A Birthday Visit to Koh Ker

Prasat Thom Koh Ker

So I made it to 40. About 8 years ago I realised that I would. Up to that point I think my mind was still consumed by some hedonistic sense of the weekend. A hangover form my salad days when I’d dance all night, watch the sunrise in a glittering haze and dream that anything was possible.

Then one day I realised it wasn’t. Not anymore.

The choices I’d made up to that point had hastened me down a path that now stretched so far behind me that to turn back was unthinkable. There would be no do-overs this time.

That’s the great swindle of life. You don’t come home one day to a farewell youth party. No-one tells you that this is your last dance or the final time you’ll fall in love.  It just happens.

Was that really me? Did I really experience those things? My memories seem like someone else’s life or book I once read. I hadn’t planned on being anything other than young.

I’m Not Dead. What Now?

Sometime a while ago the slow realisation that I probably wasn’t going to die began to make itself known to me. I would have a life after 40. In all likelihood I’d have one long after that.

But how could I live in a world where pretty girls no longer smiled at me? A world where I no longer felt like the coolest person in the room. A world where even the word cool, hasn’t been cool for 25 years. A grey world, devoid of hairstyles, hair and slim fit clothes. How could I vanquish the ghosts of my past and calm my fear of the future?

The Illusion of Time

A professor asks his student.  What’s real?  The past, the present or the future? Instinctively the student responds “The present is real.” The professor thinks for a moment and asks the student “How long does the present moment last? One second, half a second, a hundredth of a second, a millionth? When you look at a beach you see a line where the water meets the shore, but no line exists. Only water and shore. The line you see is an illusion. You cannot stand upon the line. Your feet are either wet or they are dry. And so it is with time. Only past and future are real. The present is the illusion.”

I can’t remember where I heard that. It may have been a TED Talk or a film. I love to play the professor when I relay the story to people because it’s science-y and a bit clever. Just recently though I’ve started to wonder if perhaps the professor may have it backwards.

You see, true or not, I don’t want to live in a world where past and future are all that’s real. That world makes me nostalgic, sentimental and fills me with insatiable yearning, fear, desire and regret. It occupies my mind with fuzzy memories of scenarios that didn’t really happen or futures that may never come to exist. These places aren’t where I live.

The line on the sand may be a scientific illusion but it’s a place of peace. This moment is happening now and it deserves my genuine attention.

I know this sounds like some hippy shit but the more I try to exist in the present, the better I feel.  I try not to think about the past or the future now unless there is an immediate pressing need to in my daily life.  It’s kind of like ongoing meditation I suppose.  You know, hippy shit.

Koh Ker

The Ancient Temples of Koh Ker

Everyone has heard of Angkor Wat and the huge temples, but did you know the ancient Khmer empire built another capital city 200 years earlier?

Koh Ker is 150km north of Siem Reap. It’s a hard full day trip over bumpy dirt roads. The entrance fee is $10 and there are around 30 good size structures to visit. The area was partially cleared of landmines a few years back but it’s still not advisable to go wandering too far into the jungle.

Logging is prohibited in the 80sq km protected temple zone. The jungle has overtaken the majority of the structures but this is a large part of Koh Ker’s allure. No preservation has been attempted. No facilities exist. Giant trees grow form tiny cracks in walls. Snaking roots and crumbling stupas become as one. There are no defined paths or walkways. Shattered statues and toppled pillars litter the jungle floor. To enter a temple you first have to find it. Then you have to scramble over the sturdiest looking pile of rubble and pray that you don’t somehow dislodge the giant laterite jenga game teetering above your head.

Nothing wobbles of course. Most of the stones have stood for a 1000 years and are arranged in such a way as to be partly self-re-enforcing. Still, somewhere in the recesses of the mind, my New Labour, nanny state conditioning is whimpering “This isn’t safe, go back!”

I can’t turn back though. Koh Ker is an eerie compelling place. It stirs and awakens something inside me. A primordial sensation, more ancient than the temples themselves.

Almost Understanding

In the silent sanctity of Koh Ker, devoid of people and overrun by nature I flip an odd melon shaped stone by my feet and the unmistakable carved form of an animal is revealed on the mossy underside. I glance around for a pillar or statue from where it may have been chiselled, but there’s nothing. Only twigs and scorched black sandstone bricks.

I breathe in the secret find for a moment.

My eyes close and I see an image of a man. His face is round and tanned. Forehead wrinkled by a lifetime of ambition. A wide smile erupts. He points to the stone and speaks a word I’ve never heard, yet instantly I understand its meaning…  Turtle.  He laughs a bottomless laugh which echo’s and fades on the wind. Great trees sway and swoosh above. I’m connected to them and them to me.

For the briefest instant the universe is laid open and I feel the swell of some deep understanding. All the answers are right there if I could only take one final leap. But I’m frozen. And then the feeling is gone.

I try to hang onto the vision of the ancient stone mason but he wanes like the setting sun. The shadows are creeping longer and the shrill of tiny nocturnal creatures begin to wind up like sirens. It’s time to go.

On the way home we flash through rice paddies and stilted villages. Khaki pumpkins piled high on the roadside like cairns on the summit of some windswept Keltic peak.

My iPhone blinks back to life. I’m reminded that it’s my birthday today. I’ve been on the earth 14,601 days. I’m 40. I’ve carved my name in the great tree. Those that follow me may never know my story but it’s written all the same, on the mossy underside of a rock somewhere.