Temple Dogs of Ta Prohm

After backpacking through India, Thailand and Myanmar my travel partner and I have arrived, wiping our tired feet on the welcome mat of temple burnout. We stand in a queue, waiting for a visa at Cambodia’s busiest airport. It’s approaching ten at night. From here we have just a few more miles to travel into Siem Reap, the bustling town next to the perennial bucket list grounds of Angkor Wat.

By the time the sun is up I’ll arrive at the apex of sacrosanct tourism, wandering the largest religious complex in the world. But at the moment, Argentinians attempt to slither into our line, unnoticed. They cut between the couple ahead and keep pushing in… three more, then seven, eight adults. Ocho of them squeeze together. Everyone behind us lets out a harmonized groan. “But we are family!” The short one makes his announcement to the multitudes. He repeats this defense to the border agent.

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Ta Prohm Doorway
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A female officer excuses her male counterpart with a tap on the shoulder. No words are exchanged between them. He slides over and opens the adjacent service window. She turns up her palm and curls in her fingers, signaling the family to approach. The male guard gestures for my line to shift left and we obey, quickly. These guards are powerful sorcerers. Simple movements of the hand invoke hidden forces, unleashing fear, making life exponentially more convenient or inconvenient. Do not test them.

Our passports collected, fresh visas inside, we pass the delayed South Americans and snag a tuk-tuk for a ride through the streets. At the hotel the bartender offers us dinner. We accept; by now it’s close to midnight. The ceiling fan slowly turns and we ask about the schedule for our first day at the Angkor World Heritage Site. We want to move ahead of the masses, so we request to ditch the standard itinerary. The plan is to start before daybreak at Ta Prohm, a 12th century ruin now engulfed by the same terrain in once ascended from.

The concierge chimes in from behind his desk. “The Tomb Raider temple?” He comes closer. “You cannot visit Ta Prohm so early.” I tell him he is mistaken. “The tourist police do not allow it.” He maintains his ground. I ask him to call and check. Minutes tick by. A mosquito lands at the nape of my neck. A mosquito dies.

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Ta Prohm Buddha
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“You are right. They say why not? But the tuk-tuk drivers are afraid for tourists to visit there in the dark.” I tell him that we have brought headlamps. Ardently, he explains in a different way. “The drivers are afraid to go to Ta Prohm in the dark. It will cost you extra.”

Within hours we’re back in a tuk-tuk and our dutiful bartender sends breakfast for the road, some needed sustenance. Entering the UNESCO protected area begins with a whirlpool of tourist-filled vehicles, a swirling flotsam of nationalities adrift in the early morning current. Once we see the crowds at the ticket kiosk any hopes of solitude at Ta Prohm sink deep, bottoming out next to impossible. But back en route my spirits lift; the crowds turn left where we go right. In a few miles we’ll pass the last bicycles and soon enough the road is ours.

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Ta Prohm Dark
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Our driver finally stops near a gateway and points into the black, where he swears a gritty path will emerge, leading us a thousand paces to the central ruins. We head out. There is no moonlight; trepidation is our escort. Howler monkeys thunder above, trying to frighten us away, sending warning from the trees. Other creatures lurk in the canopy or on the forest floor. I begin to understand the drivers’ reservations. We’re jumpy in these surroundings. It’s fucking spooky. Our movements are dumb and slow, searching for pairs of eyes in the void, allowing our own to adjust. Eventually our composure evolves and we walk upright. Occasionally we turn on our lights.

Halfway into the grounds something comes from the shadows. It is trotting, confident, and medium in stature. We freeze, but then can’t help but grin. A temple dog greets us, our local spirit guide. He is itchy, overburdened with fleas, and his empty stomach lets out a mighty growl, but this boy is friendly, our welcome envoy on this unfamiliar path. We address him as Chamak, which means something like sparkles in Sanskrit. He accepts us as his morning appointment, a loyal sentry accompanying us into Ta Prohm.

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Chamak Dog

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Chamak leads the way through the divergent pathways, eventually taking us into courtyards and crumbling monasteries. Outlines of enormous sinewy trees come into focus, spilling their menacing roots over crumbling, enormous stones. Strangler figs and silk-cotton trees devour structures in assorted bites, swallowing entire sections.

When we lose his trail the sparkly one waits patiently. We begin to understand his instructions and he explores ahead, barking at unseen beings. I can hear claws in the adjacent hallway, they scratch on hard floors, the sound of a loitering beast somewhat larger than our host. Here and there, in the cloisters and damp tower corners, the smell of the bats becomes most stout. Tiny squalls from leathery wings disturb my hair, which is already standing on end.

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Ta Prohm Wall Weeps _

The veil feels goddamn thin here. Guidebooks call Ta Prohm charmingly haunted, but it’s really less enchanting and more of an inter-dimensional blow to the sternum. The air however seems congested, haunted by the ghosts of an extinct Khmer kingdom, haunted by Cambodia’s more recent political horrors, haunted by the concealed spirits of wild places, haunted by the ghosts outsiders pack in.

Luckily our companion is devoted and we are a family for almost an hour, exploring in the pre-dawn blackness, clever enough to avoid the crowds now lining up at Angkor Wat. We are still, temporarily sheltered in this display of man’s order, expanding in concentric enclosures, a site once protected amid the chaos of nature, returned to be consumed again. Soon dawn will burn through this dark like a flash. Things change fast on the jungle floor.

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Ta Prohm Tree_

In the distance we hear German. Other humans approach and Chamak leaves to investigate. Instantly, his spell of protection is broken. A passing bird shits on my partner’s camera. And then, although my feet are well planted, we watch as the camera rips from my hands, as if controlled by the invisible influence of some unseen border guard. It crashes on the ground below. Strange powers are afoot. Our temple dog eventually returns to check on us, but the damage is done.

Chamak ushers us out to where our tuk-tuk waits, but he will go no further than the entryway, refusing to cross between his world and ours. Determined to thank him, we fetch the breakfast and return to make an offering, but Sparkles is nowhere to be found. We’ve failed him. Our driver thinks it’s time to move on, but as we load up another dog approaches. It’s obvious she’s responsible for a litter of puppies, maybe the next generation of canine docents. We give her Chamak’s toast and eggs.

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Angkor Steps People

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Eventually we reach the hallowed walls of Angkor Wat. A student film crew sets up a jib. They prepare a stunt that involves an ox cart, racing out of control, its driver asleep in the back. Fashion bloggers hike by, sweating in formal wear, followed obediently by their photographer-boyfriends. Armies of tour groups march behind the fluorescent flags of their sullen leaders. Duck lips and selfie sticks commandeer each corridor of this holy city. What must the ghosts of this ancient place think of the gods we now worship?

Here and there the crowds will ebb, yet this is only fleeting. I attempt photos with my phone, but am more engaged with the people. They travel back through time, surrounded by Hindu then Buddhist frescos, iconography that intersects divinities, a recording of the centuries. They jockey for perfection. Click, repeat, click. Posing in galleries, up steps, down promenades, queuing in mud by the lotus pond to frame up Angkor’s mighty reflection. It’s entertainment fit for royalty, a bizarre parade. I find two playing cards buried near the water’s edge and dig them up – the Queen of Hearts, the Queen of Spades.

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Angkor Crowd
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By the heat of the day we are back at the hotel. A month or so remains during these travels and my budget won’t allow for a replacement camera. My partner catnaps in the forgiving breeze of the air conditioning. Bird poop will wipe off, but my situation calls for emergency surgery. I straighten a paper clip and find the tweezers. The injuries originate near the lens, which is stuck, extended, sufficiently dented. Tiny pieces of temple grind inside. But if I move things just so, the screen powers up. Momentarily I see the last picture, from just before the camera kissed the rocks. Chamak.

I whisper a prayer into the lingering glow of the LED display. “Sparkles. Good boy. Please come back.” I hear a voice somewhere in the distance. “It will cost you extra.”

 

 

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