Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thursday, 4 Jan 2007: Cambodia

I have to make what we farangs call a visa run, i.e., leave the country for a few days. I have two 60 day tourist visas, which means I must leave Thailand between each 60 day stint. So I booked tickets for Siem Reap, Cambodia, the nearest town to the Angkor complex of temples.

Travel is less pleasant than usual due to the New Year’s bombings…several bombs were detonated in Bangkok in New Year’s eve, and apparently a mosque in Chiang Mai was also bombed, though no one mentioned it to me—I read one line about it in the Bangkok Post, an English language newspaper. But security greeted me, or rather us, at the Chaing Mai airport in the form of a line to get into the building, an unusual event. At the head of the line was a fatigue-clad soldier, and it was only after I had returned to my place in line after asking him if I was in the correct line for Nok Air did I notice that he was carrying a submachine gun. Eyes of an eagle—what can I say?

Despite the extra security, everything moved quickly, even though when one is standing in line, time seems to enter a bizarre Einsteinian other-dimension and slow down to a relativistic crawl.

People with ridiculous amounts of carry-on are lining up to get on the plane despite seat assignments. I checked my small bag because I brought my toiletries. With only four days in Cambodia, I did not want to waste my time shopping for Nivea, Dove and Colgate. So before I left, I lit incense to
the luggage divinities and hoped for the best.

As I stepped onto the plane I was greeted by a screaming child.They seem to be drawn to me like cats are drawn to allergy sufferers. It’s a gift.

We reach Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok a mere half-hour late. My bag pops off the plane promptly and I’m glad I lit the incense, because I then lose another half-hour by misdirection. I foolishly follow signs reading “International Departure” only to be told I have gone completely the wrong way. This is the reason I built a three-hour gap between flights. As Gilda Radner as Emily Litella said, “There’s always something.”

I get ticketed for the trip to Cambodia by Bangkok Air and am stickered with a pink plane. It looks nice on my yellow shirt with red hearts that says I love the King in Thai. I feel very local.

I’m eating again at the same airport café where I ate my first meal in Thailand. This time I’m having spaghetti with red sauce, a dish which the Thais do quite well.

Our plane hangs around the runway for quite a while and we arrive in Cambodia very late. The air is very warm and humid, and clouds of flying insects obscure the airport light standards. I wonder if my hotel has sent a driver for me.

My driver, Thy (pronounced T) finds me promptly and I have no idea how. As a farang woman it’s as though I wear a sign: I’M LOST. Thy’s main ambition is to get out of Cambodia. I don’t understand why, for in the next few days I discover that I really like Siem Reap. It’s not small, but not unmanageably large. It’s got all the mod cons but retains the charm that Chiang Mai has sacrificed to growth and Weternization.

The next day Thy drives me to the Angkor complex. First I buy a three day pass, and then we go along a road busy weith all kinds of vehicles from horse drawn carts, the ever present scooters, tuk-tuks and cars—the Cambodians seem to favor Toyota Camrys.

My first glimpse of historical Angkor is a wide waterway that looks like a river the width of the Sacramento as it winds through downtown. I ask Thy what river it is and he tells me it’s the moat.

The moat.

It’s the biggest, longest, widest moat I’ve ever seen or heard of. It’s 190 meters wide according to one guidebook, and it surrounds all of Angkor Wat, which means it’s 5.6 km long, and entirely dug by people who lived almost a millennium ago. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer devaraja (god-king) Suryavarman II, who lived in the 1100s.

We turn left and drive along the moat and past the massive causeway that crosses the water into the temple itself, but Thy doesn’t stop, instead explaining that for photographs, the sun’s angles will be better for Angkor Wat in the afternoon.

So he takes me to Angkor Thom, which is at least as interesting if not more so. Angkor Thom is a city; people still live here and pray in its temples as they have since the reign of devaraja Jayavarman VII, its principal builder, who lived a few decades after Suryavarman.

But it is a city like no other. People don’t live in the stone monuments but in palapas within its walls, which is surrounded by a dry moat longer than the one surrounding Angkor Wat. Stone structures are for gods and kings, not for people.

Thy dropped me off at the south gate, which is the best-preserved one. On each side of the bridge over the moat are seven-headed naga serpents supported on one side by perhaps a score of devis—angels—and on the other by asuras, demons. The gate itself, which is layered, basically, and about 20 feet thick, is topped by a four-sided tower decorated on each side by a face, said to be a Lokeshvara but to resemble Jayavarman VII. The bridge and the gate-tower is a symbolic representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk to Produce the Elixir of Immortality, one of the seminal creation myths in southeast Asian mythology. There is a gorgeous modern representation of this myth in, of all places, Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The next structure is the Bayon, a temple with four towers cornering the walls, four more in the center of each wall, which enclose a structure with—get this—29 more towers. It has three levels, but alas, one can’t climb into or onto the towers.

The structure and the towers are a symbolic representation of Mount Meru,m a mythical holy mountain in Hindu mythology, where the gods reside. The Bayon’s walls and towers are lavishly decorated with thousands of bas-relief carvings—one guidebook says more than 11,000. Some are of Khmer daily life during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Many are dancing apsaras, my favorite, who hold hands as they caper. Most are the image of—you guessed it—Jayavarman VII as the Avilokiteshvara, one of Buddha’s avatars. This is a little mystifying since Jayavarman was a Hindu and one of his projects was destroying images of the Buddha; there are temples with scores of empty niches where Buddhas formerly sat.

I think that what the statues are said to be depends upon the guidebook one reads. They are moon-faced and smiling, amazing art, and if you want to see examples, check out my site, or just google “Angkor.”

There are hordes of tourists, as many as were in line to see the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, but, fortunately spread out over much more area.

In the Baphuon it occurs to me that historical architectural restoration must be a hugh international business. Everywhere I have been, there’s scaffolding and restoration. Everywhere except the United States, though, where people would rather tear down beautiful old buildings and put up strip malls.

The Baphuon, another symbolic representation of Mount Meru, is a three tiered pyramid of sandstone build over a sand embankment (no wonder it fell down!). The French started to remedy its inherent instability early in the 20th century but were interrupted by the Khmer Rouge, leaving chunks of the temple scattered through acres of forest.

At the Baphuon I met the most fabulous woman. London, a photographer, is staying at a guest house in Siem Reap for the next few days. We pal around for the next few hours, chatting and taking photos while we walk along the the Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King, then check out smaller temples across the street. She’s from Colorado, is in her late thirties but looks about 28 and has an explorative, fearless approach to life. I guess if one is a freelance journalist and photographer, one has to be explorative and fearless.

Lunch was great—Thy showed me to a restaurant where I ordered curry served in a coconut with rice. The food was great and the presentation even better.

Then I walked across the dusty street to Angkor Wat. Despite a long rest at lunch, I was already exhausted from the long walk around Angkor Thom, the heat, the dust, the crowds, and the unrelenting attention of the kids hawking everything from postcards to silk shawls to guidebooks to water…they’re so pushy that one is forced to be rude. I started handing out Cambodian rials just to get them to leave me alone.

After I spent a couple of hours in Angkor Wat, mostly in the shade of the colonnades looking at the elaborate carved friezes. My favorite was an incredible representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.

I wasn’t supposed to meet Thy for another hour or two, so I went shopping.

I have come to realize that I am always shopping, strange for a woman who is a minimalist at heart. I mean, when I left California, I gave away closets full of clothing.

But wherever I go, there always seems to be something I need or, less rationally, an item that clamors to be bought. Southeast Asia is full of gorgeous, inexpensive clothes that fairly clamor to become part of my wardrobe, regardless of how stupidly exotic the outfits will look when I get home to the States.

The excuse I usually use, and that is working well in Angkor, is that I packed the wrong stuff. Touring the temples of Angkor is a humid, dusty undertaking, one that I have already discovered leaves body and clothinbg coated in a sticky film of sweat and dirt thickened by sunscreen and insect repellent. The best clothing for major sightseeing under these conditions is a loose dress and a minimum of lingerie. No bra, unless you have an insane desire for perky breasts as you struggle up the main tower of Angkor Wat. Given that I am middle-aged and sexually invisible in southeast Asia, I don’t worry about the presentation of my breasts and am solely fixated on comfort.

So when I set forth at 9 a.m., I wore the only loose dress I own, a dropped waist black and pink flower print in cotton sheeting with buttons up the front. Really, it’s less appalling than it sounds, even though my late brother once told me that the print was like his downstairs bathroom wallpaper. When I told himn that his wife picked out the dress, he stated that she’d also picked out the wallpaper. The pluses of this dress are that the print conceals my lack of underthings while the calf-length skirt and cap sleeves make it appropriate for touring temples and shrines. I’m really quite presentable.

But—and here’s the reason for the Angkor shopping—I came with only the one dress. Just one. Everything else I have with me requires some sort of over-the-shoulder boulder holder, and although I have a comfortable bra, it would be filthy with sweat after one morning of Angkor. So obviously I had to shop.

I was looking for loose dresses like the one I wore and didn’t see anything that would fit. Being a Westerner, and much bigger and taller than the average Asian woman, few garments were designed for me. I ended up with a pair of pants for a mere $5 in shades of purple which I figured I could top with a loose Mandarin style shirt I bought as well as a T-shirt. Not stylish—I hate not looking stylish, even if the style is unconventional—but practical. It would do.

I also bought a two piece skirted outfit in shades of green, and about ten silk shawls in different colors and patterns, with the excuse that I’d give most of them away as gifts. Well, some of them, at least. I wore the green outfit and a cream colored shawl embroidered with little flowers the next evening when I went out to dinner with London.

On Saturday, my second day at Angkor, I started early and arrived at Angkor Wat at about 8 a.m. planning to give it another go-around. This time I wanted to climb the central and tallest tower, but to my disappointment learned that it can’t be done. It’s just not designed that way. But I climbed up as high as I could, and was awed by the monumentality and beauty of this place. I left by the less-traveled but more picturesque eastern gate, encountering cattle grazing peacefully outside the walls. I walked back to the causeway along the north side of the Wat toward the lily pond, planning to take photos of its flower strewn surface. I encountered monkeys along the way and bought yet another guidebook from yet another really cute Cambodian kid.

I then misread my watch, mistaking ten for eleven, and decided it was time for lunch, after which I bought yet more silk scarves and went to Ta Prohm, a temple famed as a film set for Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. The focus at Ta Prohm is to preserve it in the condition it was discovered in late in the 19th century, a pretty problem since it is overgrown with tree roots and it is impossible to just stop nature in its tracks.

The next day, I gathered my energy and visited Angkor Thom again, riding an elephant from the south gate to the Bayon, then walking the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King. I visited the lesser temples of Pra Khan and Neak Pean in the afternoon. Both were built by—yep! Jayavarman VII, the first as a university and the second as his residence. With a central stele surrounded by artificial ponds, now dry, it must have been lovely.

There is nothing like poverty to foster an attitude of gratitude. On Monday London and I took a tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap, which in the rainy season is southeast Asia’s largest lake. There are communities on the shore and floating on its waters. When we arrive, we rented a boat to take us along its shores and estuaries to see the floating villages.

There’s trash everywhere, and I wonder how poor these folks really are. I have heard that truly poor communities are immaculate, for a use can be found for every scrap. Even bits of plastic bags can be used for insulation. And nowhere in southeast Asia have I seen big-bellied babies with flies buzzing around their mouths. Everyone seems relatively clean, dressed however shabbily, and well-fed.

Still, I am grateful for what I have, for my excellent health and the choices I have always viewed as my birthright.

Tonight I went to Dead Fish Tower, a restaurant/guesthouse that aspires to be the hip place for foreigners to go to in Siem Reap and Phuket. Probably just a matter of time before there’s branches in Bali, Singapore and the next block, just like there’s a 7-11 on each block in Chiang Mai.

I chose to go there because they advertise traditional Khmer dance performances, so I arrived at 6:40, twenty minutes before a performance was supposed to take place. I was shown to a table with a good view of the stage, ordered a Bombay gin and tonic, then looked around the place.

It was the height of 80s Polynesian chic. Lots of wood, neon palm trees and even a disco ball. Greg Kihn and Cheap Trick playing. The heavy wooden chairs weren’t particularly comfortable, but the drinks were cold and the server refreshingly direct about the menu options. She warned me away from the green curry and toward the chicken.

She was right. The soupy curry, which benefited from the addition of a little chili, boasted tender chunks of chicken and eggplant, with keffir lime leaves and lemongrass for flavor. There were a few pea-like legumes I wasn’t sure I liked.

Eating leisurely, I finished at about seven, ordered another gin and tonic in lieu of dessert, and waited for the alleged Khmer dance performance. At 7:15 a pretty girl in purple wrap pants, a white top and a lot of makeup showed up and sat cross-legged on the high platform that served as a stage. A patter of applause greeted her. Recorded Khmer music came on, and she bent her fingers back into an improbable but graceful curve, then caressed the coconut shell she held in her other hand.

A young man stepped onto the stage. He held two coconut halves and was dressed in blue garb I assumed was also Khmer. He didn’t appear disinterested, exactly, but as though he’d feel more at home in front of a computer playing Halo 4.

Another coconut half appeared in the girl’s free hand, and the two began to turn and tap them together, producing a clopping noise that reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I hid my giggles by sipping the dregs of the G and T. If the disco ball had started to revolve, I don’t know if I could have handled it.

The entire performance lasted ten minutes. I then wandered back to my hotel, tipsy and happy. When I got back, the Cambodian doorman opened the door for me and asked me how I was doing. I said OK, then asked him how his evening was going. He said “awesome.”