Angkor wattage & the agrAryan root of ruin, Siam-reaping the smell of Faulkner & bang-cocking in on an unlocked Camus
Had a few extra days after j's meeting in Bangkok, so we flew here to Siem Reap. In case you're wondering 'wats up' with this recent travel spree, j quit her job last month... at least in theory. The idea was that we were going to take 3 or 4 months off & travel around, take a gap quarter, but the thing is work never ends for j. Quitting a job only opens more doors for her & she can never say no, so now she's doing like 10 consultancies at once, which sort of dictates our travel schedule (this current trip was for a meeting in Bangkok which we hijacked to include a stop in Cambodia). Next week, Ethiopia & Tanzania. After that Paris, then (after shipping all our stuff back to the states & giving up our Rome house) i think back to Ethiopia & then we resurface in New York for a week & then Madrid for a big surprize & then most of December & January in Timor Leste & thereabouts in Indonesia. That's the plan anyway. Such is the life of a homeless casalingo stowaway.
On the Bangkok Air flight to Siem Reap, i started to read Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Not enough to comment on yet, except to say the language is a bit sloppy long-winded & awkward, with numerous typos—in the 1948 version i have at least, that i picked up in a second-hand shop in that dreadful backpacker area of Bangkok.
Landed in Siem Reap, everything flooded & sodden, wet with recent rain. The only dry land is the network of leveed roads connecting houses & villages, otherwise it just seems a vast swamp. But this is the middle of rainy season, so not sure what it looks like otherwise.
When we went through immigration to get our Cambodian visas, 16 different uniformed people handled our passports—they went down a line of officials seated in front of computers, each inspecting or doing some sort of processing to our passports, then handing it to the next official (maybe something to do with accountability? Or maybe the first instance we'd see of the Cambodian snake-clutching line of men (keep reading)).
Got to our hotel (Pavillon Indochine—highly recommended) then got a tuk-tuk driver that took us first-thing to Angkor Wat. Even though most people know of the entire complex of ruins as Angkor Wat, it is only one of many temples & complexes in a cluster of ruined temple complexes & ancient cities that span a large area—hence the need for a tuk-tuk or car or bike to take you around to the numerous temples. Biking is not a bad option—the roads are safe & well paved—but we opted for the tuk-tuk, which in Cambodia is a motorcycle jury-rigged to pull a cart. We had a dedicated tuk-tuk driver for the 3 days, Chalusa, who was fantastic (contact me if you are in need). He suggested/planned most of our itinerary.
Spent an hour or two exploring around Angkor Wat. In retrospect, it didn't seem any more spectacular than some of the other complexes, but then again half of it was scaffolded. And there were loads of tourists (mostly Japanese). The long walls of relief murals are impressive, typically depicting big battle scenes, or a reoccurring motif we'd see everywhere—lines of men all clutching a long snake (Nāga) as if engaged in tug of war, with 5 or 7 heads at the end of the serpent.
Then we tuk-tuked to the east gate of Angkor Thom, whose entrance was again flanked on both sides by a 7-headed Nāga & lines of men (many decapitated by looters) holding the snake.
Went to dinner at Khmer Kitchen—barbecue chicken & khmer curry & some sort of dumplings. Cambodian food is kind of like Thai comfort food—not nearly as spicy, more like Chinese food. Then we went to the touristy night market & bought a bronze buddha head.
Interesting to note that while most Cambodians are Buddhist, Angkor Wat is (or originally was) a Hindu temple, the largest in the world actually (so there was also a lot of Indian visitors). Some modifications were made to make it Buddhist & you'll find these dinky Buddhist shrines in some of the temples, but otherwise they've kept the temples as is, even during the Khmer Rouge times. In fact, even the more modern Buddhist shrines in town seem to bear a Hindu influence.
Loads of mosquitoes here (no wonder with all the standing water)—fortunately malaria is not so bad in Siem Reap (Dengue fever is another question—though i've already had it, so presumably i'm immune). The mosquitoes (at least one type—there seem to be a few types) are also massive, almost bird-like, but clumsy & lumbering—you can see them coming or feel them when they crash into you. There are many geckos to eat the mosquitoes too, including these huge fat green spotted ones the size of rats (that were effectively camera shy).
Growing up a sheltered American kid (& remaining as ignorant & apathetic as i can), my knowledge of Cambodia amounts to the Dead Kennedy's Holiday In Cambodia. So i always thought of Cambodia as some god-forsaken place where they all wore black, etc. And that to visit it made you a privileged & naïve hypocrite.
While the general concept (of the ignorant & entitled American projection) of the lyrics still rings true (& to some extent applies to anyone visiting so-called developing countries), the Cambodia Jello sings of is the Cambodia of the mid-70s under Pol Pot. The reality now is far different (or call me naïve for thinking so). While they are not as prosperous as their Thai neighbors, they seem to at least be on the right path. We were considering whether to visit Burma instead of Cambodia, but that seems a country where you morally have to consider what you are contributing to as a visitor (a regime that for the most part still oppresses its people & travellers—you are limited as to where you can go thus can't control where your money is going, which is likely into the wrong hands). Then again, tourism to any place does not come without some form of tarnishing hypocrisy just by virtue of you being there (a theme that seems to come up again & again here).
And if i said in the last post that the Thai temperament was cool, Cambodians are even cooler. Almost every Cambodian we've met is genuinely & sincerely kind, polite, generous, accommodating & grateful (especially coming from the mean-spirited perspective of Rome), but not overly so to the point where it makes you uncomfortable (like perhaps in Japan). They are super laidback & relaxed & it rubs off on you just being there. The scars of Pol Pot are not very visible, at least to the naïve visitor's eye. It never ceases to amaze me how people that have lived through such atrocity can be so kind & seemingly well-adjusted. Perhaps it puts things in perspective... as long as you don't forget. I remember thinking the same thing in Bosnia & Rwanda (though in the case of Rwanda, the peace seems tense & volatile).
You do see residual victims—lots of amputees from land mines. And lepers. And they still carry their fair share of disease burden. The landscape seems ripe for it, everything wet & waterlogged & moldy, always raining, teeming with all sorts of crawling insects. We saw a bright green snake (dead) in one of the temples of Angkor Wat (which googling now it appears was the deadly green pit viper). Wading around in one pond, i saw these little alien fish with phosphorescent flashlight eyes (which i can't seem to identify googling—anyone?).
The next day we continued through the snake-flanked gate to Angkor Thom & the main temple of Bayon—the temple with dozens of the mongoloidal heads iconic to Angkor Wat (that look a lot like Olmec heads).
The Angkor Thom complex is the largest one, we made the rounds, ending at the terraces of the elephants & leper kings.
Then we saw Ta Keo & then Ta Prohm, which was unbelievable, the one i'd been most looking forward to seeing. Ta Prohm is the one temple they decided to not restore, but left in the condition they found it, which is to say, in a state of ruin (which is how ruins should be after all, right?) with trees & vines ever emerging from the rubble (& continuing to break the ruins further into rubble).
I never saw Tomb Raider, but evidently Ta Prohm was featured in it (they call it the Lara Croft temple or some such thing) & it was packed with tourists all crowding to see it for that very reason, to walk where Angelina Jolie once walked. Nevertheless, my favorite wat & one of the most provoking & magical places i've been to in a while.
Had some lunch (lemongrass chicken) & saw some more ruins (Banteay Kdey, which had some nice relief murals). Then the rains came so we chilled out some & went back out for dinner at Koulen, followed by some traditional (albeit touristy) Cambodian song & dance—both in the classical court style (typically from Hindu mythology, like the Hanuman & the fish-queen dance we also saw in Bangkok) & also more folksy numbers having to do with agrarian or fishing themes.
The next morning we did the outer tour: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som & Pre Rup. After a while, one ruin blends with the next.
Then back to the hotel, to have lunch (prawns with green peppercorns) & lounge by the pool & pack. Then tuk-tuked to airport, said goodbye to our trusty driver. Checked in, went through emigration & now sitting here in a torrential downpour reading Intruder in the Dust.
You might think Faulkner doesn't have a whole lot to do with Cambodia, but actually in the context of Pol Pot's oppressive 'agrarian socialism' some of what Faulkner says about the blacks in the American south could apply in Cambodia. Whenever i hear people talk about preserving the tradition of subsistence & small-holder farms (which seems to come up often with j's colleagues), i always wonder if it's such a good thing. People have this notion of small self-sufficient farms as being quaint & idyllic & utopian—oh, to live in such simple times where we only have to worry about growing our own food. But in reality, it seems like a nightmare to me, always having to worry, season to season. Being strapped to the land & climate. People should work to make money, not food. You can always store money in a bank & use it later to buy food. Or better yet, basic food staples should be provided, or at least subsidized, by the government, like in Roman times. Like health care & roads, food should just be a given. Even, post-slavery (in 1940s when Intruder in the Dust was written) blacks, or Negroes as Faulkner calls them (if not worse), were still bound to the land, to:
This, verbatim [sic], from the middle of one long run-on sentence spanning two pages (you can tell Faulkner was probably shitfaced drunk when he wrote the book), but you get the idea. Fields perpetually plowed season after season, but «vacant of progress». This vacancy a mere continuation of slavery, attributed to «the white man and the bereavement of his vacancy, theirs the right not just to mere justice but vengeance too to allot or withhold.» And he continues (through the voice of his [sic] characters):
Farming as Sisyphean past-time. It's almost as if all the grammatical errors & awkwardness of the writing lend more poignancy to the moments of clarity, make them more spontaneously real, rather than intellectualized & thought out. Like here's another rambling passage, another two page sentence typical to the book, where half the time you have no idea what he's saying, but when you do get it, you get it beyond what direct refined language can spell out for you.
And it goes on, in such raw run-on stream of consciousness style, as if Faulkner just wrote it all out in one inspired drunken fit & left it to his editors to sort out & the editors didn't know where to begin but to just publish as is & why not? Like Ta Prohm with roots & tendrils branching every which way, a living thing ever-morphing with time, breaking down any concrete foundation so new forms can emerge. Perhaps it could've been edited down to half the size, a novella with typos fixed & commas added, but then it wouldn't be what it is. As it is it's an honest unadulterated snapshot of the inside of the head of the southern man that is Faulkner.
It seems that Harper Lee ripped off the idea of Intruder in the Dust in her To Kill a Mockingbird, only Lee made her book more digestible—both are essentially stories of black men wrongly accused & how southerners are (or were, then) so quick to incriminate & lynch without even due judicial process. Putting the pre-judging in prejudice. And the accused (Lucas) in Intruder in the Dust is more stoically defiant: «'So I'm to to commence now,' Lucas said. 'I can start off by saying mister to the folks that drags me out of here and builds a fire under me.'»
Racism in the south is a southern problem, can only be understood by southerners, and needs to be resolved by southerners. It goes beyond just the color of skin, but is (was) an entrenched condition, a smell as Faulkner (through his characters, this one a child) describes:
I finished Intruder in the Dust on the plane back to Bangkok. We took a taxi to our hotel since it was getting late & i was so confused with all the countries & currencies (i had four types of currency in my wallet & the Cambodian money (riel) has an absurd number of zeroes to it) that i gave the driver 5000 baht instead of 500 ($150 instead of $15). At least i made his day. He said he'd been driving a cab for 75 years, so maybe this unlikely fare was the straw that pushed him over into retirement.
We splurged & stayed the last night in a swanky highrise hotel (Oriental Residence), sleeping looking out over the lights of Bangkok amidst passing thunderstorms. Lounged around the next morning & worked out in a proper gym, then checked out, hit some malls & bought new digital cameras (like half the price as Europe or the U.S.) & clothes for j & ate some Japanese food (the Thai seem more obsessed with Japanese food than their own). Then took the sky train to the airport for a midnight flight.
On the plane from BKK to FCO i read The Outsider by Albert Camus. I needed another book after Intruder in the Dust, so i quickly grabbed it from some bookstore in a Bangkok mall—not much else to choose from besides the «classics» (basically Dickens or Shakespeare). And here i was thinking, wow, a Camus book i haven't read, and then i started to read it thinking it strangely familiar, until i got to the part where he shoots the Arab on the beach before realizing, duh... leave it to the fucking Brits to translate L'Étranger as The Outsider. I read The Stranger in high school—i think i was doing a report on existentialism & was also into The Cure & they have that song Killing an Arab. Luckily it's one of the few books i've been meaning to re-read, so it didn't matter.
It's funny what we remember of books, or not, and how we remember them. I didn't remember the whole bit about him not giving a shit about his mother's death, which is essentially the premise of the book. To quote Camus in the afterword, «Along time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence which I realize is extremely paradoxical: 'In our society any man who doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death.' I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn't play the game.» The not playing the game bit i do remember about Meursault, but i think in my high school mind i thought of it more as defiant rebellion. A defiance coincidentally quite similar to the condemned man in Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust—though Lucas is rarely given lines to speak, so it is mostly an inferred defiance. I think i also perhaps confused the protagonist of The Stranger/The Outsider with the protagonist of Crime & Punishment, who is more jaded & kills the old woman just for the hell of it. Meursault's crime is not so much meaningless as incidental & he probably could've avoided punishment if he had just played the game. But Meursault is a strange one, who refuses to lie, who seems even incapable of lying. For this he is punished. In fact, it's funny that in his trial, the details of the crime are scarcely mentioned, but the inquisition is more about his behavior at his mother's funeral, how he doesn't mourn as he is expected to mourn, how he went to the beach the next day & met a girl, how he refuses to confess that he thinks his behavior odd, etc.
I only wish i could be as existential as Meursault, truly embrace that nothing matters & accept things for just what they are. To quit trying to change things or expect anything different, to think that «you could never change your life, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn't at all dissatisfied with mine here.» Like Meursault, I don't have any regrets about anything & somewhat like Meursault perhaps i have traded regret for annoyance, which i'm not so sure is such a good thing... not that regret is better. Meursault says he feels a kind of annoyance, but i'm not so sure this is true (or maybe it's more true in French). Seems more like he is just indifferent, lackadaisical, apathetic. There's not quite a word for it that i know of, at least in English. But he is also misunderstood. But not ungrateful or negative really. «There were others unhappier than I was. Anyway, it was an idea of mother's and she often used to repeat it, that you ended up getting used to everything.»
That's the crux of the book, what i took away from it upon this reading anyway, later in my life, not blinded anymore by this idealistic teenage notion of hope or there always being something better. This reading of the book, on a plane from Bangkok to Rome, in a time when all the Arabs in the world are inflamed by some stupid movie, protesting & burning American flags & killing people, etc. The same thing happened at some point with The Cure song Killing an Arab & The Cure were lame if you ask me & agreed to pull the song from the radio. While working out on our last day in Bangkok, i watched a BBC documentary about Salman Rushdie & his new book (Joseph Anton) which chronicles his experience after writing Satanic Verses (Joseph Anton being the assumed name he chose while in hiding—a hybrid between Joseph Conrad & Anton Chekov). Not that i ever read it or think i would even like it, but unbelievable that Muslims would get so incensed over a book. And speaking of being sentenced to death, that the Ayatollah Khomeini would care enough to condemn Rushdie as such. Or that they almost killed the Japanese & Norwegian translators. The translators! I guess you could see it as muslims having a profound reverence for the written word or other forms of media—that they would let it get under their skin as such, but seriously... get over it. Move on. Quit stooping lower than those that anger you. If i were going to choose a religion i would probably choose buddhism just because they are the only ones that are able to rise above it & not take themselves so fucking seriously or think their way is better than anyone else to the point that you would want to kill other people not like you. It's seriously just so fucking stupid it hurts your head to think about it.
What's funny is i re-read the book on a plane surrounded by a tour group of Malaysian muslims. At one point i went to use the bathroom & the latch was in the green 'unlocked' mode so i opened the door & inside was a squatting muslim woman fully covered from toe to the hijab on her head ... except for a flash of crotch which she was busy splashing down with water like they do, splashing crotch water all over the place for the rest of us to step or sit in (not that i don't think using toilet paper is even weirder)... before she saw me & let out a piercing scream that i'm sure the whole plane heard & probably thought i was trying to violate her or something. I felt terrible, i mean i'm sure she is going to whatever hell, especially being as it was a white dude with long hair & tattoos that glimpsed the hair beneath her hijab & then some, or she thinks i'm going to hell for witnessing her in such a state (which is fine by me). Here i was feeling guilty of a crime, of offending or violating this woman's rights, when she was in fact the one that didn't bother to lock the door (a Freudian slip perhaps?). But seriously, a crotch is a crotch, a head of hair is a head of hair, it doesn't mater what your religion is. We've all seen it before.
If there's anything to learn from Camus, it's that nothing matters. You get used to everything. No use getting your panties in a knot about it.