I Heart Cambodia – Part 3

23 Feb

A fraction of the moat at Angkor Wat

A fraction of the moat at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat. The icon of a nation. One of the wonders of the world. Tens of kilometres of bas-relief. Acres of lawns. Sacred pools which drained a thousand reservoirs.

I am grubby, gobsmacked and tired just from looking at it.

Z is incensed. “Just think how many houses they could have built on this land,” he says. “And that stupid king just goes and builds a temple to say, ‘I’m bigger than you.’ Religion is rubbish.”

But some stuff does make sense. The Khmer Rouge couldn’t have happened without the Khmer god-kings.

The insane and genocidal focus on gargantuan irrigation projects?

A millennium before, peasants excavated a 24 sq. km. reservoir using hoes. The Great Leap Forward? Small fry, Comrade Mao.

The insistence on absolute authority? The notion that a country can subsist on rice alone? The grandiose colonial ambitions? The cynical, and instant, replacement of one set of beliefs with another?

Check, check, check. And check some more.

But, my god, it’s beautiful. “How many people do you think died building this?” Z asks.

You can almost hear the whiplashes echoing off the vast, ceremonial steps that lead to the inner temple. Even with the “Wait Time 20 Minutes” sign and the queue of eager visitors.

We retreat, trek through the outer galleries and reach the eastern gate. Where a gang of temple monkeys are doing their hoodlum thing.

Z and temple monkeys have history. In Sri Lanka, one unzipped his bag, stole his sweets, then hopped near effortlessly from tree to tree, stuffing sweeties in her mouth and staring at him, chewing meditatively with her cheeks stuffed full, as if to say, “Catch me if you can.”

He was three. I have never seen a crosser child.

So our bags were firmly zipped, even before a trio of them, acting in concert, mugged a Japanese couple.

One scaled her waist, with an almost kittenish “aren’t I adorable?” face, then raided her bumbag for dollars.

Two others took her boyfriend. One climbed cutely onto his head, a second onto his shoulders. While he was endeavouring to dislodge the first, his accomplice raided his rucksack for green mango.

The execution was outstanding.

Laugh? We almost cried.

Back in Siem Reap, we sit pavement-side at one of those places that boasts “authentic Cambodian food” yet has not one Khmer-speaker dining in it.

Kids swamp us. I give a little girl the bracelet that Cheung’s friend had given me that morning.

A tourist policeman patrols on his motorbike, at a suitably child-friendly pace. They scatter, giggling, into the alleyways like urchins out of Oliver!

The cop and I make, “Kids, eh?” faces at each other, and grin.

And then the disabled boy appears, selling books. I want to buy a book.

“Eight dollars,” he says. (In general, the haggling maths worths roughly as follows: they start at two and a half times the default price. I halve it. We to and fro. We end up at half.)

We start to haggle. He takes it out, “You see?” he says. “Big book. Very heavy.”

His big toe is splayed fantastically wide as he supports his body and his box of books on one crutch and one foot.

It brings to mind the films we watched in the Landmine Museum yesterday. Several million tons of ordinance and mines, still live, still waiting, still crippling kids.

It is a very good book, he says.

You like it? I ask.

He is in first grade, he says. He can’t read yet. He only started work quite recently. He is fifteen years old.

I offer four dollars.

“No profit at that price,” he says. “Bad day. No tourists. No one buying.”

We settle at six. I hand over a twenty dollar bill. He pulls fistfuls of dollars out of his bag to make change. I laugh. “Not such a bad day, then?”

He laughs. So do the other kids.

“I can’t see any Cambodians in this “Cambodian food” place, can you?” says Z.

He is, of course, correct.

We cross the road to the tourist market, the Psar Chaa, where I finally find my T-shirt. I hold it up. The salesgirl smiles. “It’s your size,” she says. “Small.”

The GAP factory whose offcuts this outlet is taking is sized for Americans, not Europeans, but it’s better than XXL.

It says, “I (heart) Cambodia.” And, yes, I really do.

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

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