Lying on a small stone section of the Angkor Wat temple complex, slightly more relaxed than the rest of our attentively perching group, I was faintly conscious of the unremarkable sunrise peeping out behind the Angkor Wat – the Cambodian emblem and central image of its flag. Too cloudy, the sunrise lacked any clarity, as the previous evening’s sunset also had. All was rather bleary.
Earlier on we stepped off the mini-bus still half asleep and fumbled through the mosquito-dense headlight rays, into pitch darkness. Two small torches led the way as we carefully made for our viewing point. The ancient monument was soon riddled with tourists, and remained so long after we had returned from breakfast.
Precarious steps lead to Angkor Wat’s highest point, affording spectacularly panoramic views. My lasting memory of it will be the glaring, bold intention to construct, rather than craft, a temple grander than any other. Detailed as ever – though not as much as some – the expanding square borders give a spiralling, dizzying feel which is probably best appreciated from above. You would see best the full scale of organization: that water borders forest, which borders more water, which borders wall and then the central temple structure begins to rise up.
That such ambition could have been imagined at the time of its creation, let alone achieved and maintained, is an incredible testimony to this branch of humans. It can feel like we have a blinkered view of ourselves in the context of geography and history. Blinkered in terms of geography largely due to an understandable ignorance of other cultures thousands of miles away; but also blinkered in terms of time, in the assumption that the progress of time correlates exactly with positive advance, with life generally being better – whatever that means. Seeing structures like this demonstrates that those living long ago were equipped with the same creative capacity, endeavour and intelligence as people today, if not more.
Once Angkor Wat had been thoroughly explored, we visited a ramshackle museum of landmine history and its Cambodian victims. Set up and run by a former Cambodian soldier named Akira, artifacts tell how he served on both sides and almost killed his own uncle in battle, before realising the identity of the opposing soldier.
Countless harrowing stories of lives and limbs lost decorate the hut walls here, as well as gruesome statistics and a landmine field mock-up towards the rear. A young Australian girl was teaching a small child to read in one corner, while other natives went about tending to the site, most of them missing a limb or two. The experience moved most of us. I even bought a T-shirt.
A small riverboat voyage alongside some local primitive river life provided the next outing. Our delicate shell of a boat sulkily offered only unhealthy splutters and huge plumes of dark smoke in its first attempts at movement. Not reassuring. We shuffled unsteadily in our free-standing, creaky wicker dining chairs as the boats around us gracefully moved away without a problem.
Finally, we made it away too, our boat still copiously spewing smoke. Child beggars paddled towards us, some in what looked like large dustbin lids. Others overcrowded in small boats, one with a monkey. The shacks and slums on the water weren’t unlike those we’d passed on land. Life didn’t look easy or enviable.
Pondering what I could do with my day of freedom in Siem Reap, I decided that hell, yes, I would have my first massage. I had heard good reports and figured it would be less likely to be sleazy here than in one of the bigger cities. Shown into a small, windowless room, I saw scrappy thin garments laid out for me to wear, then I lay down on the futon. A young girl entered and washed my feet with a bowl of water, engaging in the smallest of small-talks and stretching her English to the limit. The massage itself was conducted largely in silence, punctuated only by instructions to turn over, roll, position myself in some way or other. When the massage reached the upper leg area there was internal bodily stirring, some growth and material tightening: entirely natural for a young man to experience, I told myself. Absolutely normal. Now think of something ugly. When the legs were finished, the material soon slackened.
A perfect, refreshing beer at a roadside bar to recuperate also helped me decide to hire a bicycle and roam Siem Reap’s edges. A small basket with a map inside acted as my own primitive GPS system and the sudden speedy freedom was liberating.
Later that day I strode into the hospital, gathering quizzical looks from locals as I went. I declared my reasons for being there to a nurse and felt guilty as she led me past mothers with sickly looking children, to the front of a queue. A regular blood donor at home, I strangely felt less nervous here, and overly excited by the prospect of a novel free T-shirt. An English-speaking doctor showed me into a tiny, mosquito flecked room after I had completed the relevant forms, excusing them of any responsibility if I should die. The doctor proffered me tools to inspect prior to their use, assuring me of their sterility. They seemed clean, sealed, new – to my eye at least, even if my eye didn’t really know what it was looking at. His young apprentice was a cheery young girl who didn’t speak much English but with whom I somehow managed to converse. She brandished a tennis racquet shaped, electrified mosquito killer and swiped away at will, enjoying the activity despite often swiping into thin air. Only afterwards did I consider how I never really considered that donating blood wouldn’t be safe, too focused on my material rewards and the quietly smug virtue I could carry with me for a while.
Bandaged and blood-sugared up, I tucked my rewards into the basket of my bike and pedalled a short distance out of town, weaving between a greater volume of rush-hour traffic, growing in confidence and even executing a few overtaking manoeuvres.
Ten minutes pedalling down a long, straight road, led me to a left-turn which I impulsively took, through a small complex of temples. At their rear was a small hamlet of buildings which backed out onto an expanse of rice-fields. From there I followed a dirt-track which took me between the fields a short distance. Shortly before surrendering to the time and turning back the way I had come, I stopped. Suddenly without the dirt crunching under my bicycle tyres, all was calm silence. The first sparks of sunset yellowed the sky, their reflection kissing the watery rice-fields. I briefly considered relinquishing my largely unsatisfying Western life, converting to Buddhism, becoming a monk and staying here. Then I thought of all the things I’d miss.
My luck had been in when I took the turn left and stumbled across this isolated spot, this view. I felt good about giving blood in the children’s hospital and had taken real pleasure from my day’s freedom, a freedom extended by the bike. For a few moments there was a wash of brilliant bliss
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