If I take away one thing fromÂ this countryÂ it will be the generous, friendly nature of theÂ peopleÂ I have met in this small corner of Cambodia. Like Sok, one of the pool attendants at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor.Â Every timeÂ I came for a swim he would greet me, bring me some fruitÂ andÂ ask me about my day. He seemed genuinely interested in whether or not I liked his country. Without irony or subtext or sarcasm we would chat for a few moments only, yet the human connection was real and sincere. And so it was all over Siem Reap: an earnest inquisitiveness, an absence of hidden agendas, an honest concern. What does it say about my life in New York that these kind of interactions would seem so surprising, so out of the ordinary?
For sheer chaos and claustrophobia, it’s hard to beat the daily market in Siem Reap. (The smells, too, are something I’ll not soon forget.) Most ofÂ theÂ meat and fish is killed and cleaned to order, so you know it’s all as fresh as it gets – if not exactly on par with Western standards of safe and sanitary. I left wondering what, if anything, might make these women – mostly barefoot in and among the blood and guts – squeamish.
TheÂ relativelyÂ recent history of Cambodia is horrific. Under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge the country was subjected to a radical social engineering project in the 1970’sÂ that aimed to create a purely agrarian Communist society. Around two million people were forced from the cities to take up agricultural work in the countryside. The party controlled what they wore, whom they could talk to, how they acted. Children were believed to be tainted by the capitalism ofÂ theirÂ parents, so they were separated, indoctrinated in communistÂ ideologyÂ and made a dictatorial instrument ofÂ theÂ party, given leadership roles in the torture andÂ executionÂ of anyone suspected of being a traitor. And almostÂ everyoneÂ could be considered a traitor: intellectuals, artists,Â minorities, city-dwellers and anyone with an education. In little more than four years the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 1.5 million people – a fifth of the country’s population – through torture, forced labour, starvation, and executions.Â Unbelievably,Â one of the many groups targeted wereÂ theÂ Apsara Dancers,Â practitionersÂ ofÂ theÂ classical Khmer dance which dates back to the 7th century. (The Angkor temples are festooned with thousands of images of the Apsara.Â During this period, dance was ritually performed at the temples as both entertainmentÂ andÂ as a means of delivering messages to the gods.)Â Although 90 percent of all Cambodian classical artists perished in the genocide, the tradition ofÂ theÂ Apsara was resurrected in the refugee camps in eastern Thailand with the few surviving Khmer dancers. Yes, I had come to Cambodia because I wanted to see the temples, but what I needed was to see this dance: elaboratelyÂ dressed,Â performingÂ a slow and figurative set of hand gestures and poses, invoking the gods and enacting epic poems; a testament to the power of art and a point of national pride. (Plus, anyone with even a passing familiarity with The King & I will immediately notice where Jerome Robbins stole his best ideas.) The return of the Apsara augured not only a reestablishment of civil society but, Â more importantly, a resurrection of the country.
Night markets are a tradition particular to Asia. A crazy open air jumble of stalls and stands selling everything from meat and produce to tchotchkes to clothing, condiments, and prepared foods, it only comes alive after dark. Part shopping mall, part social scene, it makes for great people watching while also being quite handy for souvenir shopping if you’ve spent your entire day engaged in more culturally elevated pursuits. In Hong Kong the night markets are pristine; in Bangkok only slightly less so. Here in Siem Reap the capitalism is nakedly pure – if slightly lessÂ hygienic: no price is what itÂ seems and absolutely everything is negotiable
AfterÂ trampling up and down temples in the sweltering heat – I’ve tried to not belabor the point but it is hot, hot, hot in Cambodia! – it’s time for a little luxury: Â skimming the moat of Angkor Thom in a private gondola stocked with champagne and canapes. As the sun set the moon rose high into the sky, casting an iridescent blue glow over the waking jungle.
If these images of Ta Prohm look remotely familiar, it’s likely because of Angelia Jolie – the Angkor temple was used as a setting in the film Tomb Raider. Unlike most of the Angkor temples Ta Prohm has been left much as it was found: aÂ photogenicÂ combination of strangler ficus soaring out of the ruins and spung tree roots dripping like so much candle wax. It’s not yet part of the jungle, but the atmosphere sure suggests it’s merging.
Exiting the south gate of Angkor Thom I came upon a posse of macaquesÂ along the side of the road. Obviously they’ve become habituated to humans by the steady stream of tourists: no sooner did I express an interest in them did they express an even greater interest in me – or, more specifically, my iPhone 5.
More than just temple ruins,Â Angkor is in fact an entire region of Cambodia, which served as the seat of the Khmer Empire. Flourishing from the 9th to 15th centuries it was the largest preindustrial city in the world, with anÂ elaborateÂ infrastructure connecting a sprawl of almost 400 square miles to the well-known temples at its core. Those temples, buried amid forests and farmlands, number over a thousand – from piles of brick rubble unearthed in rice paddies to the magnificently restored Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Followers of this blog will note the similarities Angkor Wat shares in design – if not scale – withÂ Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya. Both follow the basic plans of Khmer architecture: a temple mountain (“Mount Meru”) bounded by raised rectangular galleries, all within a moat and an outer wall – and all richly ornamented with decorative elements and statuary. Built in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor WatÂ is even more unusual in that although the site was neglected it has never been completely abandoned, remaining a significant religious centre throughÂ HinduÂ thenÂ Buddhist kingdoms, colonialism, and civil war – its preservation abetted by the expansive moat which kept theÂ encroachingÂ jungle at bay.
Built in 1932 toÂ provide accommodations for the first wave of travelers to whomÂ the Angkor Temples were an obligatory stopover,Â Raffles Grand Hotel dâ€™Angkor is hands down the place to stay in Siem Reap.Â Spread over acres of landscaped French gardens, it exudes an old-worldÂ Cambodian grandeur updated with all the mod cons and comforts.Â Behind the unassuming faÃ§ade is an understatedÂ elegance ofÂ art decoÂ tile hallways,Â languorousÂ ceiling fans,Â colonialÂ style furnishings, and what must surely beÂ the countryâ€™s most magnificent swimming pool, surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees. This hotel has style to spare – and the steamy weather only adds to the atmospheric allure. I keepÂ expecting to find SomersetÂ Maugham in evening attire,Â smoking in the Elephant Bar or Bette Davis peering through louvered shutters, clutching a scandalous letter. I’m in heaven to say the least. They don’t make them like this anymore.