Postcard from Cambodia: Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Ernest Larsen and Sherry
writers and media makers, are
traveling in Southeast Asia and reporting on their visit.


bus from Phnom
Penh to Siem Reap makes its routine rest-stop in Kampong Thom, a dusty
provincial town. From the open-air
restaurant, where we consume a quick bowl of pho, Sherry points out that
street corner sign reads in English: “Democrat Street.” I
take a quick photo, noticing
that we are in fact at the eternally imperiled corner of Democrat Street
National Road. As if
italicizing the irony (the streets meet but it seems prohibitively
that Democracy and Nationalism will ever do more than fleetingly
the framing of the snapshot encompasses a billboard of young vampires on
make. Later I learn that Kampong
Thom is the birthplace of Brother Number One–Pol Pot.
mats in the street
just outside the night market in Siem Reap a six-man folk band plays
percussive music on handmade instruments.
They are all missing at least one limb due to landmine
percussions. Loss and ruin are ever-present even
when not immediately visible: just around the next corner, glance,
our uniformed
tour guide in Siem Reap, is one of no less than two thousand such
guides to the ruined temple complexes misrecognized under the name of
the most
spectacularly restored, Angkor Wat.
He’s a very young 24-year-old, who had the ambiguous good fortune
to get
a sliver of education amid the modern-day ruins of Cambodia. He
is achingly conscious of all that
remains outside his reach. He’s been struggling to learn French:
guides earn more than English speakers–market scarcity, you see. He
appears to enjoy his job, escaping
in a way into grandeur–but in a week he’ll have to find another job to
tide him
over until the tourists return in force.

sign reminded Sherry of her father on the High Holidays.
the middle child
of seven, mentions at one point (in shepherding us up or down one of the
stone entrance ways to revel in the bas-reliefs of elephants, garuda,
the titanic struggles between gods
and demons, the churning of the sea of milk) that his 50-year-old mother
barely walk: a long-term effect of four years of slave labor under the
Rouge. She was lucky: spared the
worst because she was illiterate–while his father cleverly avoided undue
persecution by holding the newspaper upside-down when tested about his
ability. However, Vanna’s
grandfather, a village leader, was summarily executed.
you trundle through
the Bayon or Banteay Srei or any of the ruins you are sure at some point
come upon a small shrine currently in use, joss sticks burning, Buddha
a bit of red ribbon and yellow silk thrown athwart his shoulder, an old
sitting nearby to collect alms if you wish to pray or to pay tribute.
Some leave a bit of fruit, a half-empty
plastic bottle of water. But is that
bottle half-empty or half-full?

on another empire in ruins)
all the temples
are, after many interruptions once again under restoration, with
expert aid from Japan, France, and India.
Vanna is critical of the Indians–much preferring the methods of
the French:
analstylosis, I think the word is for the extremely painstaking attempt
to put
each piece of stone back into place without , in a sense, cheating.
The Indians are much speedier–they use
a lot of concrete to get the elaborate jungley mess back into shape, no
no fuss. In any case, Angkor Wat
pulses with these efforts as well,
with handbuilt bamboo scaffolds stretching over and around the vast
Buddha, who of course pays no notice.
When he was a year or two younger than Vanna, Andre Malraux, in
adventurist phase (as opposed to his revolutionist or his much later his
as DeGaulle’s Minister of Culture) in the early 1920s was arrested and
jailed in Cambodia after attempting to steal two tons of statuary from
Wat. Boyish hi-jinks.
is one of three
young and perhaps wise men we met while in Siem Reap. Same
(pronounced Sam), our tuk-tuk driver, goes nowhere
without his laptop, is studying to become the 2001st tour
guide–already has two kids and shows us a video of the cherubs, over
lunch–which Vanna and Same only with much encouragement share with us. 
Same’s ambition is reflected by the
young dayclerk at our hotel–who shyly talks to us as we await
first spur of our trip back to Vietnam.
He makes $70/month at the hotel and is glad to get it–he’s taking
management courses at the college down the road.
between this Wat
and that Wat, a visit to the Landmine Museum, which is choking with
retrieved from the area (there are said to be millions more still
studding the
jungle). Proceeds from the Museum
support an adjacent–but tactfully off-limits to tourists–school for
children. There have been scads of
children–and young women–trailing us into and out of every Wat, kids
who are
not physically maimed but desperately attempting to sell tourists
degraded trinkets. Lest we ever
forget what the real costs have been and still are.  The
exhibits at the Landmine Museum are as unpolished, as
un-museumish as anybody could wish–appropriate to the generous immediacy
of its
take a 12-hour bus
ride back to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, followed by another 6 hour
all-nighter on
a sleeper bus–which packs its occupants in like somnolent human-ish
sardines–not so much like reclining Buddhas. The
meditative prayer wheel otherwise known as IPOD saves us.

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