This is my favorite movie scene of all time — the closing sequence of Kar Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love. The setting, the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, is unique; the music is beautiful, and that tiny patch of grassy soil which seals the protagonist’s secret in a hole in the centuries-old sandstone is quite possibly the most vivid representation of finality I have ever seen. Yes, that little seal over his love is more final, more unyielding in my view than the lid of a coffin because buried under it is the protagonists’ heart. We see him walk away from the temple no longer a man but a mere shadow at dusk. In the very last shots the camera glides over silent rocks until it finds another vacant hole – for the viewer’s heart, for her secret.
Ever since watching the film, I have been dreaming of visiting Siem Reap’s temples. I imagined resting my head against the warm sandstone, looking into one of the countless holes in the building blocks (originally made to facilitate transport), and just listening. I hadn’t thought that I might have a story of my own to tell the temple in the Khmer jungle, one so important and defining that letting it go would turn me, too, into a shadow. However, it so happened that when I was finally able to see and touch the fantastic Angkor Wat just under a month ago, I did have such a story to whisper, and doing so noticeably changed me.
It was unfortunate that I chose the high tourist season for my second trip to Cambodia – the Chinese New Year. All of Siem Reap’s sights were overcrowded, and I dreaded the disappointment of not being able to have a moment on my own with Angkor Wat. Therefore, when my guide and I arrived at the complex’s East Gate at noon, I could hardly believe my eyes, used by then to seas and seas of Chinese and Korean tourists: there were but two or three people wandering about, leaving the grounds. Grinning, my very energetic guide explained that it was much too hot for normal people, but since I appeared to be a tough cookie, we were going to make the most of it. Energetic he may have been, but that didn’t make my guide willing to climb the steep stairs to Angkor Wat’s higher levels. Finding himself a comfortable spot in the shadow of the colonnade instead and opening a bottle of water, he sent me off to explore on my own. ‘Take your time,’ he said; he really shouldn’t have…
While I awkwardly negotiated the steps on my one-and-a-half legs in the scorching heat, I felt like I was climbing somewhere not entirely real. The highest accessible level of the temple was all air, light shadows and quiet. The few people present reclined against the warm sandstone columns in silence, some reading, some browsing through photos on their cameras, and others seemingly completely still. Either we had all overheated, or time really did flow differently between the arches and open spaces of this ancient monument to man’s dream of immortality. Looking up at the Wat’s central tower which represents Mount Meru, center of the Hindu universe and abode of lord Brahma, god of creation, I found myself vividly recalling Chomolungma: how it had felt to stand on her summit and how it had felt to leave her a year ago. The words of the poem I wrote when I returned to Kathmandu having aborted the 2013 expedition came back to me. It was called Where do you want me to take you? (https://sixthsymph.com/2013/04/05/where-do-you-want-me-to-take-you/)
That was when I suddenly saw the familiar face of the girl who had climbed her highest mountain; the one whom I had asked that question in the poem; the one whom I had been seeing but glimpses of over the past year. She was sitting cross-legged right in front of me on the grey sandstone – or was it snow? – grasping her throat with one hand, as if to strange a scream, and with the other trying to support her head above the floor. Her face was so distorted by pain that I hardly recognized myself. ‘Oh, so it was here where you wanted me to take you and leave you, wasn’t it?’ I asked. No answer came, but none was needed, so I shifted closer and whispered three words in her ear: they were all the story there was to tell, and all there ever would be. When I opened my eyes again, she had turned back into a block of sandstone with a little hole in the middle, sprinkled with dust. It was a while before I got back on my feet and left her behind, for good.
By the time I was finished with my kora around the yard, the afternoon heat wave had subsided just a little – enough for Angkor Wat to start filling up with visitors again. ‘I was beginning to worry about you,’ my guide said, laughing, when I woke him from his nap by knocking lightly on his straw hat. Checking his watch, he added that we wouldn’t have the time now to see the landmine museum. ‘I think, I’ve seen enough,’ I replied as we made our way through the colorful growing crowd to the West Gate of the temple.
I have noticed a difference in the way that people look at me and treat me since I returned from Cambodia to continue my Muay Thai training. They try not to look me in the eye; they avoid me the way one does an abandoned house with murky windows or a narrow street where nobody walks – not because the house is haunted or because there’s a thief hiding behind that street corner. They look away because they see nothing where there should be life: where there should be a soul, a dream, a girl screaming and crying, they see a shadow.