Chapter 12: Who are We? & the Mountaintop Temple

A swimming pool conversation at Angkor


After experiencing these incredible Khmer temples Sopheap took us back to the hotel. We took our traditional swim in the hotel swimming pool - nothing fancy, but a nice refreshment from the midday heat and humidity. As we did easy laps up and down the pool as the clouds congealed and dropped their moisture and then broke apart we all agreed that the Forest Temple definitely humbled and awed us with Nature’s grandeur.

Me: “Has Angkor lived up to your expectations?”

Laurie: “Most definitely. It has surpassed them.”

Me: “How about my lovely daughters?”

Serena: “I think it is safe to say that we all had a remarkable time.”

Me: “Who is the ‘we’ you’re referring to.”

Miranda: “Our family of course.”

Me: “Does anyone else go through a roller coaster of emotions during the course of the day?”

Miranda and Serena simultaneously: “Of course.”

Me: “How about you Laurie?”

Laurie: “Not really.”

Miranda: “We inherited this manic-depressive swing of emotions from you, Dad.”

Serena: “Poor us. Why couldn’t we have inherited Mom’s even spirit?”

Me: “The Universe loves its tricks. So with this roller coaster of emotions, which is the real ‘we’ - the ‘we’ that experiences the ups and downs or the ‘we’ that is at ground level?”

Miranda: “They’re all part of the same package.”

Serena: “The Serena who experiences my whirlwind of emotions is the same Serena who experiences serenity. While the scenes in the movie change from drama, to comedy, to romance, to terror and tension, it is the same movie. I am that movie.”

Me: “Sound like an exciting movie.”

Miranda: “Too exciting, some times.”

Serena: “I could do for a little less drama, myself.”

Me: “A second question. Has anyone been changed by this experience?”

All simultaneously: “Definitely.”

Me: “So the ‘we’ that begun this trip has changed and is different from the ‘we’ that is here now?”

Laurie: “Yes, but there is some undefinable self that remains the same amidst the change. The gold is the same although the jewelry has changed.”

Me: “So what is this gold that remains the same?”

Laurie: “The collective memories and the body.”

Me: “According to science our molecules change completely every seven years, so the actual body is certainly not what remains.”

Laurie: “True but the body is regularly replenished in a similar fashion. Just like a temple that is maintained with a fresh coat of paint. It is the same temple even though the paint is not the original.”

Me: “So you look at the declining body and can recognize certain features which remain and are replenished through time.”

Serena: “According to recent research the hairline is something that we use to identify each other.”

Laurie: “A collection of these elements defines our common body.”

Me: “So our constant body is our self?”

Miranda: “No. We need the memory of the body to tie it together. The memory is the glue that binds. Without memory there is no continuity of self whatsoever.”

Me: “Memories of memories?”

Miranda: “Of course.”

Me: “These collective memories of memories are a fragile base upon which to build a foundation. These memories which merge and morph depending upon external circumstance.”

Miranda: “Psychological studies have shown that cognitive dissonance distorts and even changes memory.”

Laurie: “What do you mean?”

Miranda: “If someone is faced with a situation which contradicts their belief system they will either forget the event, distort it, or change it, so that they don’t have to change their beliefs.”

Serena: “While memories are subject to distortion, they are like the ruins at Angkor - distorted by time but retaining some type of identity despite the external degeneration.”

Me: “And yet what is this identity - this message which emerges from the mists of time? Is it independent of the observer.”

Miranda: “Of course not. The observer is essential.”

Me: “Just any old observer?”

Laurie: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Will a child be able to derive the same mystery from Angkor as a specialist in art history?”

Serena: “The child will experience something else, but it’s not necessarily worse.”

Me: “Might the child be said to lack the same depth of experience of the scientist who has devoted his life to it?”

Laurie: “Yes. of course.”

Me: “And so this self that is continuous through time only reveals herself to the individual that can truly see. The birds only see crumbling rocks - an obstruction in flight. The plants only reach out for some soil between the cracks. - extending to the center of the earth for mineral nourishment and stretching to the heavens for energy. We are just a few of the myriad unrecognizable tourists who stream through Southeast Asia to the Thai and Cambodians, and yet we are special to each other, because of the memories that we share together.”

Serena: “If you are fishing for appreciation, yes our family vacations bind us together as a family.”

Me: “Thank you. And these memories need refreshing just like a fresh coat of paint?”

Miranda: “To make sure that you don’t remember what has never happened.”

Laurie: “To join us as one.”

Me: “But these memories which bind us to our self and our family, aren’t they drawing us away from the Now, because they all happened in the past?”

Miranda: “Talking about the Now takes me from the Now.”

Laurie: “Blending the past with the present creates a rich multi-textured tapestry, which is the real Now.”

Serena: “This is the eternal now, which transcends past, present and future.”

Me: “So we recreate the memories of the past, mixing them with the present, to cook up something unique and different from the past or present?”

Miranda: “Enough of these words. They are distracting me from the moment. Let’s go to lunch.”

The Mountain Top Temple

After our now traditional mid-day break Sopheap and the driver picked us up at the hotel.

Sopheap: “Now we are going to Phnom Bakheng, one of the earliest Khmer temples. Hopefully the sky clears up so that you can see a nice sunset.”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Sopheap: “Phnom means mountain in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. This temple is located on top of the tallest mountain in the area. Because of this it is sometimes called the Mountain Top Temple. From the top you have a great view of the surrounding area, also a nice view of the sunrise from one side, the sunset from the other.”

The wet rain began to fall again, as if foreshadowing what was to come next.

Sopheap: “Phnom Bakheng is also referred to as the first Angkor Wat. Yasovarman, the king, who founded Angkor, as the sacred capital of the Khmers, placed his temple on this mountain right in the heart of his capital city. His city was enormous - encompassing both the areas of what was to become Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Although virtually nothing remains of the original city, it was surrounded by square walls, 2.5 miles long. These walls were surrounded by a moat. Although the temple has not been restored as much as the others, it is the first to use the style, which became the standard for the Khmer temples. It was the first to use the quincunx plan - 5 towers placed on the upper terrace, one in the center surrounded by the others in the corners. The upper terrace was placed on top of five tiers, which were themselves on top of a foundation. In all there were 7 levels, which represented the 7 levels of Indra’s heaven from Hindu mythology. Although it is hard to tell from the remains, the original temple was carved out of the stone of the hill and then faced with sandstone. Certainly an amazing feat.”

We arrived at a large hill covered with vegetation. At first it just seemed like an ordinary mound of earth.

Me: “The temple is on top?”

Sopheap: “No, the mountain is the temple. We are at the foundation. There are the steps leading to the next tier. I know it is very steep and is not very well maintained. You don’t have to climb it if you don’t want to. But there is a beautiful view if you want to climb to the top. But be careful; the rock steps are slippery. Take your time.”

On the left as we embarked there were 4 small elephants with their Cambodian trainers. They had a sign “Rides to the top - $20.”

Sopheap: “You can take the elephants if you want, but it is a little dangerous.”

Laurie, back at home, 3 years later: “Elephants?! There were no elephants.”

Miranda: “Yeah, Dad. You’ve got to be kidding. There is no way an elephant could have made it up that path. It was just too steep.”

Laurie: “And narrow. Unless they tiptoed up. Just like the Hippopotami in Fantasia with their little tutus on. I can see it now. Elephants in tutus side stepping up the side of the mountain with passengers on their back.”

Everyone is laughing uproariously now.

Me: “But I can remember it as clearly as if it was today.”

Laurie: “You must have been dreaming because there is no way an elephant could have made it up those steps. Unless of course they were trained ballerinas and could do it on pointed toes.”

Miranda: “Dad, those steps were almost too narrow and steep for humans. Don’t you remember.”

Me: “I remember the steps, but I also remember the elephants. Don’t you remember how restless they were. Pacing around.”

Laurie, in hysterics now: “Now the elephants are restlessly pacing around. What next? I can just imagine ballerina elephants, anxiously waiting for riders.”

Me: “But I distinctly remember Sopheap warning us about the elephants.”

Miranda: “No elephant could have made it to the top on those steps.”

Me: “How about a baby elephant?”

Laurie: “Baby elephants. That’s it. Why didn’t I think of it earlier. Restless baby elephants sidestepping their way up the mountain on their tiptoes. Sounds likely to me.”

Me: “But I remember it so clearly. And the guidebook mentions that French visitors had a pleasant ride to the top on elephants.”

Laurie: “From the other side - which has a much more shallow approach.”

Miranda: “Maybe you remember a dream.”

Me: “It’s all a dream now, anyway. Were we ever really there?”

Miranda: “Memories have overlaid memories. Maybe you are remembering a composite memory made up of a variety of sensations. Quite common actually.”

Me: “Maybe none of this really exists.”

Laurie: “But we have pictures.”

Me: “Doctored on the computer with Adobe Photoshop. I have a friend who cut and pasted an image of himself and Master Ni in the mountains together. I thought it was real until he revealed what he had done. Maybe we’ve seen these doctored photos for so long that we think we’ve been there.”

Laurie: “You can’t fool me. I know I was there.”

Me: “Perhaps just memories of memories planted by some experimenters. What is real anyway?”

Laurie: “We are all real.”

Me: “Now we are just a bunch of black lines on a white surface that have evoked some ideas in someone’s head. Perhaps our grandchildren - looking through some of our old things. Having discovered these picture books, they’ve picked them up and started reading about our travels. We are actually long dead.”

Laurie: “How sad. You made me laugh. Now I feel like crying.”

Me: “So short, transitory like the Buddhists say. A blink of the eye and another few years, a few decades have slipped by. And now we are at the end. Reading the writing from a few decades ago. Recalling the laughter and tears. Remembering how much fun we had. And now it is all over. And it was grand.”

Laurie: “I remember when we first met.”

Me: “I love you just as much now as then.”

Laurie: “How sweet. You’re making me cry again.”

Me: “Our memories of memories mixed with many other sensations in a glorious mishmash of events which approximates what really happened, but doesn’t really come close. So yes my elephants might not have really been there, but we might not have ever existed either. Maybe we are just characters in this book, with no real existence of our own. In fact we are immortal compared to the lives of the humans that we are based on. While they are constantly degenerating, even as we speak, these words remain as fresh as the day they were written.”

Miranda: “There were no elephants, but we were in Cambodia. I am your daughter and she is your wife. All these things are real.”

Me: “How do you know reading this 200 years hence. What evidence is there of our petty lives, except this literary excerpt, which could have just been another of our Writer’s fictionalized outbursts?”

Miranda: “Whatever. I think its time to return to your story.”

Me: “My point exactly. This is just a story, created in the imagination.”

Laurie: “But based upon real events.”

Me: “I like to call it fictionalize history. Anyway …”

Being of the adventurous type, we decided to make the climb. Just as in the Yucatan the incline was steep and the steps were narrow and covered with slime and moisture. However because the mountain was the temple, it was covered with underbrush which could be used for stability.

Halfway up, the heavens decided to empty their waters on us. Lucky for us, because we were able to witness a fabulous sunset when we reached the top. Nature’s divine plan allowed us to witness the glory of her passing day. How grateful we were.

Ha, ha. Just kidding.

Hopefully my words and picture gave an example of what could have been. Sometimes the verbal experience surpasses the Reality. Indeed because of the high humidity and heat combined with the exhaustion of sightseeing and travel, frequently the memory of events combined with the insights of retrospection created an integration that transcended the actual event. Sometimes the Reader, depending upon his or her internal state, might even have a more enlightening time in his or her easy chair, than the traveler who is bitten by mosquitoes, exhausted by hunger and thirst, and over-stimulated by a foreign environment.

While experiencing the sunset at the Mountain Top Temple on our last day in Angkor, would have been a great finale to our visit - it sounds so romantic, instead the skies were filled with turbulent clouds which obscured our celestial friends. But we didn’t care. It felt good to be out in nature, straining our muscles with a little exercise. We finally reached the mountain top, which was relatively flat. Ahead of us by 20 or 30 yards was the five tiers and the upper terrace of the temple. It seemed to be in great disrepair - a pile of crumbling rock. We decided that we had enough temples for the day. We turned around to survey the land. Just like in the Yucatan it was mostly vegetation as far as we could see, but then peaking above the tall forest cover I spied what seemed to be some odd type of plant. Then in nearly the same perception I realized that they were the spires of Angkor Wat reaching towards heaven.

Me: “Laurie, Laurie. Come check it out! What do you see?”

Laurie, breathlessly because of the steep climb: “Vegetation?”

Me: “Look closer.”

Laurie: “Whoa. Angkor Wat.”

Upon returning Sopheap: “Sorry about the sunset. But did you see it?”

Laurie: “Yes we did. It was splendid.”

Me: “Mixed in with the vegetation, I understood for the first time, how plant-like Angkor Wat is.”


Sopheap: “Remember that Angkor is meant to resemble the lotus flower, whose roots are in the muck, but floats on top, reaching out to the Universe.”

Nature: “See what I mean, even the Khmer were attempting to merge with me to create a grander beauty. They didn’t rape me or tie me down. Instead their artists were attempting to imitate me. The Khmer carved a temple out of one of my mountains and then decorated it. Then they placed their premium temple where it could be easily viewed from this mountain top as a gigantic stone sculpture of a flower. A celebration of me, Nature, rather than a rejection or domination of my splendor.”

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