SWIMMING IN CAMBODIA

Mountaintop waterfall, where in the year 802, the Khmer monarch Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a god and established the kingdom of Cambodia, initiating the dynasties that would – over the next four centuries – create the vast temple complexes of Angkor. The mountain is called Phnom Kulen, and a river runs down its side. Jayavarman had diverted the flow of the river for a time so that its bedrock could be chiseled into dramatic carvings. When the water was returned, and the carvings submerged, the stream became a sacred bathtub for the king. His courtiers bathed downstream in his runoff, and the commoners swam at the base of the mountain in a spectacular jungle glade beneath a roaring cascade. Phnom Kulen, from whose sandstone flanks the Angkorian temple stones were quarried, remains one of the Cambodia’s most holy pilgrimage sites. Until a decade ago Phnom Kulen was a Khmer Rouge stronghold and the commoners’ pool was inaccessible. Landmines are still strewn around the mountain, but with the civil war over, the waterfall and the riverbed basin are once again filled with splashing Cambodians. It was there that I took a several photographs of the bathers that captured joy and abandon for which Cambodia is not known. Several photographs from this series were published in the fall 2006 issue of the Paris Review.