He isn’t concerned about damage to the temple or about one of us breaking an ankle as we climb the immense, moss-covered temple stones that had collapsed long ago. In this rural area, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, he’s concerned about land mines.
As Cambodia has one of the highest unexploded ordnance mortality rates in the world and an estimated 6 million remaining mines, this is a warning to take very seriously. While the path through the Beng Mealea complex has been cleared of land mines, a fall into any of the surrounding fields could prove deadly.
This 900 year old temple was not yet on the tourist trail, free of both the fees and the touts of the more popular Cambodian ruins. We find ourselves alone to explore the ancient structures that the jungle is determined to reclaim. In nature’s own version of the childhood game “king of the mountain”, tree roots clamber over stones to sprout large trunks on top of the remaining roofs. Some of these games create two winners as the encroaching vines weave their way into the walls, reinforcing the structures from collapse. Others result in a clear loser as the structure gives in to nature, crumbling into piles of rubble below.
Childhood laughter sounds from behind. My mood suddenly darkens. A family must be approaching and will inevitably ruin my sense of peace. I am not good at sharing special places. But then, the laughter rings out from in front of me. I spin a circle, looking for the source, baffled at how the family could have gotten ahead of us without our seeing them. I feel eyes watching me, yet cannot make out the source.
A flash of movement and more laughter, this time from inside a temple. I’m reminded of a silly movie of a tomb raider searching for jasmine at a temple 63 kilometers from this one. The laughter of a hidden child led the tomb raider to find what she was seeking. Where would the laugher lead me?
We follow the sound to a wooden platform and down steps leading to an ominous doorway. The laughter continues from inside, echoing off the walls.
“We must step carefully and move slowly”, our guide says as we approach the corridor. “Sleeping snakes live inside.”
“Sleeping snakes?” I ask.
“Yes, sleeping snakes. If you are bit by one, you will fall asleep and you will never wake up. Don’t worry. The sleeping snakes are asleep. ”
Posing a greater danger than the remaining land mines, the snake of concern is the monocled cobra. Known as having the highest fatality rate among snake bite victims in Southeast Asia, the first manifestation of the venom is often drowsiness. Respiratory paralysis and death follow within 60 minutes of the bite.
Hesitating at the temple door, I consider the risk. We are a good 90 minutes away from any hope of an anti-venom. Having no source of light to guide our passage, pure luck will decide whether a foot rouses a resting cobra.
Laughter emanates from the corridor once again, beckoning us to follow. I look back at my husband and smile. “Let’s do this.”
In a single file we follow our guide, toes colliding with fallen stones as we gingerly make our way through the darkness. I hear the footsteps of my husband behind me as he estimates where my last step had been, trying to place his feet in that exact spot.
We speak no words, our ears listening for any signs of slithering.
At last, light. We have reached the other side. Once safely outside, I inquire to what time the sleeping snakes wake. “Five o’ clock”, our guide answers. My husband looks at his watch. It is 4:55.
Before our adrenaline levels normalize, laughter rings out from above. Raising our eyes to the sky, we finally identify the source. A local child is standing on top of the temple that we had just passed through.
He smiles and runs away. In an amazing display of parkour, he scampers across the roof, bouncing off tree roots to clear the places where no footings remain. He leaps from the temple and over the walkway where we stand, landing on the stone wall opposite of us. The show is worthy of a million YouTube hits, yet in this remote area, the child undoubtably knows nothing of the internet.
Using the branches of a tree as a trampoline, he springs down toward the path in a death-defying act that pays no heed to the dangers of mines possibly obscured by the roots below. A few feet from the bottom, the child lands in a perfect sitting position on a natural swing formed by the branches. We applaud. With that, he laughs again, pausing just long enough for us to snap a photo before reversing his path and disappearing over the wall.
As we take our own exit, I look back to the empty complex. In a few years, news of Beng Mealea will spread. The area will be cleared of more land mines and of the sleeping snakes to make a safe passage for an influx of tourism. The boy will likely learn to charge for photographs or will give up his antics altogether to sell postcards to tourists. Knowing that a future return could never be the same, I take one last mental picture of the empty complex and vow to remember the sound of his laughter.