Running with the gods and turning 30 in Cambodia

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The Baphuon is a three-tiered temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I was oddly jealous of Pikachu. Well, not exactly the Pokémon but a girl in Pikachu overalls in front of me, warming up before the starting gun goes off and the rest of the 10,000 of us set off running our way into the Angkor temples. She had a spring in her step, as if she’s done this a thousand times and on this lovely Cambodian morning, anything looked like a possibility.

While everyone else was warming up, I was slowly spiraling into a state of anxiety, combined with the absurdity of me joining a 10K run, in Cambodia, miles away from Manila, where I’ve never even joined a fun run. If I collapse, break a leg, or crack my head open, I’ll be in some serious shit. It was around six in the morning, a few minutes past the supposed starting time and instead of doing some stretches, it seemed my brain was already halfway through the overthinking marathon.

***

I received the call to join the run one afternoon, in the middle of a bookstore, a few days after a dentist’s appointment. A colleague recommended I replace her instead to cover the 22nd Angkor Wat International Half Marathon as one of Manulife’s unofficial ‘Philippine delegation’ comprised of runners, brand executives, customers, and select members of the press who will be covering the event. The life insurance company, one of the largest in Southeast Asia, and the first life international insurance company in Siem Reap, is the half marathon’s principal partner. They also donated $110,000 to the Angkor Children’s Hospital in conjunction with their fourth year of sponsoring the run.

vlcsnap-2018-05-25-00h44m52s742.png A view of the runners of the 22nd Angkor Wat Half-Marathon. Photo courtesy of MANULIFE PHILIPPINES

After I received the invite to join the run, and just to reassure my wavering faith on my capacity to Accomplish Things, I tried running 10K every night, three days before the competition, and to my own surprise, actually made it without my lungs and legs being obliterated. At 30 years old, 120 lbs., and with fragile self-esteem due to my eternal payatot frame, it was encouraging to learn that my body still held some surprises. The run, which happened a day after my birthday, proved to be a heraldic thing to do, something new to experience as I start my 30s, something to prove to myself that my body isn’t withering away into the drudges of thirtysomething.

***

They say ambition peaks in your 30s. The still-walking, still-breathing version of the bucket list materializes. You name it, from the most practical to the most ridiculous, lined one after another, ripe for the checking when we finally accomplished them — if we ever do. But I was busy making a living to ever think about what I should have to accomplished in my 30s. My 20s should have prepared me for it but mostly it was a struggle to just live. There were bills to pay, unexpected expenses to wrestle with. So I’m gonna have to settle for something small to fill the void of my 30s.

“Daydreams grant us each the collective possibility of oneself,” the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in “The Poetics of Space.” He may be talking about spatial relations and personal development, but in inhabiting an increasingly neoliberal world, it is easy to find yourself in a box, its walls the limits of your social and psychological “net worth.”

IMG_0372.jpg Apsara dancers, a Khmer classical tradition. On the background is the Thommanon temple. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

At 30, that box begins to narrow even more. There are things we’re supposed to have achieved by then — a family, a house, a car, a top-tier job. But all of it sounds like something out of a post-war dream. Running in the marathon is me taking a tiny step to expand my box, even make a little hole in the wall, to see if there is something more for me out there. And in such a space as the hallowed city of Angkor Thom, I might be onto something.

***

In all of Angkor Wat’s otherworldly glory, the most fundamental tourist trap in all of Siem Reap — the structure bannered in the title of the half marathon itself — it is the one place we never got to visit. The Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen is in Siem Reap for the weekend and the Angkor Wat is closed for security checks. The prime minister will join monks at the temple and lead a prayer ceremony, the tour guide explained, to our exasperation.

The event is being written as a show of force, now that Hun Sen is without opposition (dissolved by the country’s top court). The PM was supposed to join us at the Manulife dinner at the Thommanon temple the night prior to the event but he was a no-show. At the grounds of such a holy place, with apsara dancers and the Phare circus entertaining guests, no political tension intervened during the proceedings but it was still palpable in the air.

Earlier during our temple tour — the day of my birthday itself — I asked our guide about what he felt about their PM, and if Siem Reap is receptive of him. “He doesn’t go to Siem Reap [that much],” he said, with an ice cream in hand in order to stave off the December heat after our long day under the sun.

He is one of the 460 tour guides taking people in and out of the Angkor temples every day. Siem Reap has become a tourist town. According to our guide, the town takes an average of one million tourists a year, mainly from Asia (the Chinese taking the huge chunk). Over the years, the town has accumulated 200 hotels, 286 guest houses, 159 restaurants, and 159 massage places. Not to mention the discotheques, karaoke places, and travel agents catering to the tourism industry.

IMG_0402 (2).jpg The Thommanon temple is also being used to host dinners and can accomodate up to 210 people. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

On the whole, Cambodia takes in $3.6 billion from the tourism alone and is projecting a growth of up to $5.5 billion from seven million tourists in 2020.

Inequality is still apparent. “They give $1 and they take $10 from us,” our guide continued. “They just want to take advantage of us.”

“The younger generation are more aware,” he said, hoping that Cambodia will see change in the future.

With the hordes of selfies, postcard photos, video blogs, keychains, and scale models of the structure, it’s easy to forget that it is still a living shrine and a site for devotion, and an area where people live and make a living.

Around the temple complex, traces of the country’s brutal past are apparent. On the path leading to the temples, strains of Khmer folk music are played by a “landmine band,” survivors who have lost body parts from Khmer Rouge landmines during the civil war (amputees also joined the marathon and had a category of their own). As we pile in to visit Ta Prohm — ‘the Tomb Raider temple!’ our tour guide giddily emphasizes — entrances and exits are bookmarked by strains of strings and percussions from these performers; a soundtrack to the architecture that has housed concepts of karmic justice for centuries, come war, come peace, come Angelina Jolie.

***

During the marathon, there were hardly any spectators on the road. A few, scattered in exits blocked by the event, were tuk tuks, small trucks, cars, and cargo vehicles on their way to start their day. There were 10,000 runners trudging through their designated path. For the 10K runners, the route took us through the Elephant Terrace, Preah Khan, and the Victory Gate, which bookended our start and finish.

Throughout the run, my mind was busy convincing me I will live through it. There were no thoughts of zen, no realizations about my 20s. Imagine 10,000 runners, trudging through dirt roads of Angkor Thom, precious designer brand kicks running hard before the equatorial heat reaches its peak.

IMG_0159.jpg Ta Prohm is more popularly known as the "Tomb Raider" temple for serving as one of the location shoots for the titular film starring Angelina Jolie. Photo by DON JAUCIAN

The 10K run is packed, and there is no shortage of runners on either side of the road. There were parents pushing baby carriages, elementary and high school students besting adults like me. It was daunting when the first few runners started taking their U-turns on their way back to the finish line. There was even a kid — he looked somewhere around 10 to 12 years old — who finished ahead of everyone else around the 20-minute mark. It was enough motivation for us to start increasing our pace.

In order to make it to the finish line, I took the run per kilometer where there were water stations. The U-turn was at the 5K mark, and at around 30 minutes into the run, I started my way back to the finish line. By the 9K mark, I was running out of gas. The greenery and the beauty of the area didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t even stop to take photos of the temples like some of the other runners. My legs were starting to cramp, my lungs were already telling me to just walk the rest of the way (although taking up yoga and a few cardio trainings at the start of the year did help improve my stamina and resistance).

Past the Victory Gate, Sia and Labirinth’s “To Be Human,” the soundtrack to “Wonder Woman” — yes, that “Wonder Woman” — hit shuffle and I slowed a little bit to put it on repeat. More runners were passing me by. But I didn’t care, I wanted to be Gal Gadot when I cross that 10K mark.

And it worked. I breezed through it, like a goddamn superhero … at the brink of retirement.

***

Back at the Manulife tent, I was wheezing, drenched in sweat, almost glistening in the Cambodian sun. The brand managers and execs who ran the 3K fun run were already there, cheering me on and recognized the wide smile on my face. I’d like to think it was a smile of triumph, of the exhilaration of doing something for the first time. But mostly, it was just a smile of relief that I didn’t drop dead in the middle of Angkor Thom.

“The thing that I’m most excited about is seeing people who have never run this distance before push themselves and do it,” Manulife Asia’s Chief Marketing Officer Francesco Lagutaine told me a few minutes after he finished the half marathon. “Because for us it’s all about getting people to live healthier and longer lives.”

IMG_0298.jpg The Angkor Thom temples attract an average of 1 million tourists a year, mainly from Asia (the Chinese have taken the huge chunk recently). Photo by DON JAUCIAN

I tell him this is my first time to run 10K, or any marathon for that matter.

“I’m sure you have a great feeling of achievement!,” he said, laughing, patting me on the back.

We were both covered in sweat, his little son, who joined the 3K fun run tugging at his shirt. His wife and eldest son did the 10K run. I asked him what he usually feels when he finishes a marathon.

“I’m absolutely knackered!” he said, bursting in laughter. “In the last 100 meters, my legs are lead but the moment you cross the line, there’s such a surge of adrenaline, pride and excitement to have finished. And it’s great to come back to the tent and have friends rush and congratulate you and ask how it went and share stories of the run.”

That’s it. That’s how I welcomed my 30s. Lungs screaming, legs a little shaky, yet amazed and determined as new friends cheered me on for my little achievement.

Diptych.jpg The author after finishing the 10K run of the 22nd Angkor Wat International Half Marathon.

***

I’d like to think I invoked some kind of holy law when I turned 30 surrounded by the Angkor temples. I wanted my the beginning of my third decade to mean something, to acquire a divine blessing, a sign that the rest of my life will head in a direction that recalled karmic justice. I wanted my past self to disappear, I wanted to lose myself and leave it at a crack somewhere along the ruins of Ta Prohm — like what Tony Leung did in “In The Mood for Love” — to transform into a new substance that I can shape into a new being: a new being who is capable of finishing a 10K run, a new being who isn’t afraid of new adventures.

When a spirit feels renewed, after decades of wear and tear, it feels as if the possibilities are staggering.