there. We arrived at Angkor Wat at sunrise. The popular temple was already flooded with tourists, and our plans to start our day with a peaceful sunrise sit suddenly seemed incredibly silly to me. Yet we pushed through and found a quiet patch of rocks away from the masses waiting to capture the perfect sunrise image of the temple. We sat and watched the shadows change as the sun slowly creeped higher into the sky.
Always the cynic I struggled to relax and could not sway my mind from exactly how much of a silly tourist I felt like attempting to meditate at Angkor Wat at sunrise. Frustrated with my cynicism and hoping to not distract my classmates who may or may not have been more attuned than I was I picked up my camera and began with another kind of practice.
I photographed all day, and the images I collected speak to the awe with which I perceived the place. Giant stones stacked one on top of another. Some crumbling in ruin, laying skewed and tumbled in massive stacks. Shades of grays streaked with blacks and blues and greens, and ancient images intricately carved into the stone and delicately worn away over centuries. Towers and spires built to honor kings and gods and goddesses, stacked by slaves, destroyed by war and abandonment. Incense burning in quiet corners near a man or a woman offering you a blessing and a bracelet in exchange for your prayer and your dollar. As I ran my hands across the old stones and the persevering images carved in them I was stunned by the awe that inspired such creation and by the devotion that merited it. My heart ached.
In the introduction to John McDermott’s photographs a Cambodian man says that Cambodians do not teach their children lessons. Rather they tell them stories. The stories etched into the walls of the temples. The stories about how the temples were built, and how they were later destroyed in civil war. As I stood in that place I understood that my stories mingle with those stories. Somehow there is a place where they meet. And when I consider how this may be true and what things we have to learn from the intersection of these stories my heart aches.