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Churning into the millennium

Churning into the millennium

Balloons alight

I

T'S 5:15 am, December 31, 1999. A navy blue hue has forced its way through the blackness

of night. The faint voices of early-rising shopkeepers and hawkers pierce the dark

void adjacent to Angkor Wat.

Several roadside fires have already been lit. An aromatic blend of wood-smoke and

brewed tea fills the air. So too the sporadic hum of inbound mopeds from Siem Reap.

The signs of daybreak.

Camped on the embankment at the far side of a pond inside the temple grounds, an

eclectic blend of diehards wait sandy-eyed, camera tripods at the ready.

The still water, the soft gray stonework of Angkor Wat, the life-giving incandescence

of the dawn light; an ancient civilization bears its secrets with every axial rotation

the earth surrenders to space.

This is the snapshot that has spawned a burgeoning photo processing industry. Everyone

save for the teenage postcard sellers waits hoping, as every other morning, for the

perfect alignment of light and shadow that might produce a slide-show gem.

Satsuki Nakahara, a teacher from Osaka and her companion Yasuko Shimizu, an accountant

from Kyoto, have made the trip to soak up the atmosphere and, hopefully, to capture

it on film for posterity. "It's so beautiful. The sky has turned from dark to

orange to red", says Yasuko.

Churning the sea

But today's sunrise will be palpably different than the 365,000 or so which have

preceded it. A biblical birth record has transpired to render this the last morning

of the millennium, of the century, and of the year.

The celestial shimmer of the moon and stars dissipates. Angkor Wat, built by King

Suryavarman II over eight hundred years ago, stands unclothed for its final twelve-hour

stretch in the sun before the earth wipes the slate clean on the 20th century.

Two saffron-robed monks survey the scene from under a towering palm tree, possibly

oblivious to the irony of a Year 2000 festival being staged in the heartland of Southeast

Asian Buddhism. The elder of the two, Phally Bun, 21, has arrived at Angkor "for

the first time today".

At 8:45 am the Kingdom's top brass arrive to adminis-ter the festival's official

opening rites. Escorted by a small legion of military officials, they cut a swath

through the 4,500 strong crowd milling around the temple.

Brightly attired school children, the elderly, villagers and farm laborers from distant

provinces, energized youth and the physically infirm have descended like pilgrims

on the spiritual home of their country.

Under the crowd's prodding gaze Prime Minister Hun Sen, Prince Norodom Ranariddh,

and Senate President Chea Sim gather with five of the nation's senior Buddhist monks

to exchange pleasantries and messages of goodwill.

Balloons aloft (Tang Chhin Sothy)

Prince Ranariddh flashes a grin, the monks upturn the corners of their tranquil mouths,

as Hun Sen edges closer to convey his New Year message of "constructing a path

to peace" in Cambodia.

Formalities conclude with the lighting of incense by Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany.

A ritual exorcism of sorts, the two raise their burning sticks above their heads

in prayer to the omnipresent Buddha.

Finally, they, the Prince and his wife, the glowing Princess Marie, form the apogee

of a line of people gathered to dispense alms to the approximately 1,500 monks on

hand for the occasion. Joking to the jostling press, Hun Sen quips that the "last

[of the monks] will get cold rice."

Outside Angkor Wat the tide of people swells. By early afternoon the orgy of visitors

is at its fullest.

A teeming melange of legless beggars, film-sellers, Tiger Beer girls and moto-drivers

form a gauntlet for the odd mix of Cambodians and western backpackers

Americans Rachel Crawford and Roy Gentry scan the vista from one of the watchtowers.

Says Gentry dryly, "We came because Cambodia is secure now. ... We're avoiding

the [threat of] millennium bombers in New York."

Monks receive alms from devout Buddhists

Evening sets in. Traditional Khmer music blares from the banks of the temple moat,

families up to fifteen people strong feast at cheap hang bay in the small market

opposite Angkor Wat.

Poor children sling great black garbage bags over their shoulders, filling them to

the brim with refuse.

Sin Kamol, 30, and his wife, Vong Srey Chim, 23, have opened a small hamburger joint

to cater to the influx of foreigners. "I'm happy to be alive at this time -

2000," says Kamol. "Its great [to meet] so many new people from so many

different countries."

Around 6:30 pm the bulk of the night's 30,000 revelers swarm into the temple grounds.

Some depart just minutes later, shorn of the 2,000 riel entry fee, dejected by the

sight of a blurry video screen erected to telecast events from a jerry-built VIP

miniature stadium not fifty feet from the gathered crowd.

One man, preferring to remain anonymous, airs his discontent: "I brought my

family [all the way] from Takeo province. ... It's disappointing," he mutters.

Others remain, clamoring for a view of the Royal dance troupe's reenactment of

the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk", a treasure only those with a ready

US$20 are able to behold firsthand.

The show, utterly mesmeric against the backdrop of a ghost-lit Angkor Wat, draws

to a close. Prince Ranariddh takes to the stage, overriding the millennium countdown

as he delivers his multilingual message of peace and reconciliation.

Midnight ticks by. The attendant wealthy and powerful in the stadium grip each other's

hands, fire off Moet corks and spray string confetti into one another's hair. A small

band of Americans punch the air, cheer and whistle as only Americans can. The French

plant butterfly kisses on every cheek within arm's length.

A departing Hun Sen cracks a smile as singing monks serenade the crowd with their

rhythmic spiritual chants. Overhead, the boom and crackle of fireworks illuminates

the midnight sky.

Clock hands commence their inert surge into the Year 2000.

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