Writing about travel is always fraught with difficulties: listing sights seen and people visited without simply writing a mind-numbing catalogue of been-there-done-that; describing the charms, or lack thereof, of a foreign city without sounding like a all-hopped-up-on-backpacking Lonely Planet writer; summing up an entire neighborhood/city/region/country/what-have-you accurately and succinctly; conveying the mind-expanding, psyche-influencing, life-changing aspects of travel and pretending you know something about the place you traveled to without, in the process, sounding like a pretentious git. Though, seeing as how I started the previous sentence by using the phrase “fraught with difficulties,” I probably shouldn’t even worry about that last objective.
Lonely Planet told us that, to find transportation from Siem Reap’s airport into the town itself, we’d have to find the motorcycle stand and pay about a dollar. I assumed, conditioned by Indonesia, that this would be a casual affair, a group of otherwise-unemployed men with motorbikes milling around and competing for my attention and dollar. Not so in hypertouristed Siem Reap: there was a booth, and a sign, and a queue, a strictly regimented system designed, apparently, to get me and my backpack perched on the back of a motorbike, without a helmet, breaking the speed limit. This wasn’t just lawlessness: it was official lawlessness.
That wasn’t the end of our transportation joys. After Indonesia, packages balanced on motorbikes rarely surprise me, but I must admit that the sight of a full-grown hog strapped across the back did take me aback for a second, as did the sight of an oxcart competing with cars for space in the downtown streets of Phnom Penh, an illustration of the clash between tradition and modernity as neat as anything postcolonial literature has produced.
I was a tiny bit worried about how The Duke and I would like the Angkor temples; since I had just spent a year in Indonesia, and he had just spent three years in India, we were both feeling a tiny bit templed-out; generally, there’s only so many wall carvings of Shiva you can see before you getting the urge to do some Destroying of your own. Plus, it was the beginning of June, so you—or, at least I—could barely walk three steps without suddenly looking like I had gone for a swim, and one of my eyes was swollen shut, which is not exactly an ideal condition for viewing ruins.
But I shouldn’t have worried. The Duke and I spent two full days in the complex, being shuttled from temple to temple by motorbike, and still didn’t see one-third of what we could have. We loved what we saw, though: Angkor Thom, the erstwhile capital city whose walls cars and motorbikes must still pass through; Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of a lake; Bayon, where huge slightly-smiling stone faces watch tourists examine intricate wall carvings; Ta Prohm, the prototypical jungle-overgrown ancient temple, whose air of ruined majesty had me muttering, under my breath, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”; and, of course, Angkor Wat itself, the temple which was, more than all the others, intricately structured, beautifully styled, and practically perfect in every way—except, of course, the way that had steps so steep I was forced to crawl. All in all, definitely worth the trip, no matter how many temples you’ve seen before.
And then it was on to Phnom Penh, on a rickety, smoke-belching bus, though green rice paddies and flat, flat land. The Duke and I bought and read books about the Khmer Rouge to prepare for the next phase of our trip, but nothing can really prepare you. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school turned prison/concentration camp turned museum, where we walked into cramped, tiny cells, past cruel torture devices, and through room after room of photographs of the 17,000 prisoners kept there in the four years of its operation. (You want to know how brutal the Khmer Rouge was? Four prisoners survived.) From there, we went to the infamous Killing Fields, which were, well, just what they sound like—a place for killing. Nothing I can write can really express the horror of such a place—the unexcavated human bones in the dirt, the central monument made of a pile of human skulls 17 stories tall, the sign posted on a tree informing us that babies were once beat against it, and all of this in a tranquil grove—and my eyes were and are filled with tears thinking about it—yet another time I couldn’t see properly in Cambodia—so we’ll move on.
And that moving on, indeed, is partially what Cambodia felt like: it’s a land of contrasts, traditional and modern, horrifying and awe-inspiring, and the speed at which one is forced to move from one to the other should give one whiplash. Phnom Penh, especially, feels like that—once “The Pearl of Asia,” it still retains a slight cosmopolitan European feel, the sort of place where one can stop into the Foreign Correspondents Club, order a lime rickey, and sit on the terrace overlooking the Mekong feeling like a character in a Graham Greene novel, and yet it’s also covered in a thick overlay of Southeast Asia—motorbikes everywhere, people squatted on the side of the road eating noodles, and a layer of dust and grime on the now-ramshackle Parisian-style buildings. And as the mind is catapulted from the roaring colonial 20s to the busy, noisy 21st century, one must pass through the dark ages of 1975-1979, in which Phnom Penh was totally evacuated--2-3 million people forced into work camps in the countryside--and roughly 2 out of every 7 Cambodians either died of malnutrition and overwork or were killed by the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know how a people can recover from such a tragedy, but Cambodians are doing it gracefully, with kind smiles on their faces. Life, I suppose, must go on.
And so it does. On our last day in Cambodia, while touring the Royal Palace, The Duke and I were approached by a group of Buddhist monks, dressed in the traditional orange robes. They hung around us for a moment or two, gathering up their nerve to speak with us, and when we smiled one of them broke the silence. “Excuse me,” he said, “can you help us?” And he held out a sheet of paper covered in statistics problems, his homework from the local university. And so we sat down with them, right there on the steps of the Silver Pagoda, puzzling over the difference between mean, mode, and median. When we were done, we bought them a Coca-Cola and got a blessing in return. And, as we rode the bus out Phnom Penh the next morning, The Duke and I were both thinking about Cambodia. How could we make sense of this place, of the simultaneous nobility and degradation of the human condition on view on every block, of the mind-boggling, sense-whirling contradictions? What could we think about it? What could we say about it? Had we seen Birth or Death?
I don’t know. And, after all this time, I still don’t know. And I’m certainly no expert, so how should I presume? But The Duke summed it up best: at the Vietnamese border, he turned to me and said, “Cambodia is a country you just want to hug.” On that point, at least, I couldn’t agree more.