I lie in the semidarkness listening to the sounds of thunder and cowbells outside. The cows are making their way home in the early dusk, an orderly procession, and wood smoke drifts into the room.
This is a small Cambodian village in the middle of the country. I came into town on roads of trash-strewn dirt but here in the house compound, the hard yellow clay has been freshly swept.
I can’t tell if it will rain tonight, or if the thunder of summer storms is only an empty promise.
I am here because of the ruins.
* * *
No rest for the wicked, and I must have been bad. The village has loud speakers for the broadcasting of public announcements and chantings, and those loud speakers are right next door. We’re talking old-school PA system, crackly, crowned by giant steel trumpets to fling the sounds out across the valley.
Is it a ceremony? Is it a funeral? Is it a special holiday? I can’t tell. I lie down in a daze at 8pm, overwhelmed by the ragged wave of sound, and wake to more at 10.45pm. The next thing I know, in the dim light of dawn, it’s just before 6am and the cacophony has started again.
In Indonesia, I always used to like being awakened in the pre-dawn by the call to prayer, no matter how loud or how close. It was always a cherished reminder of being in an exotic land. But these sounds – if only for their longevity – are harder to love.
I receive a message from my friend: “enjoy the peace and quiet!” I can’t tell if he’s being ironic. How could he know – ? And yet, so on point.
I surrender to the beginning of the day. I go to the backyard bathroom and ladle cold water over my head, then make bitter black coffee, hoist my motorcycle from under the house and leave.
Uncharacteristically, I am not sporting all my armour. I’ve left it strewn in a pile at the end of the bed, a problem to be dealt with later, my head pounding.
I shift up to third gear on the big red road leading out of the village, I feel the sunrise on my face; a sense of peace returns.
* * *
Five kilometres down the road, I am ambushed by stunning ruins. Huge edifices of hewn rock looming out of the jungle that struggles to reclaim them. Words of awe involuntarily escape my lips.
I am in the temple complex of Preah Khan, and there is no one here. Not a soul. Just the remnants of grandeur, set in stone, resisting nearly a millennium of encroaching jungle.
Who built this? Were they slaves, free craftsmen, both? How many years did it take, how many lives were lived and lost here? The sweat runs down my face in the cloying early morning humidity. The light is still soft, not yet harshened by midday, and yet the heat lies like a heavy blanket.
Did the people building this edifice ever imagine its continued subsistence in the face of a world so changed?
The grandeur and the decay are edifying. If you ever thought our civilization would last indefinitely, here is your reminder that it will not.
In contrast to the cacophony of the village, I am completely alone here. Someone asked later me if I felt spooky, here in the ruins of past lives. No; just at peace with my own smallness in this large universe.
* * *