Where I live now is in a poor country. Poor in the measure of things like infrastructure, education, and quality of healthcare. Poor, like my host father who had to ride his motorbike to Phnom Penh today, so his wife gave him muey-mon riel ($2.50) for the trip. It’s a rural economy—a cash poor country.
But Cambodia is rich in history, art, and architecture. Its people built the magnificent Angkor Wat, which stands today, even now, as a religious center for the Khmer. The Angkor Wat temple was built in the first half of the 12th century. Satellite imaging reveals that during its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world. Historians estimate that a million people may have lived within the ten-mile area. During that same era, 12th century medieval London had a population of about 18,000. The water management system was a complex, brilliant engineering feat that managed and conserved water from the monsoons. Yet, in my village when it rains the roads flood as we know it must. Water management today means we wait for the water to recede.
When I look at the sculptures and bas-relief around Angkor, I see the images of my host family, co-teachers, neighbors. The famous four-sided face at the Bayon Temple of King Jayavarman VII could be a cousin of my first Khmer language teacher, Sopheak. Where I live now is a land so old and imbued with the wounds of its recent past, one can imagine the layers of rock and bone and memory pressed into its tremulous core like a palimpsest. The scenes of everyday life depicted on the walls of Angkor are repeated in the scenes I see when I ride my bike down a country road. Water buffalo plowing through wet fields, or harvesters cutting rice with curved blades. Roosters waiting in woven cages for the afternoon fight. It’s an ancient way of life, part of the DNA of the Cambodian people. The ledger set in stone some eight to ten hundred years ago at the ruins is reread in rural Cambodia every day.
For me, as an American who’s country was established a mere two centuries ago, this sense of a continuum is new. I come from the land of innovation. Go-go gadgets occupy our altars of worship. Our priests are motivational speakers, and the newspapers tell me it’s “all about you.” Here, in Cambodia you are not so important. It’s always been about the family and community. The sculptures are not attributed to individual artists because the work was not made for individual glory. Angkor Wat is a World Heritage site, acknowledgement that the rich history of Cambodia belongs to us all.