I sit now in an internet cafe in the lobby of my guesthouse in Thailand, land of Muy Thai kickboxing, peanut sauce, and delicious iced tea – And fully legal and government-supported gender reassignment operations, my Lonely Planet guide informs me. No wonder the Chinese folks I know who come back from this country are always talking about “Taiguo renyao,” which is to say Thai Transsexuals. (Actually to be precise, and I know some of you care about precision in matters like these, it’s “Thai Transvestites,” but whatever the differing psychologies it seems likely to me that a culture with a history of accepting out-and-out transvestitism would have less problem with transsexuals than the norm… but anyway, here I am writing on the clock (1 hr 52 min remaining of my purchased internet time as I finish this parenthetical) and within one paragraph I’ve already got myself from an internet cafe to transsexualism. The point of all this was to establish that the title of this particular volume in the Dispatches is now somewhat erroneous, but I’m not going to change it for numbering reasons. Those of you who grew up playing Japanese video games will understand that this is somewhat similar to how Mario III showed up in the US without a Mario II, or how “Secret of Mana” the gameboy game was renamed as “Final Fantasy Adventures”… Anyway. We enter the wayback machine – Cambodia!
More scene-setting, which I neglected to do in the previous e-mail: Siem Reap, which means “Thailand (Siam, Siem) Defeated” in Khmer (the name for the people, the language, the adjective for everything connected with their culture) is a small but fast-growing tourist town about three hours away from the Thai border, which is kind of like if Augusta, Maine were named “Scourge of Canadians” or something. The roads are paved, mostly, and sand is everywhere. It’s the dry season – after rains, the vegetation regains something of its normal unearthly green but here there’s a good bit of droopy, dry tan in anything and everything, even though the real dry stretches begin to the north and west, where everything fades into dust and cows stand like Pharoh’s lean kine by the side of the road. But back to Siem Reap: close-gathered, low buildings, a few tall luxury hotels on the outskirts. More tourists – read, foreigners, farang in Thai and something I can’t even begin to pronounce in Khmer, waiguoren in Chinese (though here they really feel more like Gringos; there’s a Mexican feel to the country in a way) – than I’ve seen in a long time, wandering around and for the most part glancing at each other and away, even in a crowd. People are here to see temples, and Cambodia and Cambodians, not ungainly hordes of French or Cantonese, well-mannered as they may be.
After an exhausting day of bicycle riding and accidents and hiking around temples in blinding sun (I have a tiny streak of sunburn now on my cheek where I didn’t rub in the sunscreen enough, looks like I got slapped in the side of the face by the edge of a clothes iron, but it’s fading, first time I’ve had real sunburn in years), we found ourselves the next morning in no good shape to ride more bicycles. My body ached from use, there was a yellowed raised bruise on my side in the exact location of the fourth stigmata, and my knees clicked when I straightened them; Carl felt the same way, minus the bruise, so instead of bikes we decided to ride a tuktuk, the local name for a motorcycle-pulled chariot.
Those of you who have visited me in China have run into the small green three-wheeled cars, essentially retrofitted motorcycles, that the locals call “little turtles”. Tuktuks actually have a full motorcycle in the front and a shaded, cushioned chariot car in the back, wheels and sun shade and all, open to the wind. Our driver, who ended up staying with us for the two-day excursion, introduced himself as Om, or possibly Ohm – a sharp-featured young man, 28 but barely five foot three, bristles at his chin but otherwise clean-shaven, wearing aviator sunglasses, dark as old wood. He drove us out to the temples, and as he was doing so, he set his cell phone down on the tuktuk behind him.
Now, Tuktuks are not particularly well-shock-absorbed, and they turn hard when they turn at all. They also lack railings of any kind, so when I saw the guy’s cell phone sitting on the metal plane behind him I reflexively reached forward to grab it and put it in my bag. The thing was a little heavier than it should have been, but that didn’t register. “Don’t worry!” Om said over the rush of air, followed by something else I didn’t quite get.
We arrived later at Preah Khan, surrounded by jungle and overgrown by ficus and silver cottonwood trees. This is one of the three temples you see pictures of, mired deep in ferns and vines with trees growing out of the structure, sometimes having toppled walls and collapsed roofs, towering cottonwoods and ficus. The trees were deposited as seeds by bird shit centuries ago, and grew in the moss of the abandoned temple, sending out taproots through the old cement and the sandstone until their root structure became one with the construction. Preah Khan, like the preponderance of Angkorian temples, was build on the orders of Jayavarman VII, the guy the guidebooks call the “Donald Trump of Angkor,” who directed teams of Thai slaves and Khmer artisans through the backbreaking work that must have been necessary to build these things. When you were a king of ancient Cambodia, I suppose, you weren’t in the habit of people telling you that maybe you didn’t need one more giant pyramid labyrinth-temple to your secret gods.
I gave Om his phone back before we entered the temple, not having looked at it in my hurry to stick it inmy bag before something horrible happened. He picked it up and smiled and showed it to me: the strangest phone in creation, with a bare keypad (no numbers or keys, only the circuit board you see after you pry the keys off an old solar calculator), an LED screen attached with what looked to have been rubber cement, an antenna that, when extended, was long enough to fence with. He flipped it over and showed me the magnets on the back of the phone, pressed it up against the side of the Tuktuk and watched it stick.
“I make this,” he said, in a strong Cambodian accent, “from rubbis.”
“Yes! From rubbis. On the ground. People do not use, I pick up. I study electronic. You see,” he holds the phone up to the light, and the charge indicator comes on. “Solar power! Also-” he turns it over, points to a green rectangle on the back- “razor, for shave face.”
“Yes!” Om is overjoyed that we are as excited by this as he is. “I make myself, just from rubbis, find this here, find that there-” and he does something quick with his hands, as if pressing a bunch of poker chips into a loose pile “-and have a phone!”
Om, it came out in the course of the day, is 28, no girlfriend – “In high school, I have girlfriend. When I was young. Now, no. My girlfriend, electronics! All the time, electronics. I sleep, I wake up – electronics.” He doesn’t talk about his family much; he was pressed into the army at 14 or 15, working as an engineer because of his natural aptitude for machines; he fixed cars and bombs, two of which blew up when he was working on them. He still has traces of shrapnel in his leg and his right arm, a scar over one eye, all healed, barely noticeable. “Then I was 18, I say, no army. Now, is good – not until 18, then army.” And a smile.
Om drove us through the temples for the rest of the day; he waited outside in a hammock as we went in and adventured. These temples were further back in the jungle, places like Preah Khan, not necessarily less touristed (more in some cases), but darker and maze-like, with more corners and piles of rubble you could clamor over and climb around and find yourself atop a wall or near an ancient reservoir or sacred temple-pool. Each temple once had its god, and its temple treasure, but treasures and gods alike are gone now, looted hundreds of years ago for art collectors or melted down to finance some mad war – you still see roadsigns urging people to turn over their weapons, between signs voicing support for the Cambodian People’s Party (the Communists, the old guard, currently dominant), Funcincpec (the moderates, ideology-bereft and drifting down), and the Sam Rainsy Party (founded by a Paris-educated accountant, anti-corruption, pro-democracy, on its way up); the billboards portray faceless hands delivering Kalashnikov rifles, .45 handguns, grenades, and other, darker ordinance to smiling, polite police figures. Some of the Gods remain, and the Goddesses, and the dancing goddess-angel Apsaras, in the bas relief carvings along the temple walls, though here too there has been much theft and literal defacement, heads of statues or relief carvings fetching more than the other parts of the body.
We saw many temples – mazes, schools, a Hospital Temple of purifying water that used to be located within a vast artificial lake (dry now), accessible only by boat, four pools oriented cardinally around a central pool of sacred water in the midst of which stood a model of holy Mt. Meru upheld by a Naga world-serpent; we road from temple to temple on the Tuktuk, singing, first Johnny Cash, then the Beatles, then some Wheezer (I want to get back to the good life…). Om joined in with renditions of Khmer folk songs, and flashed us the thumbs up.
At the end of the day we sat in front of the Palace of High Justice as the sun went down, and before us the lake where the King and his family used to bath rippled in the purpling light. “What you do, Car?” Om asked Carl.
“I’m a philosopher,” Carl said. “I study things.”
“I study things too,” he said. “I study Soclatee.”
“Yes, yes. Also,” he says with a big smile, “I study Hitler!”
“Hitler says good things about how to make the country strong.”
And it proceeds from there. After a while of dancing around the issue it becomes clear that Om has been reading Hitler because he wants to make Cambodia strong – otherwise, Thailand will invade, or Vietnam again. And to make Cambodia strong, he must lie, and gain power around himself, and then take the government, and make the government strong, and…
Yeah. I was starting to get unsettled too. And so was he – here was this guy, saluditorian of his high school class (after a girl he regards as a complete natural, brilliant, gifted), trying to think his way through politics and he’d hit on the first fellow he could find who had something to say about making his nation strong. That talk is seductive.
“Cambodia has to be strong so if anyone tries to hit us, we can hit them back!”
A girl came up to me and tried to sell me a bamboo bracelet; the sun tended lower towards the horizon. “What if nobody is going to attack you, Om?”
“Thailand and Vietnam both sell you millions of dollars of goods a year, and send you lots of tourists. China too. And you sell them rice, you sell them the chance to see Angkor Wat – and soon, maybe you’ll sell them more things.”
“Like your cell phone! Or anything else you make. Someone in Cambodia is going to start selling things to Thailand, to Vietnam, and then they won’t want to go to war with you. They’ll want to trade with you. Everybody gets money, everyone gets strong, everyone wins. If it’s fighting, it’s just like the old days – you attack Thailand, Thailand attacks you, back and forth, lots of people die, everyone looses.”
Simplistic? Maybe. But a light goes off in his brain, and in his face, and he says: “So we can be great and strong, without lying and killing?”
The sun set, and the after-light was left. Somewhere, the bats were flowing like a black river in the sky from their roosts in Angkor Wat. “Yes,” I said. I was pretty sure.
“I think this…” He pointed his finger up in the air, smiling, “I think this is good idea! I think we can not go to war!”
“I hope not.” And Carl and I shook hands with him, all of us smiling, and we stood and walked back to the Tuktuk.
“Hitler is bad.”
“That’s right,” we assured him as we rode back.
And of course it’s not over there (though my time for the night is about up and I must needs go to sleep – long day of massages, movie theaters, and kickboxing tomorrow); that night, unexpectedly, we saw friends in Siem Reap, Esther Young from Yale calling to me across a crowded street and me turning to see her and stand amazed for a second at coincidence, merging to long hours talking around a guesthouse table drinking cheap Angkor beer and the fruit shakes that flow freely here, tart and delicious. The next day, it rained, we headed out to the sticks, saw a beautifully carved sandstone temple (Bantay Srei). I gave money to a girl, a land mine victim, face melted to slag and lower lip swollen and huge and sagging, nose almost gone. I wish I could say 100% that I gave the money to her because I wanted to be charitable, and not because I didn’t want to see her face in my dreams…
We drove then even further, down dusty side roads out to Kbal Spen, the mountain where the River of a Thousand Linga runs, ancient carvings up amid the cottonwood trees far from any dwelling of man, where great grasses that look like a mix between bamboo and cattails sway in jungle-alpine meadows and water runs over one thousand carvings of Siva’s penis (stylized of course), and over the sleeping body of Vishnu, who in his rising from slumber will usher in the Kali Yuga that ends this phase of this turn of the wheel of the cosmos. A young game ranger – 26, but looking 14, some inches shorter than Om and lean, a mountain-climber with limbs made from rubber bands – climbed with us, and when we passed shrines with lit candles he took off his hat and paused to pray; beautiful, but we needed to pay a $5 bribe to the park police to get in at all and almost passed it up.
As evening approached we took the Tuktuk back to Siem Reap and passed the girl with the melted face walking home, slowly, staggering, at least two miles up the road from the temple site where I had seen her earlier. She was gone in a rush. Maybe she was going home.
I think this is good idea. I think we can not go to war.
When we reached Siem Reap the bats were flying. We ate some curry, I found some books in a local bookshop (including old Zelazneys that have been out of print for a while – The Dream Master, which won the Hugo, and The Hand of Oberon in its 1970 black cover, which didn’t win anything but was worth a reread), and we headed to bed.
And of course Thailand is similar in some ways but completely different in others, neon and pastel where China is red and obsessive gold – but that’s a story for two days from now, when I know more.