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Posted November 8, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Adventure
 
 

Tomb Raider 3: Steve Falls In Quicksand Near The Rat Temple And Is Sad

Dusk fell over Cambodia’s Northwest Frontier as the police chief paced across his wooden hut, barking in Khmer at my translator.

“The chief says the Rat Temple is cursed,” Vira explained. “He says you are going to steal treasure from the temple. You will get sick and die.”

I shifted uneasily. “Ha Ha. I’m not looking for treasure! I… I just want to rent a metal detector…”

The police chief shouted.

“He says Prasat Dop is very dangerous. The temple is protected by a midget.”

“That’s nonsense.”

“The midget uses magic to fly around the temple at night. You will think he is the moon.”

“What? I just want a metal detector!” I cried. “Why do I need police permission for that?”

“He says the midget is very strong. The midget is on fire.“

“Why did you tell him I’m going to Prasat Dop!”

“He says it is hidden in the jungle and very dangerous to reach. Only some villagers know the way, but nobody goes; not even scientists. He says you are a treasure hunter.”

“Nuh-uh!”

“He says you are a liar-man.”

When I was a fat, little eight year old, I used to spend hours digging glass bottles out of my grandmother’s backyard. They were garbage, but my grandmother lied and told me they were priceless antiques from hundreds of years ago. I told my grandmother that when I grew up, I was going to be an archaeologist—a decision founded upon the inaccuracies of Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, and Legends of the Hidden Temple. The career I pictured involved me wearing a cool hat, battling temple guards, and hitting antiques with a whip. I would get to solve ancient riddles and watch Alfred Molina step on a booby trap.

For this reason I’ve always been drawn to Cambodia, seduced by its exotic, world-class temples and the mighty Angkor Wat. When I finally visited Cambodia, however, my childhood expectations met a violent, cacophonous end: Instead of fighting temple guards, I was fighting souvenir touts. Instead of watching Alfred Molina getting pin-cushioned with arrows, I was watching six thousand Chinese women making peace signs in front of garbage cans. Instead of finding romance and adventure, I found sweaty fanny packs lashed around muffin tops. Christmas was canceled forever.

“Go upcountry!” Sonith yelled, tipping back his beer. “Everybody comes to Angkor because that’s all they know. It’s the capital of the Khmer Empire, the largest pre-industrial city in the world—you can see a million temples and be back at the hotel in time for lunch. But for what you’re looking for, you have to go north.”

Sonith was a young archaeology graduate from Phnom Penh, working on temple restoration in Beng Mealea. I bought him a beer in exchange for his wisdom. “The jungles of the Northwest Frontier are filled with temples waiting to be explored. Thousands of them. They’re just as beautiful as the ones here in Angkor, but you’ll feel like the first person to set foot inside in centuries.”

“Why doesn’t anyone visit them?”

“Because they’re absolutely covered in landmines.”

“You mean like booby traps?!

“No, I mean like landmines. Hundreds of thousands of landmines. The Khmer Rouge left them after the civil war. You need a metal detector.”

After traveling deep into the Northwest Frontier, I caught rumors of a lost ‘Rat Temple’ hidden in the jungle, 30km outside Sra Em village. Its name was Prasat Dop and local farmers described it as beautiful, mysterious, and untouched by time. It would have been perfect, except the grounds were full of unexcavated treasure, leading the police to believe that I was a gem smuggler… and in the Northwest treasure trove of Cambodia, you need a police permit to operate a metal detector.

The police chief barked at me.

“No metal detector for you,” Vira apologized.

“What if I step on a landmine and get killed!”

“The chief says you wont get killed. You are very tall. It will only blow off foot.”

“Is that a joke?”

The police chief stared at me.

“Alright, fine!” I folded my arms. Laura Croft never needed a metal detector; “I’ll just manage without one then.”

Vira’s motorbike screamed through the jungle.

“ADVENTURE!” he cried, splashing through muddy puddles and slamming into potholes with reckless zest. “Woohoo!”

We zipped down the trail, past bomb craters and quaint, isolated farms, before we screeched to a stop in front of a silky patch of mud.

“Quicksand,” said Vira.

“Gun it! Gun it!” I cheered.

“No.”

“It’s okay! Go!”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah!” I cheered. “Adventure!”

“ADVENTURE!” he bellowed, slamming the accelerator.

SPLOOSH!

In retrospect, I didn’t actually realize that quicksand was a real thing. It just seemed too fantastical and cinematic a concept…

Until it swallowed Vira’s motorbike.

“Nooo!” Vira wailed as we leapt off the bike. When I looked back, the quicksand was nearly up to the seat.

I fumbled for my camera.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING GRAB THE BIKE AND HELP ME PULL.”

After several frantic minutes we somehow managed to pull the bike to safety. Vira then wiped off the seat, clenched his fists, and stomped off into the bush to curse at a tree.

Meanwhile I frolicked in the quicksand. It was fascinating. With every movement—every displacement of silt—a vacuum forms around your feet and you sink deeper.

“Awesome!” I cried.

After I discovered that you could only sink to knee-level before the phenomenon stopped, the novelty wore off and I realized my sneakers were ruined.

“Let’s go!” shouted Vira.

I tried to jump out of the quicksand, but slipped.

SPLAT!

I landed on my back, plastering my clothes in mud. “I’m alright!” I scrambled to get to my feet.

There was a loud rip as my pants tore wide open, exposing the front of my underpants for all of Cambodia.

I could tell Vira was angry because he stopped speaking to me in English.

His happy cheering ceased and the road deteriorated into a slippery river of mud. Occasionally we’d reach impassable sections and I’d hop off the bike (splitting in my pants wider each time) and wade through the mud, while Vira navigated around the roadblock, grunting and cursing through the foliage.

After the seventh repeat of this episode, Vira lost a battle with a tree and tumbled out of the bush, clutching his head. “No more adventure!” he moaned. “We go back please?”

“But the Rat Temple’s so close!” I cried. “You can go back. I’ll hitch a ride with someone on a tractor.”

“Okay!” Vira smiled and turned his bike around. “I’m going back to town to drink beer. Call me when you’re finished.”

He then waved and vanished in whirl of dust, leaving me alone in the jungle.

“Prasat Dop! Prasat Dop!” shouted the woman, pointing down a trail that vanished into the bush. “Three kilometer.”

I hopped off the tractor, thanked the farmers, and set off down the trail for Prasat Dop.

After thirty minutes of walking the trail vanished beneath my feet and I began tromping through painful stinging vines, which caused my arms and exposed groin to puff up with rash-y welts. To mark my path, I started inhaling my emergency bag of candy bars and using the wrappers to forge a trail-of-breadcrumbs.

Tomb Raiding wasn’t as glamorous as I’d expected. It mostly involved wandering through the jungle, swatting at thorny vines and squealing through cobwebs. While people in the movies always seemed to know exactly where The-Lost-Hidden-Temple was located, I had no idea where I was going.  I had no Token Minority sidekick or talking Olmec head to give me clues. There was no path. The only sign I found was lying in the dirt, emblazoned with a foreboding orange skull and text. It was written in Khmer, but I recognized this sign and knew exactly what it said.

YOU’RE IN A MINEFIELD, MOTHERFUCKER!”

My stomach turned. I looked around for broken branches or the safety of footprints. Movies had warned me that finding The-Lost-Hidden-Temple is always a massive, dangerous pain in the ass—that’s what made it an adventure.

But this was just impossible. This was like The Shrine of the Silver Monkey—if Nickelodeon started blowing off the children’s limbs.

I advanced a few nervous yards before I saw it, poking out of the weeds like a Staples Easy Button of death.

It was a landmine.

A real landmine.

The Shrine of the Silver Monkey was instantly forgotten and the game became “Get Out of The Minefield With All Your Limbs.”

But first I had to spend ten minutes clearing the weeds away so I could take a picture, of course.

My trail of candy wrappers had magically disappeared, so I started aimlessly pouting through the jungle. After thirty minutes I stumbled upon a footpath, which led me back to where the tractor dropped me off.

I stood there for a long moment wincing in the sun, wallowing in the shame of defeat. I couldn’t imagine Indiana Jones pussing out over a minefield. He probably would have just forced little Wan Li to walk through it first, before tracing the boy’s footsteps. Which gave me an idea…

I sat down in the middle of the path until an ox-cart creaked into view, carrying a father and two sons.

Their jaws fell as they spied the white man sitting in the middle of the road, covered in mud, plagued with welts, and wearing crotchless safari pants. They slowed to a stop.

“Prasat Dop?” I smiled.

The father pointed down the overgrown trail.

I couldn’t force them to navigate the minefield for me like little Wan Li. But I could do the next best thing…

I pulled out three dollars.

Their eyes sparkled.

“Will you please take me?” I gestured to them, then me, then the ox-cart, and then the trail.

“No, no,” the father shook his head, pointing to their farming tools.

I pulled out five dollars.

The father stared.

Dark clouds rolled overheard as the father marched us into the minefield, excitedly chattering to me in Khmer. I smiled back at him, nervously waiting for the BANG!

In less than ten minutes, we arrived at a brick staircase ascending a mound.

“Prasat Dop! Prasat Dop!” the boys pointed up the steps.

I handed them the five dollars and they scrutinized the bill, before cheering in Khmer. “Thank you! Thank you! Goodbye!”

“Wait! I need to get back!” I cried, as they vanished through the trees.

Rain started to fall as I climbed the steps to the bank of a large pond. At the center of the pond was a small island. At the center of the island a stone tower rose up out of the greenery, carved with massive, evocative faces.

It was the Rat Temple.

Goose bumps ran down my arm. This wasn’t a pond. I was standing before an ancient moat.

The skies opened up and monsoon rains pounded my umbrella. I stared down the land bridge to the island—a nightmarish orgy of stinging vines. If I could push through the vines, then all my Tomb Raider fantasies would come true. I could ride out the storm solving puzzles, exploring secret passages, and climbing giant statues. I could find The Golden Idol. I could reveal the Secret of Olmec.

I took a deep breath, lowered my umbrella like a shield, and charged into the gauntlet.

This was the worst idea.

Try to imagine dousing yourself in Kool-Aid and then drop-kicking a bee hive. This was that.

The massive stone door appeared before me as I shrieked out of the bush, waving my umbrella victoriously. I scurried inside.

The Secret of Olmec turned out to be a nondescript, bat shit-scented stone box. Rain poured down on me through the shattered roof. There were no puzzles, secret passages, or statues. No flaming aerial midgets or half-buried treasure. Only mosquitoes, disappointment, and nothing.

Prasat Dop was an empty silo with faces on it. It was a total piece of shit.

I couldn’t even sit down because the floor was under an inch of water, so I huddled beneath my umbrella in a sad corner and waited for the storm to pass, cursing Hollywood for their lies.

And I cursed.

And I cursed.

And I cursed.

After an hour or two I got bored, walked out the door, and surrendered to the monsoon, setting off on the long, hot, wet, stinging, painful, explosive, muddy, dangerous, thirty-kilometer trek back to Sra Em.

*******************

A few days later I got stranded in a remote village named Banteay Chhmar, where I stayed with a family of rice farmers. The family told me about a nearby temple in the jungle that was beautiful, mysterious, and untouched by time.

“NO MORE TEMPLES. NO MORE TEMPLES. NO MORE TEMPLES,” I cried.

“But you must!” they insisted.

The next morning they drew me a map on a napkin. After an uneventful ten-minute walk from their hut, I crossed over a moat and found myself in a spectacular Hollywood jungle temple of lore. My jaw fell as I stared up at a dozen soaring spires, strangled with magnificent vines and bursting through the forest canopy. Crumbling sandstone faces peered down from them, surveying the sea of stone slabs, broken reliefs, and collapsing tombs.

As the sun climbed, I explored secret passageways, climbed giant statues, and uncovered breathtaking stone reliefs. I was Indiana Jones. I had found The-Lost-Hidden-Temple—a secret known by only a handful of villagers… and me.

I scaled up the wall of a spire and perched on a high ledge, drinking in the view.

A plump Japanese tourist appeared. “Herro!” he waved. He was wearing a fanny pack.

I blinked. “How did you get here?” I stammered.

“Oohhh,” he smiled. “It’s in Japanese guidebook.”

“No it’s not!” I shouted.

The man squinted at me and waddled off into the rubble.

The temple was so vast, I never saw him again. And after an hour of sitting on my lofty perch, gazing out across the silent, elegant ruins, I managed to convince myself that he was never there in the first place.

This was my temple. This was my lost hidden secret. I was Indiana Jones.

***************************************

Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more deadly, minefield-related shenanigans, watch me torture my intern in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons

Or push deeper into the jungle by meeting Cambodia’s Mowgli in “The Jungle Girl of Rattanakiri

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Steve McDonald

 
Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.