572 Steps Above Hampi with the Monkey God

I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.

I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.

Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.

The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.

Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.

Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.

In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.

Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.

It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.

The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.

Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.

Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.


Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.

Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.

The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.

Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.

It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.

Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.

As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.

As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.

Waiting for Foreigner to Take on Tour

Hun was waiting for me to show up.  Not me specifically, but someone like me – foreign, English-speaking, and recklessly trusting.  I didn’t know it at the time, but when I pedaled up and parked my wobbly, blue bicycle, he had found his guinea pig. Hun was chatting with a heavily tattooed monk as I approached Wat Svay on the edge of a dusty, red-dirt road in the outskirts of Siem Reap.  The monk was smoking, accentuating thoughts with his wand-like cigarette.  Hun patiently listened, but he had his eye on me.

Some days, you have every hour planned from dawn ‘till dusk, and some days you meet Hun and all of your plans go out the window.

It was a classic case of East meets West; where local insight was traded for foreign language practice.  While I was dressed in my mud-stained travel scrubs, Hun sported an improbably white button-down and black trousers.  The white shirt glistened against his dark skin.  His plan was to take me on a tour of his village – a trip into the Cambodian mundane, which, for the spongy foreigner’s eyes, is anything but ordinary.

Hun’s village was a fifteen-minute bike ride from Wat Svay.  Along the way, he used family titles to describe everyone we met.  This was great English practice, but I could never be quite sure who was really his sister or cousin.  Let’s just say our first stop was at his “uncle’s place.”

The uncle’s house doubled – make that quadrupled – as many things.

Grumbling and spouting in the side yard was a large rice-pressing machine and beyond the apparatus, I soon smelled the sour odor of a pig farm.  Just when I thought I had explored the whole jungle-clad complex, I marched across a small stream on a path that led to a makeshift house occupied by Hun’s “grandmother and grandfather.”  The toothless elderly couple with sour lemon lips acted as though I was expected, ushering me over to their thatch-roofed chicken coup while babbling in Khmer.

At this point, a silent boy named Munny joined our tour.  He wanted to learn English too.  Throughout the day, various members of the family would tag along.

“Where is your girlfriend,” I joked.  “Would she like to come too?”

Hun looked at me with sheepish eyes and said, “No girlfriend.”  He explained, “I not enough money for girlfriend.  I learn English, get good job, make money from foreigner, then I find girlfriend.”

Each member of Hun’s family specialized in a different animal and his second uncle was in the business of crocodiles.  In his backyard, where suburban moms in Dallas might have their pool, sat a walled-in crocodile farm.  While they used to sell the baby crocs to Chinese traders for traditional medicine, most of these crocodiles were raised for their skin.  The nearby tourist hub of Siem Reap (home to the Temples of Angkor) was crowded with “luxury boutiques” full of crocodile boots and scaly purses.  Hun explained that many families in the area have their own backyard farms to support the trade.

To diversify his offerings, Hun’s second uncle also kept a clan of nervous grey ducks that followed each other around like lemmings, always alert and forever scared of the nearby crocs.

As the tour waned into the afternoon hours, we wound our way through a field of corn to his sister’s stilt hut.  There, we picked up his shirtless niece and perennially grinning nephew.  The five of us strolled through the sun-drenched rice paddies where clusters of prickly palms were the only landmarks on the flat horizon.  We crossed a series of irrigation canals en route to our next mysterious destination.

After each stop, I refrained from asking Hun where we would head next.  The surprises continued to amaze.

After chasing the kids around the field and weighing down my sandals with mud, we arrived at a small pond.  The owners of the compact shack on the edge of the pond welcomed us into their home and it soon became apparent that, in Hun’s logical sequence, we were now at a fish farm.

The fish flopped out of the water fighting for food like the ravenous pigs I’d seen earlier, while the perennially smiling nephew smiled so large his face was one big curve.

 

As we left the fish and trudged back to the village through the glimmering fields of corn and rice, we waved goodbye to the local farmers.  “Relatives,” Hun said.

Finally, I arrived at Huns place – the smallest property on the tour.  A one-room structure with a small gate instead of a door, Hun spent his nights off the grid in this humble hut.

My most gracious (and agile) tour guide to date, Hun spider-crawled up his backyard palm and plucked us a pair of coconuts.  Slashing off the tops with a machete, he produced two fuchsia straws and we sipped the creamy coconut water in silence.

“What were you doing at the temple?” I asked, breaking the quiet.

He quickly replied, “Waiting for foreigner to take on tour.”

I was visually let down.  Though his family took me in unquestioningly, I felt as though I had entered into a secret world that nobody else had ever seen.

“Do you do this a lot?” I asked.

“Sometimes.  If foreigner comes.”

“You could pick a better location,” I suggested.  Where we met wasn’t exactly on the tourist trail of Siem Reap.

Hun’s honesty was impressive.  His tour was memorable.  I wanted to give him a little something to help with his education.  He never asked for money, but before I left, I slipped him a few dollars for which he bestowed upon me a thousand thank yous.

Whether Hun is an entrepreneur or just a kid who wants to learn English, I don’t know.  I don’t really care.

Hun showed me something that I could have never seen otherwise.  He showed me the country beyond the postcards – a Cambodia full of coconuts, crocodiles and kooky characters.  He showed me the gritty, grumbling, and gracious Cambodia of the present, not the oft ogled land of past glories.  For that, I am forever grateful.