Templed Out

Last One, I Promise

It was to be our final day at Angkor, and we set out with a grim determination to see as much of what was unseen as our eyes might stand. We roared down the dirt shoulder into the park as fast as our rickety ill-sized bicycles would carry us. It was hot and sunny, hotter than it had been the day before, and I think I demolished a two litre bottle of water on the ride to gates alone.

We stopped just inside Angkor Thom to take pictures of the monkeys. The macaques that roam the complex are quite tame and seem to flourish on the diet of fruit that the vendors sell to the tourists. I was able to get quite close to them without them seeming to care, but at one point something changed and the whole troop came to together and began moving away from the road. We soon saw the cause for this exodus. A meandering column of elephants was making its way towards us. The creatures wore platforms for carrying guests up the trail at Phnom Bakheng and their mahouts sat astride their shoulders, legs tucked behind slowly flapping ears. They looked docile, with that deceptive placidity particular to elephants, and certainly did not seem to pose a threat to any of us, let alone to a nimble macaque. The monkeys however were not taking any chances, and perhaps enacting some ancient rite of recognition they took to the trees and were gone.

We moved on and left behind a small crowd of crestfallen visitors, some who had only just clambered down from their tuk-tuk to buy an overpriced sack of bruised bananas. One man, a banana held limp at his side and a ludicrous camera tugging at his neck, made soft monkey sounds to himself as he stared wistfully up into the bush. He looked like the kid whose parents get the time wrong for the Santa Claus Parade so that they show up just in time to see the police dismantling the barricades.

Our next stop was Ta Keo, a towering temple mountain built as a series of terraces. The stairs were steep, and after waiting on the ground to take a photo of my sister waving from the top, I charged up like a man possessed, inspired perhaps by the macaques. I felt an urge to stay all morning and climb all over this place, but we had a tight schedule and climbing on the ruins is strictly forbidden.

Instead we pushed on to Ta Prohm, one of the more iconic sites at Angkor. It owes much of its recognition in the West to a scene from the Tomb Raider movie. I'm sure the late Jayavarman VII would be thrilled to know that his monastery helped to spawn "Brangelina." Still, they have at least had the decency to refrain from installing some kind of wax figurine of Lara Croft at the site for now, but as the industry becomes more cutthroat, who knows?

Ta Prohm has been left much as it was "found" in the early 1900's: overgrown but not defeated. Towering trees straddle entire walls with their roots, slowly contorting the path of the stone. Parts of the complex are caved in, forcing you to pick a winding path through the rubble. It is a bit of a maze, and we quickly lost each other in it. The benefit of this was that the site could seemingly accomodate large volumes of people without them actually being aware of each other. It was definitely one of the more peaceful places we visited, and I relished it, even if that peace was the result of decadence (in the literal sense) and some colonial conservationist's romantic concession to the picturesque.

After some haggling, we had lunch, and after lunch we were on our way again, bound for the one big fish we had yet to see. The ride took us on a long and tiring circuit and the afternoon sun broiled us in our seats. As we rode the eastern loop of the park, we saw fewer people and more locals. Battered farm trucks trundled by on the narrow road, some of them packed with children in the back. Cattle grazed at the side of the road, occasionally watched by an old man with a stick sitting in whatever shade was available. The land seemed parched, as the rains had not yet come, and many fields looked like they were cultivating cracked mud. We were out of the jungle at this point, and the fields seemed to suddenly stretch out impossibly far. More pedalling, counting down the kilometres on the stone markers.

As we neared Preah Kahn the clouds began to close in, promising an afternoon storm. The site was fairly empty, as the late hour and dropping pressure had likely sent the groups packing. This temple was built with four approaches to its centre, with one slightly longer than the others to hint at the superiority of the Buddha to the Hindu deities that stand as patrons of the other three walkways. The complex was massive and similarly overgrown like Ta Prohm. Much of it has been left un-repaired out of recognition that conservationists have little reliable sense of what much of the site actually looked like.

As we wandered through the rubble, I found myself thinking about Nietzsche's writing on history. One gets the distinct sense of becoming one of those sad creatures who sniff about in the wreckage of a culture they have no recourse to, the lovers of mustiness who mistake the monument for the thing itself. I thought of the macaques we had seen earlier in the day, how their relationship to these ruins was fundamentally no different from mine, scrambling past the unintelligible, scratching myself.

As if to drive the point home, I came to the centre of what was once a sort of monastic university, among other things, to capture the image which I have used as the cover photo for this post. A tourist, utterly oblivious to the significance of the carved stone in front of her, carefully balanced her camera on a lingam to get a shot of her partner in the shadows. Priceless.

We left Angkor as the park began to close up, joining an exodus of people riding home to Siem Reap. It was our last night in town, and in Cambodia, and we wandered restlessly around the night market eager for something we had not seen yet, spoiled experience junkies already numb to the sights and sounds this country had to offer. We considered trying the fish massages that were on offer at practically every third business. Knowing that they had recently been shut down in B.C. made them seem just that much more alluring, but the high traffic of travellers frequenting them was a bit off-putting. Just how many feet does the average fish see in a day?

The icing on the cake was the fish massage vendor who sidled up to us on the street. "Please, come try my fish massage," he sang to us as we walked. He had a strange lilt to his voice, like the henchman in a bad early monster movie. His shoulders were raised, his head cocked on an unnatural angle, his palms grinding together eagerly. "My fish, they are..." He paused, then as if unburdening himself of some great and terrible secret: "So very hungry." I found myself wondering if it was an act, or if not, whether the fish were hungry because their owner scared the piss out of every potential customer. We decided not to find out.