Barbarian at the Gate

The ferry from Phnom Penh was white and gleaming as an American fridge. It chugged up the Tonle Sap with a cargo of falangs on the roof and a hundred backpacks down below. As we passed a floating village, a stork looked gravely at a small boy in the water. He was rowing towards the village shop in a large metal mixing bowl, knees drawn up to his chin. His oar was a small plank, and occasionally his ‘boat’ spun slowly instead of going forward, but mostly he exercised great control over his craft. He tethered it to the shop, scrambled out, and a few moments later climbed back in with a white package and set off for home. There was no need, of course, to turn the boat around.

The ferry dock was a few miles beyond, and the boat arrival was clearly the big event of the day. Little naked boys shrieked and swam out to us, scavenging for leftover baguettes and Vache Qui Rit cheese. The dock was thronged with drivers waving namecards, waiting to shuttle guests to Siem Reap. ‘Ivy Guesthouse Welcomes Mister David’. I hadn’t seen this anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and suddenly felt like I’d arrived in JFK again.

The town of Siem Reap is like a laidback host who wakes at lunchtime and rememebers that several hundred guests are coming to the party tonight. New guesthouses are being built, chi-chi coffeehouses and little bookstores have appeared, but people still move sleepily. It seems to exist solely for the purpose of housing the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Angkor Wat each year. It’s agreeable and moderately pretty, but in a Potemkin village way. I couldn’t find decent Khmer food there. Still, the punters seem to like it.

I bought a three-day pass to the temples, at a budget-busting $40, and got to the first temple at seven next morning. I’d chosen it carefully: not Angkor Wat, two kilometers down the road, but Bayon, famous for vast walls of bas-reliefs depicting everyday life. On one wall, buff sandstone soldiers marched to battle, some on elephants, while their women straggled at the back blowing on cooking fires. Another wall showed fishermen, stonemasons, farmers, and cooks making a feast for the victorious soldiers. None of it looked too different to modern Cambodia, if you added a few sandstone satellite dishes and a Honda or two.

This stuff I could sustain an interest in for half an hour or so. But soon, I knew, I was going to have to knuckle down to appreciating magnificent ancient monuments unrelieved by domestic scenes. At the thought of it, I was overcome by a case of temple torpor even more severe than usual. Objectively, I understood that this stuff was Magnificent. A thousand years old, give or take. Massive in scale. Original and accomplished in artistry and engineering. But I wanted to be in Starbucks with a magazine.

It is a great failing. I can manage castles, just about, if they show preserved bedroom furnishings and galley-kitchens. But religious monuments, which take my own species out of the picture, feel like hard work—and I am no longer used to hard work.

I left Bayon and trudged around Angkor Wat waching tourists in floppy hats take pictures of one another until I fell asleep on the grass. Then I went back to Siem Reap to play hooky for the afternoon. I was wandering around the almost-deserted streets, singing happily, when I bumped into Dougald, whom I’d met in Phnom Penh. Dougald is an archeology professor, and handsome enough for me to entertain Indiana Jones fantasies while feigning an interest in digging. Now I was truly busted.
    ‘I’m out here to do some field work,’ he said. On the Angkor temples?
‘Nah, not my period. My stuff is earlier, Iron Age. We’re going north to Banteay Sreay.’

Thank God.

   ‘So you’re taking a break this afternoon?’ he asked.
   ‘Yep. Went out to Bayon and Angkor this morning. Magnificent. Awesome. Loved the bas-reliefs.’

Dougald and his little team headed off, complaining about the food they were likely to get in Banteay Sreay. I loafed around Siem Reap and drank beer for two more days, while my Angkor photo ID reproached me from the dressing table. Maybe I’ll appreciate them when I grow up.