The other side: Angkor Wat

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, something from a movie, ruins in a jungle clearing, ominous and overgrown with lianas. Pythons and huge furry spiders. Instead it looked like what it was: a popular, well-tended public building, like the White House or the Louvre. The grounds were manicured and roads around it had thorough signage in several languages. It reminded me of an good airport, maybe Dulles.

After the flight to Bangkok, the Skytrain, the bus, the long walk, the cab, and the tuk-tuk, I had arrived at the Siem Reap guest house a little weary. It was barely noon but I decided to take a quick nap before exploring the town. My alarm didn’t go off and I slept until midnight. With nothing else to do, I stayed in my room, reading and writing until dawn. At about four a.m., I called home (FaceTime: video calls, all around the world, free. Thanks, Steve Jobs, wish you weren’t about to croak), but they were enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon and had nothing much to say.

Finally, it got light. I’m not much of a eater in the morning but it was dinner time in California so I wolfed down a huge American-style breakfast, bacon and eggs and toast. I ordered the “potato cake”, hoping for some kind of Khmer latke but it was just a lightly-fried patty of mashed potato. I hired a scooter driver, a brightly smiling guy in his 50s barely 150 cm tall, and putt-putted off to Angkor Wat.

So I wasn’t enchanted by the place, but I couldn’t complain. They did a nice job of maintaining it without Disneyfying it. The ravenous vendors were diligently fenced in one (pleasant, acacia-shaded) area, there were nice boardwalks. Angkor Wat attracts what I snobbishly consider the best kind of tourists, people who visit because they are interested in the country, because they want to learn about a culture and a life that is different from their own. I respect that, even when I don’t share it. It’s easy to be contemptuous of someone who travels just for the sensual incentives: warm beaches, cheap beer, bragging rights.

Most of the hundreds of tourists were Asians: Koreans, Chinese Malaysians, Japanese. There were some Europeans, I found a Canadian, but I seemed to be the only American. Well, it has been a long trip. There was a small deputation of chubby Buddhist monks with huge expensive cameras and battleship-gray robes; the local ones, chopstick-thin and dressed in shocking oranges and yellows as if they are afraid of being lost in the snow, aren’t to be found at this pagan/Hindu temple.

Or is it a temple? A more accurate description would be “war memorial”. The walls are covered with intricate, floor-to-roof bas relief battle scenes. Archers, cavalry, infantry, generals in chariots, and colonels in war council.  There are supernatural figures, what might be Khmer Valkyries, choosers of the slain.

I found myself becoming quite distressed. This structure, much bigger than a city block, is not just a war memorial, but the worst kind of war memorial: it exists to glorify war. The battles it depicts are pageants, the soldiers in wonderful ranks, officers in finery. There are no casualties, no mutilations, no atrocities, no collateral damage, no gore.

As far as I could discover, only two figures of the thousands there are enduring any form of suffering: a pair of generals who have made the error of attacking some kind of huge chicken-warrior-god, each has taken a spear to the abdomen and now lies back dying in his wagon. Their faces show only disappointment.

There’s a fallacy that historians call “presentism”, judging the past by the standards of the present, but I don’t think that’s at work here. The real soldiers memorialized here did not enjoy their pageant. They didn’t have was Kevlar, Medevacs, anesthetics, antibiotics, veteran’s benefits. A wounded man lay where he fell, screaming until he died, knowing his widow and orphans would starve; if he happened to survive, he would live his life as a crippled beggar.

And this is Cambodia, as much a metaphor for senseless violence as it is a country. Am I the only one noticing this, the only one objecting to this national symbol of a war-raped country being this cheerful propaganda piece, this Triumph des Willens in stone?

The engravings are mostly in good condition, but one large mounted archer has a huge gouge taken out of it. To my inexpert eye, it looks like a richochet. At some point, 20 or 30 years ago, some KR or CGDK or KPNLF or Vietnamese soldier took a pot shot at another and hit instead an image of his predecessor from 900 years before.

The other temple were less upsetting. Their engravings are of apsaras or the engravings have eroded away or they never had engravings. But I was already in a bad mood and all I could think of were the workers who built this place — Israelites with no Moses to lead them from bondage. The Khmer today do not eat charoset and bitter herbs to commemorate the evil days when their slave-ancestors were whipped and tortured to build these pyramids, they just hang around outside selling scarves and t-shirts.

Onside one huge ziggarat, three spotted elephants offer rides. I didn’t want a ride but for a dollar I bought several kilograms of tiny bananas. The elephants crowded around me — they are just as persistent at their human counterparts. They wanted that food and they pushed and probed with their damp, motile trunks to get at it. One trunk wrapped my arm while right in front of my face was the blunt tip of another, two pink nostrils like the fingerholes on a bowling ball. It was creepy and hilarious at the same time, but the elephants are as good-natured as any other Khmers so I felt in no danger.

Eventually, I went and sat by the lake, buying soft drinks for a Dickensian collection of cheerful young vendors. When I told the youngest and smartest, a tiny girl who says she is nine but is no bigger than an American five-year-old, that I am from California, she tells me the capital of California is “Chacromencha”. Close enough.

The next day, the same scooter driver, Mr Kia, took me 30 km out of Siem Reap to the Land Mine Museum. Its proprietor, a shovel-faced Khmer who calls himself Aki Ra, egotistically puts up his own picture on every wall but he keeps a good collection of decommission mines and weaponry. He claims to have defused tens of thousands of mines but his illustration of a typical minefield showing an American Claymore mine rigged to a trip-wire (a Claymore is electrically triggered and cannot be set off by contact) made me wonder how much of the work he really did himself.

The museum gift-shop sells the same books the vendors by the lake do and I considered buying my daughter a bar of soaps shaped like an anti-tank mine. It’s $10 though and I doubted she would get the joke.

I went then to the butterfly zoo and was led around by a diffident guide, a teenaged boy with the unfortunate name of Tina, who lamented his difficulty pronouncing words like “chrysalis” and “metamorphosis” and “hymenoptera” after two months of study in the field. I told him that most Americans cannot pronounce those words but I don’t think he felt any better.

Next was Wat Thmei, built on the grounds of the local killing fields. A scruffy temple sits on a gravel lot, houses surly-looking monks and men asleep on derelict sofas. The highlight of the place is a huge outdoor glass cabinet, easily 5 meters high, stacked and stuffed with bones. Dozens of skulls press against one face of the cabinet; another has long bones; another, ribs and vertebrae. A weather-beaten sign on the cabinet asks for donations to repair the roof of the temple.

Finally, I went to the War Museum in the local military headquarters. My guidebook mocked the place as a “rubbish yard” of “whatever the generals felt like dumping there” and sniffed that it “lacked context”. It’s marked by a sign with the words “War Museum” in white-painted shell casings, there’s some context for you right there. I was the only one there except for the ticket taker and a dozen or so yellow-brown bullocks grazing peacefully between the rusting armored personnel carriers.

The perimeter of the outdoor museum is a series of open-air sheds, with shelves of rifles and shell casings. The center area is a pleasant, large, park-like yard full of combat vehicles.

With no one to stop me, I turned the place into a hands-on experience. I clambered aboard the wreck of a Soviet Mi-8 helicopter gunship and sat at the ruined controls. From rack after rack of small arms, all corroded to uselessness on the jungle floor decades ago, I took M-16s and skeletal Thompsons, rotting Chinese carbines and Soviet machine-guns with drum-magazines bigger than dinner platters. Like a kid, I sighted down the barrels, tried to work the slides, jabbed the air with the wicked triangular bayonets. I considered pulling a trigger, but decided that either the weapon would fire or astronomically more likely, and equally bad, it wouldn’t and spoil the fantasy.

The small arms are mostly just stacked and forgotten but the big combat vehicles are treated with more respect. They are parked in neat but casual rows, with ferns and young banyan trees growing among them. Each has a wooden, hand-lettered sign, explaining where the vehicle was built and when, its range and capabilities, and where and when it was finally destroyed. Each sign is on a post and has its own roof to keep off the daily rain.

I climbed on a T-54 tank, smaller than I was expecting; poked my head inside an amphibious APC; sat at a complicated anti-aircraft gun and paced off the length of an enormous American artillery piece (capable at its prime, its sign proudly assured me, of killing everyone in a 50-meter radius of the impact point). There was even a MiG-21 fighter jet, with the silhouette of Angkor Wat painted on the tail, something no one but me would think was ironic and even I was learning it wasn’t irony. I took endless photos of the complicated mechanisms, worn out and dusty red in the sun, the gears and tracks and rods.

The visit was by far the most fun I had in Cambodia and by the end of it, I had figured out why. The museum doesn’t “lack context”. It is context.

These machine are Cambodia. These rusting dignified hulks are the true citizens of Cambodia. The Khmer are just their fodder. That’s why the Khmer bones are stacked anonymously in a cracked glass box on a pitted, shabby parking lot, while the weapons, the tanks and the rocket-battery trucks and the planes and the bombs, repose here, in this bucolic graveyard. Princes of war, they were born abroad but came here, home, to fight, to rule, and finally to rest in these well-tended plots, each with his hand-lettered tombstone and his steel skeleton to preserve his memory.

They call Thailand the Land of Smiles. Cambodia is the Land of War. 1000 years ago they were fighting to capture the slaves and stone to build temples to gods they didn’t even believe in; six months ago, they were scuffling with the Thai Army for reasons they have already forgotten. Siem Reap is this province, Defeat Of The Thais and the district is Banteay Meanchey, Fortress of Victory.

Walking alone among the tanks, among the helicopters and the shell cases, I finally figured it out: it doesn’t matter that the tourists go to Angkor Wat. Angkor is here.

I hurried back to Mr Kia and had him take me to the airport.


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