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from the November 2015 issue

Journey to Angkor Wat

Photo: Sharon May, “Angkor Wat Causeway, Cambodia” (2009)

Journey to Angkor Wat (Nireas Nokor Voat), Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind’s most celebrated poem, recounts his first trip to Siem Reap in 1909 when he was invited to accompany the Khmer provincial governor and his French counterpart to attend King Sisowath’s arrival at the temples of Angkor. It was first published in 1934 but most likely was written between 1909 and 1915. Ind composed his 550-stanza poem in a Thai genre, nirat (in Khmer, nireas), that had recently been adopted into Khmer literature. Few examples of this rare form of “separation poem” still exist. Nireas texts are poems of departure, with the poet reflecting as much on the journey taken and the curious toponyms encountered as on the beloved left behind at home. Ind’s text abounds with reflections on the shifting political landscape of Cambodia, the melancholy majesty of Angkor’s ruins, and his own struggles with the ascetic strictures of Buddhist ethics. 

How transient that lithe-limbed lady’s life,
stooping to sow seedlings, scorched by the sun,
her face plastered with mud and dusty earth.
I mourn the strife and strain of those born poor.

If she had riches, rank, and great renown,
she’d dine and doze in lofty luxury;
adorned with fine perfume and fair powder,
hair trimmed and dyed, her complexion would shine.

She’d flaunt her charm to captivate rich men.
They’d look her over—never overlooked.
But stained now by the sun and by the soil,
she can ensnare and earn their love no more.

I eye the tiny girl and pity her,
born to a wretched race with the wrong roots.
Subject to struggle, strain, and suffering,
she’ll wait for gold till she is far too old.

Once aged she can’t fashion her own beauty;
rare is the man who would bargain for her.
When she’s been discounted, they feel deceived;
coupling and consummation cannot come.

Fortunes failed, wealth withered, she’s bound to bear
the wear and tear of eking out a life.
Those with the means can brighten their bodies,
unlike this fair-skinned one besmirched with mud.


I perch perplexed, gazing out at the girl.
The boat speeds to reach Ansong Sok village.
The snaking stream divides into four channels
and floating slicks of sticks and scum abound.

The captain guides the wheel to the debris
to slice clear through, but the steamer sticks fast.
Deckhands use bamboo prods to pole the boat;
the wheel pushes the vessel back around.

The polemen poke away the sticks and scum.
The steamer seems to briefly break away
but stuck to sticks, the blades still strive to spin.
Pity the wheel now clogged and choked by scum!

I see how tight the scum girdles the boat,
as lust would mount flesh when morals fade.
Our bodies soon are trapped in that dark place;
the real is shrouded off, the light is screened.

Lust sears and singes creatures in the world
to rue and regret base earthliness.
The vessel’s frame is like our human form;
those short of insight cannot see the real.

The blades are wisdom that slices and shears;
the floating scum is lust, now dropped away.
Escape from the shallows of sorrow and strife
depends on brave wisdom, the paddle wheel.

The boat’s innards are our body’s workings:
earth, water, fire, and wind, the four bases.
The helm’s the post of wakeful remembrance,
the bamboo pole’s the clear mind’s reflection.

The sticks and scum are meditation’s foes,
preventing us from seeing what is real.
The water whirls around like birth and death,
drowning creatures in this carnal abyss.

Alas, that this body does not spurn lust;
instead it’s spun around increasingly.
In woe we weep and how we wail, for we
forget to follow the Buddha’s bidding.

Reflecting on myself, shaken and stirred,
thwarted by thirst for things of here below,
I’ve seen the truth, but it’s for girls I pine,
fodders of lust and fonts of mystery.

Lust yields not, for straining seals it tighter.
My poor heart and its love are wrenched apart.
Even if I take sacred writ as rule,
worldly lust stands unhampered, unhindered.

Ditching the Dharma can’t help douse this fire;
the thing’s pitch-black, like night with shapes unseen.
Seldom sloughed off, what’s worldly naught but fades,
just as when washing black silk stained with tar.

To scrub’s no use, the color changes not;
tar’s nature is ever bound to blackness,
as taints are tied to creatures thus enthralled.
Don’t fancy you could somehow wipe them clean.

Straining to let go I’m locked in tighter.
Practice is stopped, not steady; stayed, not stilled.
I sit to rule myself with the Dharma,
like deckhands clearing all the scum at once.

Once we pass through, the sticks and scum float back,
again settling into the selfsame clumps.
The sticks and scum are like thirsting desire;
we chop and clear but choked remains the stream.


Near an orchard the scum sticks to the shore,
strewn with the carcasses of cats and dogs.
They ooze, they fester, their entrails erupt;
vultures and crows compete for carrion.

Seeing the corpses consumed by the crows,
I’m shaken, thinking of my own body.
These crows swoop in whenever death arrives.
The dead, the void of life, are jettisoned.

In life they’re so ferocious and so fierce
that other beasts would not dare peck at them.
In death they’re set adrift upon the stream,
where carrion birds now feast voraciously.

How transient the lives of all creatures!
Once bodies break apart and minds collapse,
no one would dare go near to such a stench.
Let us all dwell on life’s impermanence.

I humbly strive to quake at corpses’ sight,
yet lust still must be burning inside me.
For I think of my darling dear alone;
“impermanence” is only on my lips.

Reflecting on foulness removes our lust
and cleaves mind and conduct from our desire.
The yogi meditates on the object,
but strange how I cannot focus at all.

To see a dog’s dead corpse as my body
cannot help disenchant me, my dear friends.
Oh what am I to do? Whoever’s now
protecting me, oh please point out the path. 

Translation © 2015 by Trent Walker. All rights reserved.

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