The sun was bright and scalding when I left the plane from
to walk into the sheltering bureaucracy of the Siem Reap airport and I was
still limp from my earlier flight from the U.S. Soon I was rapidly whisked into an
air-conditioned car by a driver who had impressive English skills and an
unswervable determination to take care of me.
I’m not fond of being taken care of but I was in a weakened state and thoroughly disoriented. Siem Reap appeared to be a gigantic ghetto of hotels, ranging from magnificence that rivaled their
Bangkok counterparts to
the humbler pastel concrete confections for the much less affluent traveler.
The guesthouse I insisted to be taken to offered me a room with curtains that
were as drooping and grubby as I felt when I looked at them, and a little
refrigerator that contained a stunning collection of dead insects, so I
submitted to the driver’s alternative.
He had shrewdly assessed my resources on the trip from the airport. I carried one inexpensive and very small bag, had winced visibly when he pointed out the luxury hotels that resembled palazzos, and had shown little interest in the $30 dollar (“very cheap”) substitutes. The $15 price given at the rejected guesthouse and my $10 counter-offer had revealed me as a budgeter, or worse yet, a stingy foreigner, who would be satisfied with The Golden Temple and a room for $10 a night.
Richard presided over The Golden Temple and his English was as rapid and efficient as it was flawed. Within minutes, he put me in a room that was far more comfortable than any of the upcountry ones I had frequented in
with its hot water shower, gleaming Western toilet, cable TV with CNN, and
air-conditioning augmented by a sizable fan.
I returned to the lobby to find him happily assuming the driver’s role
as caretaker, scheduling my trip to view Angkor Wat at sunset. We tussled over that for a while, until I
pulled out my “very, very, old” excuse, which worked as well with Cambodian
solicitude as it always did with Thai. Richard soon agreed that rest was the way I
should spend my afternoon, showing only a vague hint of confusion when I
insisted on booking a motorcycle the next day, rather than the car and driver
that he thought my decrepitude deserved.
Siem Reap was not what I had expected. We had passed acres and acres of tourist accommodation on our way from the airport, and a multitude of restaurants and bars and souvenir shops. The neighborhood I was in bristled with signs proclaiming “Laundry” and three-storey concrete villas, festooned with verandahs and painted in the same candy-colored shades as
Jordan almonds, that claimed to be
guesthouses. The narrow lane that I
viewed from the balcony of my pale lemon yellow concrete villa was an extravaganza
of traffic: white vans, double-decker tour buses, cars, and tiny canopied carts
that were attached to motorcycles and carried large, well-fed pale people.
According to all I had read, this wasn’t a large town, and could be explored easily on foot. Somewhere near my guesthouse was a covered market that the driver had pointed out to me on our trip from the airport, and in
a market meant food, fresh, good food, and a community of small businesses who
were usually too busy to be caretakers. Clutching a pile of laundry as cover, I
sauntered past Richard as casually as I could, but he caught up with me as I
reached the end of the courtyard. “Lady, where are you going?” he asked and
looked genuinely troubled when I waved an expansive hand beyond his domain and
Other than leaving my dirty clothes at a Laundry sign, I had no idea of where I was going, and the sun struck me as being much hotter than in
A cluster of motorcycle drivers looked at me with little interest but one
agreed to take me to the market, which proved to be humiliatingly close by.
It was cavernous and dark and smelled as though it sold a huge amount of fish. Everyone was cheerful and relentlessly attentive, in English, with ebullient greetings and voluble pleasantries, and sold me some clothing that I was fairly sure I would never wear. Feeling weak, I tottered out in search of food stalls, where a young boy, on crutches and missing a leg, silently led me to the nearest motorcycle and glared at me as he held out his hand.
At this point I could understand why Siem Reap meant Siam Defeated, because I was feeling pretty damned vanquished myself. The passenger who had sat behind me and coughed his way through the entire flight from
seemed to have left his mark. I wanted
nothing more than soup, Kleenex and sleep, all of which waited for me at The
Golden Temple, where Richard explained that there was no need to leave; his
food was cheap and delicious and he could get me anything that I would
want. Feeling like a pampered prisoner
at a maximum security prison, I retreated to my cell, swallowed aspirin, and
went to sleep.
The next morning I was hacking, snuffling and facing a small currency crisis. My room rate and laundry charge was paid for in dollars, the restaurant charged in dollars but was incapable of giving change, the beer and bottled water that Richard sold at the front desk was priced in riel and so was the Tiger Balm and Kleenex that I’d bought from a little shop to get me through the day. The motorcycle drivers of the day before had asked for dollars but were mollified by Thai baht. The fee for the
I knew would be in dollars, and although I was sure that the temple vendors
would accept dollars, it was equally clear that they would probably have no
change. I was beginning to feel like a
United Nations of currencies, and I hadn’t even yet begun to carry riel. Angkor Pass
My bossy driver of the day before showed up with a young boy in his wake. “My brother,” he explained, “ He will take you on his motorcycle, first to the Bayon and Preah Khan, then to Angkor Wat in the afternoon. Here is a book for you so you can learn about Khmer history.” He handed me a booklet with a fine display of condescension, and I politely refrained from enumerating the long bibliography of Cambodian historical volumes that I’d purchased and read over the years in preparation for my trip.
“Why can’t we go to
Angkor first?” I asked and both
Richard and the older brother muttered something about the way the road went
and smiled their farewells. I looked at
my new driver who beamed at me timidly.
He looked twelve, which meant he was probably twenty-two, and had a face
of cherubic sweetness. I callously decided that I would pay him far better than
well and make him do exactly what I wanted and that our first order of business
would be finding a place to buy riel.
Nok was a quiet lad, with a shaky command of English and a disconcerting habit of looking blank and energetically nodding, “Yes, yes.” I had used that ploy all too often myself, with Thai speakers whom I imperfectly understood, to be taken in by it, but was heartened by the fact that that he understood the word no and, even better, responded to it. Then we swept into another world and time and I stopped speaking because I needed every scrap of energy to look and absorb what I saw.
The immaculate landscaping of the entrance to what is now termed the
into a moist cool forest that bordered the road and blotted out the sky. The damp odor was soothing as were the sounds
of loud and energetic cicadas. Emerging
from that little refuge, we came to a long approach that was flanked by a long
line of stone figures on both sides of the road. At the end was a tall stone
gate that rose into a tower and held the giant faces that were carved into the
entrance to the splendor that was Angkor Thom.
Nok stopped the motorcycle, and I stepped into a world that I had
dreamed of for so long that I felt as though I must still be sleeping. Angkor Archeological
The gate was so high and so huge that it looked as though it must have been carved from a mountain. Stone walls stretched from each side as far as I could see, and the faces were as regal and commanding as I’d fantasized yet much, much bigger. I imagined seeing them alone, at night, and shuddered.
I could have stayed with those faces for the whole day, but the greed that propels explorers to push on had seized me and I climbed back on the motorcycle. Soon we stopped again and there was a high causeway built over a wide moat and at the end was a spired, multi-leveled extravagance of stone that glinted silver as though it had been bathed in mercury.
As I walked closer, the craggy surface of the spires slowly revealed the features of the giant faces of the Bayon, each one imposing and each marked with the smile of men who understood Shiva’s cycle of creation and destruction. As I wandered through broken halls and climbed staircases that required all of my attention, I could see one of those faces through every doorway, watching, guarding a place that had become as removed from human engineering as a sea cliff.
Behind the Bayon were trees and what looked as though it once was cleared land and a small temple with steep steps and the foundations of structures that had been massive. It was a silent and lonely place that felt as though it could engulf me, turning me into the moss that clung to the rocks and tinged them with silver.
I walked away feeling glutted with beauty. I had once traveled for days throughout Northeastern Thailand, standing in the remnants of Khmer roadside hospitals and shrines and haphazardly restored temples and the Spartan simplicity of mysterious little Prasat Ban Pluang, and had been thrilled to see a single apsara carved into the wall of Prasat Sikkoraphum, which was quite possibly the only one in the Kingdom of Thailand that was still in place. Here I had, in a matter of hours, seen dozens of graceful, exquisite apsaras, frozen on the walls of the Bayon. I wasn’t used to seeing so much beauty with so little effort, and this was as dizzying as the heat that I could feel burning my skin. And then they found me.
I was surrounded by a horde of children, all very small, all very cute and all speaking the same rapid, flat and relentless English. “MadammadamyoubuyfrommeverycheaptwoforadollarnothreeforadollarlookmadamveryniceverycheapfourforadollarmadamwhyyounotbuyfrommewhyyoucometoCambodiaandyounotbuyfrommemadamwhylookveryniceforyouverycheapmadamwhynot?”
And I did at last from one little boy, two for a dollar, little flutes that he had played so sweetly at the outset that I had broken stride and become prey.
It upset me more than it probably should have, and I was shaking by the time that Nok and I found each other. I needed time to sit and be quiet and it seemed that was only going to happen when in motion on the motorcycle so we went to Ta Prohm, the site that was allowed to remain unrestored, a crumbled city covered with the snake-like roots of the trees that grew over and above the ruins.
It was a nice walk through what looked a lot like a jungle. A group of musicians played traditional music on the same instruments that accompany modern-day Thai boxing. None of them had all of their limbs and a sign in English identified them as land-mine victims. Women sold bags of pineapple that turned out to be delectable, and one man was chasing a group of tourists with a cold Coke, lowering the price deeper and deeper with each step he took, while his pregnant wife stood guard over an ice chest filled with soda cans watching him with a look of complete exasperation.
There was a gleeful feeling to Ta Prohm, as though the tourists were given a chance to be Indiana Jones and the vendors were going along with the gag by being present but not aggressive. Its size was the most impressive feature, having once containing a city of thousands, now rocks and rubble and portions of rooms and tree roots writhing through what was left.
Little boys offered to give tours of where Tomb Raider had been filmed, but nobody seemed eager to pay homage to Angelina Jolie, since we had all just briefly been stars in our own private movie.
Everything became more manicured as we neared Angkor Wat. A cluster of elephants and vendors waited politely at a discreet distance. The famous five towers looked painted like a gigantic diorama in the savagely hot afternoon sun. The enclosing walls swept farther than I could see and, apart from the long approach that was built upon well-maintained grassland, a forest obscured any view of what lay behind them. A modern temple on one side and a cluster of ramshackle buildings that were far flung on the other gave hints of an active community that still existed behind the walls.
Angkor Wat is perfect, and like all perfection, reveals as much and as little as you would find in a good photograph. It commands reverence as well as admiration; walking its dark, cool hallways is an expedition into a sacred place. The long rows of headless Buddhas embody impermanence and human suffering and the futility of trying to contain holiness in an object. The bas relief on the gallery walls pulse with action that has been trapped in midstride, waiting for everyone to leave so the battles can resume. The beauty of the place was more enigmatic than the faces of the Bayon and frustrating, like a gorgeous woman who is mute.
(Donald Gilliland, in his essay in To Asia With Love, describes the pleasure that can be found in walking the walls of Angkor Wat. Drained by my cold and the heat and the sensory overload and my aversion to the threat of more tiny vendors, I didn’t follow his advice and wish so much that I had.)
Back at The Golden Temple, I sat on the balcony as the light drained away, and felt the ghost of a breeze on my skin. Workmen were pounding away on what looked as though they would be new villas, children were playing in a vacant lot, and a man led several cows down the narrow street below me, looking as though he had sprung out of a temple bas-relief. Beneath the thick veneer of tourist conveniences and pleasures was an almost invisible core of daily life, which was as inaccessible to my curious stare as that which lay behind the walls and forests of Angkor Wat.
No place I had wandered through had been as impenetrable as Siem Reap. “Sightseeing,” a Japanese friend had once told me rather severely, “is not an adventure.” Now I was in a place I had yearned to see, in a country that I had fallen in love with almost ten years before, and I felt trapped in a cocoon of sightseeing, and miserable.
I went to bed and lay in a stupor, listening to disco thuds from nearby bars that I had no desire to visit, and accepting the fact that I was aging. It was time to accept my limitations, I decided, and enjoy what I was given. And that was when the cockroach ran up the length of my back.
It was almost a relief when I turned on the light and saw it briefly before it disappeared under my bed. It might have been a spider, or even a very small mouse, or something venomous, rather than a disgusting challenge to my newfound equanimity. Winding myself up tightly in my sheet and leaving the light on, I tried desperately to sleep.
“May I call you Mother?” Nok asked the next morning before we set off for Preah Khan, and I in my weakened state managed a feeble and rather lackluster nod. Even at the best of times, maternal feelings were not a hallmark of my personality and were never bestowed on those without a physical claim to my motherhood. “Offer it up, “ I thought grimly and tried to be amused when Nok would call “Mother” and fellow-travelers did double takes when they saw that he was addressing me.
The trip to Preah Khan took us deep into a forest and I walked under a canopy of trees that stretched behind the gated walls. It was early morning, quiet and cool, and two little children who were playing in the dust of the narrow road ignored me as I passed by. I entered into an endless, perfectly straight, narrow hallway, with corridors leading away from it, like arms, at the small rooms that punctuated the passage. Window openings that stretched from the floor to the roof showed huge enclosures that were open to the sky and filled with jumbled, tilted, massive slabs of stone, as though demented giants had battled there. I looked down one of the adjoining hallways and saw a handful of people, dressed in the corresponding colors of a tour group, scrambling over and through the broken stone obstacles, while a Cambodian man addressed them in a flowing stream of German.
This felt like an enchanted place, like a Khmer version of a Grimm’s fairy tale. I walked down the long corridor, feeling sure that I would find something magical when I finally reached the end. Behind me a little voice chattered and I turned to find two little girls, grubby and eager and beaming urchin grins. “Madame,” one of them announced, “Jannikawhat’syournamecome,” and she beckoned me down one of the adjoining hallways and into a courtyard filled with mountainous building blocks of stone. They led me through a maze of enclosures as rapidly as little mountain goats. “Jannikatourguide,” the larger girl told me as she stopped near a tower that rose from the rubble, with a bas relief figure carved upon it, “Mefivedollarsherfivedollars, “ and she gestured toward her silent little companion. I gave them each a handful of riel and they scampered away, leaving me far from my beaten path and thoroughly confused. Courtyards and hallways beckoned from every angle, like a maze whose curves had been pulled out into straight lines. I could hear voices somewhere beyond my field of vision, and walked in that direction. The gate that I passed through wasn’t the one that had been my entry point, and I had to retrace my steps past the gauntlet of vendors at the roadside to go back into Preah Khan and find the spot where Nok was undoubtedly sleeping.
My cold was at what I hoped was its zenith and my energy was correspondingly low. Clinging to the motorcycle was all I seemed capable of doing and so we headed out into the country to see the Roluous group, the sites that began the profusion of Angkor, that marked the original kingdom that began the Khmer empire. We left the confines of the park for the open road, a highway that took us into farmland that was so hot that I could feel the heat bounce off the paved surface of the road and onto my skin.
Lolei had once been a palace on an island in the middle of a manmade lake. Now it was a dusty hill that held carved walls of buildings that had been there for centuries, surrounded by a modern temple and the monks who inhabited it. What it lacked in dramatic spectacle it more than made up for by its sheer hominess, and I looked at the dogs and chickens and temple attendants with as much pleasure as I did the remnants of palatial glory. Preah Ko was equally tranquil, small and undemanding, a sacred clearing in the middle of nowhere that was eclipsed by the immense pyramid of the Bakong.
It rose behind its walls like the mountain that it was designed to represent, and the steps leading up to its summit were as steep as any slope of the holy Mount Meru. I watched people scaling the narrow, almost perpendicular stairs, and knew that if I could ever make it to the top, I’d be paralyzed there forever, trembling and starving to death.
The temple was set in a meadow that was studded with smaller structures and with a living community outside of its walls. Beyond its back gate, people were playing music and singing, invisible in the trees. Sitting some distance away, alone in the shelter of the walls, a man chanted in prayer-like rhythms, in words that sounded like the Pali used by monks in Thailand. Wild flowers and grass and trees that grew unattended and unrestrained were wonderful to see after the carefully tended grounds of
Angkor’s surroundings and I knew
this would be a place I would return to, if only in my imagination.
Nok was delighted that our day would end earlier than he had anticipated because one of his relatives was getting married and he urged me to go with him. Engulfed in sneezing and nose-blowing and weird waves of chill that swept over my sunburned body, all I wanted was to fall into a bed that I didn’t have to share with a cockroach.
A battalion of little girls had berated me earlier at Preah Koh for not buying scarves from each of their number, and one who felt particularly slighted had followed me with repeated demands of “Why you only buy sixteen scarves, Madame? Why you not buy more? Buy from me Madame, I saw you first, why you not buy more from me?” until I turned on her and said, “Because I am a very bad person.” I felt assaulted, and exhausted, and as though I never wanted to buy anything, anywhere, ever again. Caliban was who came to mind when I saw groups of children approach me, knowing they would use my language to make me feel frustrated, sad, and very annoyed.
Back at The Golden Temple, I found Richard, and asked him, “Can you speak Thai? Do you know maleng saeb?” I hoped he knew the Thai word for cockroach because I didn’t want to embarrass him by saying it in a language that the other guests in the lobby would be able to understand. Apparently he did know, because he turned pale and said, “What? Here?” and rapidly helped me move my belongings into one of the more expensive rooms on another floor, which, he assured me, would be free of any wildlife.
I woke up the next morning feeling saturated by all that I had seen. This was not the kind of traveling that I enjoyed. I was as much of a tourist as those people who roared past me in the comfort of airconditioned, double-decker buses, whose exhaust I breathed in spite of Nok’s anxious cries, ”Close your nose, Mother, close your nose!”
I figured I had just enough energy and curiosity to go to Banteay Srei, the fabulously beautiful small temple that was, everyone assured me, not to be missed and to climb the tiny mountain of Kbal Spean, where the rocks of a riverbed were carved into faces. “The river is dry now,” Richard told me, “It will not be beautiful,” but I was eager to see what I could.
I wanted to spend the following day revisiting the Bayon and then I would leave the morning after that, I decided. This was not the trip I’d longed for, and I was eager for it to be over. My exalted plans of taking a boat to Battambang and then exploring temples near Sisophon had melted in Siem Reap’s overwhelming heat. I would take the backpacker bus across bone-jolting roads to the Thai border, and at least catch a glimpse of the country I’d longed to see along the way.
Richard agreed to arrange my departure and then wrote diligently on a scrap of paper. He pushed it to me and I read, “When do you want to leave?” and “Do you have a little present for me?”
I wrote Monday morning and Probably beside his questions and then went up to the balcony to think as I waited for Nok’s arrival. Nobody in
had ever asked me for a little present, although I’d had minor extortion
practiced upon me by traffic policeman a time or two. It was also true that I tipped like a crazy
person in a part of the world where it wasn’t expected and that I was
overpaying Nok by what was easily triple the customary amount for a
motorcycle. Richard had helped me every
time I asked him and was always pleasant when advice that he freely offered was
rejected. My time in Siem Reap would have
been far more difficult without him, and he certainly deserved a little
present, I realized as I left to go to Banteay Srei.
It was a long ride on wretched roads and could not have been good for Nok’s motorcycle, especially with my heft clinging to the back. Wooden houses in traditional elevated style, shaded by trees, were fronted by an unbroken line of stalls at the roadside, selling baskets, fish traps, and other lovely wicker objects that were too large for me to take back to friends who would have been delighted to receive them. The houses became sparser and more dilapidated, and most of them had a mound of earth in their front yard, with an opening on one side like the mouth of a cave, and a large steaming pot on the top. On the roadside near these houses were tables holding small pale white cylinders. “They’re making sugar,” Nok told me as we passed.
Angkor Wat is perfect; Banteay Srei is beyond any ideals that I might have held of perfection. I knew it would be small, both in height and in area, I knew the carvings would be lovelier than any I had ever seen, I knew a large part of it would be cordoned off, and I knew it would be crowded. What I saw was the most beautiful entity that could ever exist, lying naked and exposed under brutal sunlight, being raped by crowds far too large for its size.
I stayed as long as I could stand it, peering around photographers and the people they were photographing, trying to imagine being in this place with reverent people who had come to worship in moonlight. But seeing it as I did, as a world-class photo opportunity, only other people’s photographs bring Banteay Srei back when I think of it, and the sadness that comes with the memory keeps me from thinking of it very often.
The road to Kbal Spean was first a washboard and then a track of ruts and sand. We stopped at the foot of a steep and thickly wooded hill, and Nok said, “I go too, Mother. I never go to Kbal Spean.” I gritted my teeth and smiled as gratefully as I could, having looked forward to a private, silent walk that would help me sort out what I had seen at Banteay Srei.
The woods on either side of the path smelled like moss and when we crossed a little bridge, the water that trickled below us was clear. Hovering above the stream was a cloud of butterflies in assorted colors, green, orange, yellow, pink, blue, like fluttering blossoms. Some flew toward us, filling the air like an unruly rainbow, and I went back to childhood in an instant, staring and crying, “Look, oh, look” while Nok laughed at my excitement.
The path became swallowed up in boulders and difficult for me to climb. I slipped and grabbed at a branch for balance and felt thorns go into my palm. As quickly as I released my grasp, Nok was holding my hand, squeezing out the thorns and forcing blood to the surface to prove that they had all come out. It hurt, and I was humiliated, and speeded up my ascent to prove that I was indeed a tough broad. Then my breath grew short and I slowed down, climbed a bit farther and sat on a rock. I felt dizzy and used up and old. “I can’t do it,” I admitted, Nok smiled and said, “Yes,” with such relief that I realized that he had anticipated having to carry my injured body, or corpse, back down the hill and I was ashamed of my selfishness.
At that point, I knew what I was meant to discover on this trip. It was the truth that made the faces on the Bayon smile as they looked upon abandoned, ruined cities that once had sheltered thousands of people, that had been stripped of everything that made them powerful and beautiful and were left to crumble, that held ghosts and memories and the knowledge that everything dies. If I could hold those smiles in my mind, with their expressions of ironic compassion, then my failure to mold this trip into my will would no longer matter to me. They will remain with me, my present from
Cambodia, as I go beyond middle age
into being truly very, very old.