Preah Khan

There is a place in Cambodia that I will never forget. It is the reason I went back. If I ever go again, this place will be the reason. In the midst of all the madness –  the screech of “Lay-dee!” that follows you down the street, the holler of “Tuk tuk!” that can never be escaped, the dusty proffered hands of beggars that multiply with each turn of a corner, the defensive thrust of a prostitute’s hips in the pallid glare of a street lamp, the grip of an eager hand around your arm as you leave a bar by night, the endless grift, the burning heat and stench of a city in the desert – even amid all this there is a place of impossible peace.

Beyond a bridge of headless statues there is a corridor flanked on either side by forest, trees so tall you hurt your neck trying to see the sky. The trunks are strong and slender, wrapped with cheeky vines that hitch a ride toward the heavens. But the magic of the place is not the trees. From the vibrant canopy there rains a constant fall of small round leaves, while from the ground rise pale clouds of butterflies that scatter upwards in the patchy sunlight. It is as if the very air around you is alive. With every breeze it becomes a vivid, waltzing, glistening mass of green and yellow, as if a handful of gemstones has been tossed into the wind. The shadows of the leafy awning dance across the ground before your feet.

Unknowing, your feet have carried you on and now you pass under an ancient stone archway. That happens a lot in Cambodia, the crossing of hallowed stone thresholds. But here there is a place where nature has taken hold of masonry and denied the solid stone its very nature. Like curious fingers the roots of trees have wormed their way beneath the massive rocky slabs, uprooting mankind’s efforts they have brought the walls to rubble and vaulted sun-ward in solid, hearty mockery of our attempts at permanence. We will come and go, the trees remain. Which, I think, is how it should be.

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