Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It is dwarfed by ancient city of Angkor Thom which is just next door and sprawls over nine square kilometers. Standing amongst the colossal four-faced towers of Prasat Bayon it is easy to imagine living in a time where the fantastic was a part of every day life, when people weren’t so sure the bumps in the night could be rationally explained away—unless of course those rational explanations included water spirits.
The best time to see the east face of Angkor Wat is at sunrise. When I wake up, the sun is glowing through the hotel curtains and a hangover is making my head feel bigger on the inside than the outside. I nudge Laura and she groans. We’ve missed it. Who wants to fight for a spot with a hundred Chinese tourists anyway? We load up the camera and go out front to find a driver. At least now it might not be too crowded.
We are greeted by a surprisingly organized crush of ruer’mok drivers when we walk out the front door. A friendly guy says he’ll take us around the various temple complexes and holy cities for $15—Siem Reap works on US dollars, even the ATMs dispense them, riels are only given for fractional change. We agree to the charge and we’re off.
It’s rainy season in Cambodia so the jungle vegetation is dense and green. We putter along the short seven kilometer trip to the entrance of Ta Prohm, the platonic ideal of ruined jungle temples. Roots of sprung trees and figs snake down the crumbling stones making the landscape look like the cover of a role playing game manual.
The jungles are thick with butterflies; Laura and I try and fail to capture them with our cameras. We attempt video but that only shows a faint shimmering among the green grasses. Bright blue, yellow, and black wings flutter everywhere but that’s a scene for the memory banks, not Instagram. Looking up from the grass, the sky is full of dragonflies. It’s a who’s who of pretty bugs.
Laura and I have been traveling for almost a year. This is, depending on how you count, the fourth ancient city we’ve explored. Machu Picchu is its closest parallel and the wonderment is similar. That Angkor Wat is still used as a Buddhist temple lends even more to that wonder. Saffron robed monks with sanskrit tattoos are at turns meditating, burning incense, and milling about. One flashes us a peace sign and a smile.
Angkor Wat was first a Hindu temple, then a few hundred years later converted to a Buddhist one. I know woefully little about the details of Buddhism and despite having read the Bhagavad Gita and spending two months in India I don’t know much about Hinduism either. I’m not proud of my ignorance, but I’m unafraid of using it to my advantage when I write. We walk past the mural depicting the battle of Kurukshetra and my imagination runs unconstrained by any deep tethering to what the carvings actually signify.
The most successful fiction ends in religion. The stories born as whispers about jungle spirits or wise ancestors; the tales of heroic conquer; the machinations of venal courtiers—recombined and reproduced over hundreds of human generations until they reified into folk tales and religious texts. One of the reasons I enjoy folk tales is because they are every bit as batshit creative as anything fabulist authors write today.
Turns out, people have loved weird shit for thousands of years. According to a recent paper published in RSOS, most fairy tales are much older then Christianity and many of those pre-date the written word. Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, is six thousand years old. Let that sink in.
It’s easy to imagine the great faces on the minarets of Bayon whispering secrets to ancient city dwellers; or the nine-headed nagas telling riddles at the temple gates. We jostle around other tourists carefully cropping them from our photos ( authenticity/social media) and I begin filling in the setting of my current manuscript’s final chapters amongst the ruins.
The story is about two girls who meet in a hostel; later they learn that their families are involved in a large continent-spanning feud. Throughout the book I’ve stolen my settings from the places Laura and I have visited on our trip. The Colored City where the girls meet is based on Valparaiso, Chile. The Island of The Lonely Totems is based on Easter Island, and so forth. The world is full of sights every bit as fantastical as those in the best adventure fiction, there is no reason not to bend them to fit my own storylines. My borrowing is superficial: the visuals, the feeling in the air, the landscapes, but I reserve my thematic larceny for unrelated mythologies. An odyssey can just as easily wind its way through South America and Southeast Asia, if you get my drift.
We weave through the leaning archways and overgrown walls, posing for pictures between crawling tree roots that seem more like tentacles than vegetation. How can you not make up stories in a place like this?
According to Wikipedia, the main complex of Angkor Wat spans 402 acres (1.6 square kilometers). The temple itself is ringed by a vast square moat. A wide causeway leads to the temple, and is railed on either side by stone devas and asuras (angels and demons) gripping an enormous nine-headed cobra as if they’re playing tug-of-war at a men’s retreat.
The scale of the structure is humbling, as I’m sure it was meant to be. Even today, when the world is full of buildings that reach all the way up to the sky, it’s impossible not to be awed in its presence.
Laura and I walk back to our waiting driver. This makes the fourth time we’ve interrupted him on his cigarette break, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He gives us a broad smile and asks us if we enjoyed the temples. We do that embarrassed i-don’t-know-your-language broken English mumbledance in response where we emphasize how “beautiful” and “amazing” we thought everything was while smiling and gesticulating like idiots. He doesn’t hold it against us in the slightest.
Unlike the ancient citizens of Angkor, I’ll never live in a world where the fantastic is part of my every day life. I don’t believe in fairy tales, but I love creating them; and my stories are full of things that go bump in the night, all with perfectly rational explanations—some of which involve water spirits.