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Angkor wattage & the agrAryan root of ruin, Siam-reaping the smell of Faulkner & bang-cocking in on an unlocked Camus

angkor thom

root wall grid

27-29 Sept 2012. Siem Reap, Cambodia

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.

root of ruin

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.

siam reap air

approaching Siem Reap

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.

tree root door

doorway to what wat?

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)).

angkor wat bodacious

the first of many bodacious Aspara

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.

angkor watthe actual angkor wat


anchored sky

looking down off Angkor Wat

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.

Nāga relief

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.

white horse angkor wat

white horse that seemed to be on his last day

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.

cambodian text

Khmer text

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.

angkor watter

pillaged lion statue & wat water (the entire Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by a square lake/moat)

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).

angkor thom

up on the Angkor Thom gate

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.

So you been to school for a year or two
And you know you've seen it all
In daddy's car, thinking you'll go far
Back east where your type don't crawl

Playing ethnicky jazz, to parade your snazz
On your five grand stereo
Bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold
And the slums got so much soul

It's time to taste, what you most fear
Right Guard, will not help you here

Brace yourself, my dear:

It's a holiday in Cambodia
It's tough, kid, but it's life
It's a holiday in Cambodia
Don't forget to pack a wife

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).

angkor thom bridge

on the bridge to Angkor Thom


bayon head

ground control to Angkor Thom

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).

pol pot skulls

some of the victims of the Pol Pot reign

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?).

fish with flashlight eyes

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).

bayon head

The Angkor Thom complex is the largest one, we made the rounds, ending at the terraces of the elephants & leper kings.


recontrived temple interior


moldy mural

the various colors (including red) are different molds


leper king

in the maze of the Leper Terrace


mossy woman

one of the many mossy & typically curvacious Apsara

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).

root ruin

at the root of ruin


ta prohm


root of ruin

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.

ta prohm tree


root doorway


corner root


ta prohm

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.


Koulen Cambodian dancing

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.

buffalo ruins

water buffalo grazing outside Pre Rup

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:

«...the empty fields themselves in each of which on this day at this hour on the second Monday in May there should have been fixed in monotonous repetition the land's living symbol—a formal group of ritual almost mystic significance identical and monotonous as milestones tying the county-seat to the county's ultimate rim as milestone would: the beast the plow and the man integrated in one foundationed into the frozen wave of their furrow tremendous with effort yet at the same time vacant of progress, ponderable immovable and immobile like groups of wrestling statuary set against the land's immensity ... »

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):

«'This country's got half of a hundred and forty-two thousand acres to plant yet. Somebody's got to stay home and work:'—the car rushing boring up so that across the field's edge and the perhaps fifty yards separating them he and the Negro behind the plow looked eye to eye into each other's face before the Negro looked away—the face black and gleamed with sweat and passionate with effort, tense concentrated and composed, the car flashing past and on while he leaned first out the open window to look back then turned in the seat to see back through the rear window, watching them still in their rapid unblurred diminishment—the man and the mule and the wooden plow which coupled them furious and solitary, fixed and without progress in the earth, leaning terrifically against nothing.»

cambodia mule

Cambodian mules (i.e. water buffalos)

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 then the dense line of river jungle itself: and beyond that stretching away east and north and west not merely to where the ultimate headlands frowned back to back upon the vast of the two oceans and the long barrier of Canada but to the uttermost rim of earth itself, the North: not north but North, outland and circumscribing and not even a geographical place but an emotional idea, a condition of which he had fed from his mother's milk to be ever and constant on the alert not at all to fear and not actually anymore to hate but just—a little wearily sometimes and sometimes even with tongue in cheek—to defy: who had brought from infancy with him a childhood's pictured which on the threshold of manhood had found no reason or means to alter either: a curving semicircular wall not high (anyone who really wanted to could have climbed it; he believed that any boy already would) from the top of which with the whole vast scope of their own rich teeming never-ravaged land of glittering undefiled cities and unburned towns and unwasted farms so long-secured and opulent you would think there was no room left for curiosity, there looked down upon him and his countless row on row of faces which resembled his face and spoke the same language he spoke and at times even answered to the same names he bore yet between whom and him and his there was no longer any real kinship and soon there would not even be any contact since the very mutual words they used would no longer have the same significance and soon after that even this would be gone because they would be too far asunder even to hear one another: only the massed uncountable faces looking down at him and his in fading amazement and outrage and frustration and most curious of all, gullibility: a volitionless almost helpless capacity and eagerness to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough and strange enough: whereupon once more his uncle spoke at complete one with him and again without surprise he saw his thinking not be interrupted but merely swap one saddle for another: ....»

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.

viney ruin

looking thru the bramble

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:

«... that smell which if it were not for something that was going to happen to him within a space of time measurable now in minutes he would have gone to his grave never once pondering speculating if perhaps that smell were really not the odor of a race nor even actually of poverty but perhaps of a condition: an idea: a belief: an acceptance, a passive acceptance by them themselves of the idea that being Negroes they were not supposed to have facilities to wash properly or often or even to wash bathe often even without the facilities to do it with; that in fact it was a little to be preferred that they did not. But the smell meant nothing now or yet; it was still an hour yet before the thing would happen and it would be four years more before he would realise the extent of its ramifications and what it had done to him and he would be a man grown before he would realise, admit that he had accepted it. So he just smelled it and then dismissed it because he was used to it, he had smelled it off and on all his life and would continue to: [...] He had smelled it forever, he would smell it always; it was a part of his inescapable past... »

moldy facade

30 Sept 2012. Bangkok back to Rome

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.

camdodian cockCambodian cock (not a bang-cock or even a cock-asian)

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.

tree wall brace

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.

 >> next up: Lalibela reading Coetzee & breaking the experience hoarding & self-editing cycle

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