The knotted rope trunks determine the quality of light at Kbal Spean, Cambodia. They twist into serpentine mating contortions, wrapping around each other, bending in midair before knitting inextricably up towards the sky. The illumination filtering through forms motley patterns on the tangled floor. Jesse and I advance through a jungle intent on overtaking all, wary of gnarled roots and entwined limbs splayed out to trap us. The air should be cooler here in the higher Kulen altitude. Instead it deliberates like a skulking beast waiting to pounce….
* * * * *
“No temple there, only jungle,” Mr. Satheay had told us when we asked to be taken to Kbal Spean. We understood. It was the reason we wanted to go. Mr. Satheay remained puzzled. “No temple there,” he repeated, emphasizing each word, “many more temple you have not been. I can take to them.”
“Thank you, but we want to do something different,” Jesse replied, “we heard about the beautiful Kulen hills and we want to explore the area.”
Mr. Satheay stared at us, unbelieving. “No more temples?”
“We were thinking of doing a hike at Kbal Spean. Do you know it?” I ask.
“Yes, I know.” Mr. Satheay shook his head, baffled. “Why you want walk in jungle? Nothing special in jungle, very hot walking for long time, many dangerous animal. I take you to quiet ruins, Ta Nei, Ta Keo, Thommanon —all very beautiful. Best part of our country, cannot miss out.”
“We have been to so many: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Bayon, East Mebon! They have all been lovely, Mr. Satheay. Now we wish to wander into the unknown seeking the unfamiliar!” Scratching his head, he shrugged, then agreed to drive us to Kbal Spean the next day.
* * * * *
The atmosphere thickens within the enclosure of coagulated trees. Gloom descends and we cannot tell whether it is day or night. Silence reigns, our excited whispers enhancing its eldritch quality. Between the shattering crunch of our feet I can sense the brooding presence of invisible eyes. As we approach a clearing, an old man and a child appear resting on a hammock. Behind them in the matted clump of vegetation sits a simple straw hut. Startled, we stop, uncertain what to do. I smile politely at them, hesitantly stepping forward. I wish Mr. Satheay had joined us, rather than happily napping at the bottom of the mountain. They watch our progress, unmoving. “Choum reap sur,” we greet the elder with the appropriate sampeah when we get close to him. Surprised, he grins and nods, pointing us further along the path. We have passed the first test of our journey.
Our second trial arrives at a crossroads. The trail splits; we risk the left turn and find ourselves on top of a dead-end ridge. I sigh, turn to head back when Jesse nudges my arm. He points to the ground, whispering, “Stone carvings.”
“What,” I exclaim, hunkering down to examine the ravel of veined roots.
“See,” he says, brushing aside dead leaves. A cluster of ebony markers, faint etchings still visible upon them, lie half hidden under the thicket. There is no guide to explain their significance, no sign to denote their history. My spine tingles as we trace the delicate outline of a multi-armed deity. Who knows what we have unearthed? Lost ecclesiastic tokens or tablets of cryptic code? We return to the fork and take the right hand track. Jesse and I slow our pace to search the snarled terrain for further archaeologic fragments. We discover them: beside a boulder, between two boles, inside a hollow. Our surroundings transform into a mantle concealing a labyrinth of sanctums. Perhaps we have located a new Angkor Wat! These mysterious remnants captivate us. Insubstantial, they nevertheless hold an allure I will long recall as part of Cambodia.
Eventually our route fronts the edge of a trickling tributary cascading down several rock layers. The tepid sun catches the water revealing indistinct drawings on the ebony surface below. Is it a trick of the reflection? Emboldened by our recent revelations, we gingerly step into the gelid torrent to study them. The shape of a bull, a reclining female, and a meditating male materializes. What powers envisioned this submerged tableau? The diaphanous figures whirl with the effulgent liquid in a dance of creation. We gape, entranced by the chiaroscuro effect upon the gyrating idols. The world renews itself before our chilled feet and we participate with our own joyous jig.
Eager to see more we follow the stream. It gurgles and chortles its way through the woods, expanding into a rippling pool. We gasp. Before the river disappears, it washes over an army of linga, sacred stumps lining the sandstone bed. A yoni channel encloses the gridded symbols. The pristine brook, consecrated as it flows over the religious iconography, merges nature, divinity, and faith in one. Beyond the beauty of temple craftsmanship, Kbal Spean carries Cambodia’s spiritual identity in its glorious burbling essence. Far from the broken pillars, empty halls, and deteriorating apsaras, Jesse and I have uncovered truths about a vanished civilization.
I spy a rotted wooden staircase further on. Addled by exhilaration we clamber down, slipping precariously on its rough edges. A diamond curtain glinting over green vines rewards our pursuit. A solitary monk in saffron bathes his head at the base of the cascade. Holy of holies, this verdant altar is the culmination of our trek into this region’s cultural heart. The scene shimmers in afternoon luster. I pinch my arm to ensure I am awake. The cenobite gathers some of the pure water into a jar then darts to the side, nimbly climbing up the slippery flank. I place my hands under the spray, reveling in its hallowed froth. I ladle it in cupped palm and douse my head. The bourn cleanses me; from behind the sparkling screen celestial beings bless me.
We do not want to leave this enchanted realm. Jesse and I sit on an outcrop in front of the falls in worshipful harmony. There is no other site like this; the titivated, orotund shrines of Siem Reap pale in comparison to our wilderness fane. Then again, who are we to judge what is best about a kingdom too robust and quixotic for our comprehension? There is never one perfect monument that represents a destination, no single characteristic sculpting a country. In the nuanced layers of every territory there are myriad possibilities to explore; merely time is lacking. In the confluence of circumstance we encountered a mystical location we could make our own, a Terabithia in the middle of Cambodia. In your future travels, may you stumble upon your own Kbal Spean.
A tributary of the Siem Reap River cuts through the Kulen hills and makes its way to the life-giving Tônlé Sap Lake. To ensure the lake’s fertility Khmer monarchs of the eleventh and twelfth century wanted the river bed at Kbal Spean to be blessed. Under their orders carvings of Hindu deities underneath the water and along the banks were created. Kbal Spean is a marvelous reminder of the close-knit bond between the ancient religion and their natural world.
What was an experience outside of typical tourist landmarks that captured your attention? What determines for you the best part of a destination?