There is an old folk tale that goes if you whisper your deepest secrets into a hole on an old tree and seal the hole with mud, your secrets will stay in the tree forever.
In one of the most memorable and heart-tugging movie endings in modern cinema, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai takes this legend to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia for his movie In the Mood for Love (2000).
Tony Leung, who plays a reporter that falls in love with the woman whose husband his wife is having an affair with, finds a hollow in a temple column in Angkor Wat. In the quietness of a dying day with only cicadas making a sound, he puts his mouth to the hollow and whispers all his heartbreaks, while a young monk in his saffron robes watches from above. Then he seals the hole with dry leaves and walks away and behind him the Siem Reap sky is a deep, dark blue against which the temple towers of Angkor Wat are silhouetted.
Many visitors to Angkor Wat who have seen the movie try to find this hole — but not everybody finds it for two reasons: one, the movie — though critically acclaimed worldwide — is one of those films that not everybody has heard of (not like, say, Tomb Raider) and, two, because Angkor Wat is a sprawling five-tower complex.
I had been emailing with my friend Mansi of Fortune India in Mumbai weeks before going to Cambodia and I promised her I would find this temple column. We had been, in the past four years, talking about seeing each other again — in Manila or Mumbai or somewhere in between. Save a seat for me at Shantaram’s Leopold restaurant in Mumbai and I will take you to see a Manila Bay sunset. Our stories were aching to be whispered into that hollow.
So I ask Darith, the Cambodian tour guide, about it. He doesn’t know the movie. Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung are names he hasn’t heard of. And I couldn’t begin to explain to him this story that starts out in the dark, dinky streets of Hong Kong and ends in Angkor Wat with haunting music by Michael Galasso.
But seeing Angkor Wat makes you realize why Wong Kar-Wai chose this place to end his movie. It is the grandest of all the Khmer temples, one of the most beautiful and recognizable monuments in the ancient world (it was built in the 12th century), and the light here is fantastic — whether in the harshness of midday or the luminescence of twilight or the rosiness of early morning…and it looks sad.
Built by King Suryavarman as his state temple and Cambodia’s capital city, Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu (it later became Buddhist; in other temples the reverse is true, depending on the spiritual whims of the king in power).
In the west gallery the bas reliefs tell the story of the Hindu epic Mahabharata in painstaking detail — clans battling it out on chariots, on foot, with arrows and the four-armed Krishna as a charioteer. Carvings of Apsaras, or nymphs practiced in the art of dancing, are found all over the temples — their bodies bent gracefully, their breasts full and their waistlines tiny. Of the thousands of Apsaras, there is only one in Angkor Wat showing her teeth.
In what can only be described as building frenzy, the Khmers built thousands of temples in Siem Reap and its surrounding areas between the 8th and 13th centuries.
Sometimes the temples started out as Buddhist and later became Hindu or vice versa. But it seems it was Buddhism that got the short end of the stick. Whenever a Hindu king came into power, he would have all the Buddhas removed, which is why some temples have the silhouette of Buddha on the walls but no Buddha.
In Angkor Thom (literally meaning Big City), the walkway leading inside is flanked by what must have been a beautiful sight before a Hindu king took over and before marauders began pillaging Siem Reap’s treasures during the civil war — rows and rows of Buddhas — all of them now headless.
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Darith has been a tour guide for 11 years. He speaks excellent English and speaks softly when talking about the temples that you get a feeling he is a deeply spiritual man. Like many Cambodians and the kings who kept changing their minds, he practices a spiritual mix of Hinduism and Buddhism.
He has never seen the movie Tomb Raider yet he knows exactly what people mean when they tell him they want to see the Lara Croft Temple or Ta Prohm. It occurs to me: You’re not curious at all? Pirated copies of Tomb Raider DVDs can be found everywhere and on any given day he could’ve picked up one.
But he never has. And I’ve a feeling he never will.
Ta Prohm is a temple monastery whose hundreds-year-old trees have grown and grown and never stopped growing. To say that it is a tree that sprouted a temple would not sound totally idiotic because it looks that way. The roots have toppled parts of the temples and in one temple the roots look like waterfalls.
The temple that I liked most is actually outside Siem Reap, located a few kilometers from the foot of Phnom Kulen (Mt. Kulen or Sacred Mountain). Called Banteay Srei, it is also known as the Citadel of Women, Women’s Temple, Citadel of Beauty or simply, the Pink Temple.
It is one of the smallest temples around (it is practically miniscule compared to Angkor Thom) but it has the most intricate and detailed bas reliefs and carvings, which is why some people believe it really was built for women. Though the subject of its bas reliefs is also conflict (Krishna slaying Kamsa, Kama firing an arrow at Shiva), it all seems so gentle and this is because of the color of the temple especially in the late afternoon.
The soil here is reddish pink and so is the sandstone used to build Banteay Srei. If you wear white shoes, the dust will turn them pink instead of gray.
And, to me, it is the only temple that seems…. happy.
The burning question on my mind, really, was: Was Pol Pot out of his f*cking mind? But I didn’t know if it was polite to ask Cambodians about the Killing Fields.
The guide spent his childhood under the Khmer Rouge regime and the rest under civil and guerrilla wars until only 13 years ago when the conflict ended in 1998, the year Pol Pot died. Was asking about the Killing Fields as rude as asking someone, “Tell me about the day your wife left you and your house burned to the ground?”
So I simply said: Can you talk about the Killing Fields? And he did. Estimates of victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge vary, from 1.7 to 2.5 million (out of a population of eight million) and in only four years, from 1975 to ’79. Almost a third of Cambodia’s population were killed — it would be as if 30 million Filipinos today were murdered.
Under Pol Pot, Buddhist monks were executed, along with intellectuals — scientists, teachers, doctors — as he practiced his perverted principle of Marxism and extreme Maoism on his own people. In one Killing Field, Khmer Rouge soldiers bludgeoned to death thousands of their own people because they did not want to waste bullets.
Darith says during the unrest and power struggle after Pol Pot, he never went home from school without hearing a landmine going off, or people disappearing, or knowing somebody who knew somebody who had stepped on a landmine.
Ten thousand years ago, the king carved a thousand lingas and the figure of Buddha on the river of Mt. Kulen. During the years before and after Pol Pot, this mountain was filled with landmines.
Today, schoolchildren walk home from school — noisy and carefree, oblivious of the past.
He says when young Cambodians today hear stories about the genocide, Pol Pot and the landmines — they do not believe it all happened. How could this horror possibly have happened?
A visitor himself would have a hard time reconciling this brutal past with these gentle people, standing on Pub St. in Siem Reap, its rows of bars and restaurants and lines of tuktuks all lively, US dollars changing hands (the main currency here instead of the Cambodian riel), tired and dusty feet being massaged for $2, tourists hanging out in Red Piano, which gives away for free the 10th cocktail you order (assuming, of course, you are still awake), a tradition Tomb Raider star Angelina Jolie started.
You just find yourself shaking your head.
I never found that particular hollow in Angkor Wat. But I found hundreds of others. In one temple, I found walls and pillars so full of holes from the ceiling to the floor — holes where plaster had fallen off.
I flitted from one pillar to the next, whispering secrets in the last light of day.