China Dispatch vol. 3 Special Cambodia Edition #2: “If we light incense in all the temples, a secret door will open…”

The motorcycle crashed into the back of my white $2 bicycle and the bike skidded on the road and I flew, thinking to myself: “this would be a stupid way to die.”  (I didn’t, as you have probably assumed by now, unless you’re one of those folks who believe the Dead can Talk to Us on the Internet.)


The only similar experience I can remember was last summer in Mongolia.  After a long day’s horseback riding in the cool dry air over the endless steppe, our group kicked into a gallop across an apparently safe valley.  One needs to be careful when riding horseback under the best conditions, but Mongolia has a special hazard: the marmot, essentially an ornery tan buck-toothed chipmunk the size of a small bulldog.  Marmots are scavengers and nocturnal and generally wouldn’t be much of a problem, except that they’re also virtuoso diggers, and when they dig, they dig holes big and deep enough for a chipmunk the size of a small bulldog to fit down comfortably.  And as the Mongolian landscape is mostly flat, these holes are nearly impossible to see until you’re on top of them.

I didn’t even see this one.  All I saw was that my horse Hongrr (Blood of Heroes, was what the horsemaster told me, or also My Darling) was stumbling on something, collapsing forward onto his knees, and I was in the air.  That time, I was saved by, of all things, Aikido class – I went loose and held my arm out loosely curved but firm, and when it touched the ground the rest of my body followed the curve and I found myself on my feet again, steady enough (at least until the adrenaline wore off and I started shaking in the saddle) to turn and grab Hongrr’s reigns before he could shy away.

This time, with a motorcycle essentially entangled side-to-side with my bike, and at an elevation of maybe three feet as opposed to the seven on horseback, there was no finesse involved.  The bike skidded onto its side as if it were trying to slide into second, my face went toward the asphalt, my hands came up, and the left handle of the bike plunged into my side – not breaking the skin, but giving me a nasty bruise that is even now, ten hours later, only slowly rising to the surface.

And – and this is the weird thing – that was it.  The bike was fine (bumped up, but fine).  My hands hit before my face, and even they have only tiny scratches; I hurt myself worse falling on a run back in Anhui.  The bike jammed into my external obliques, just *below* those floating ribs every karate teacher tells his students to aim for in practice.  I stood up immediately, took the bike to the side of the road, and caught my breath, as Carl grabbed my glasses and my hat where they’d fallen on the road.  The motorcycle driver was angry (it was a weird accident, he was trying to pass around me as I was trying to turn, but there was no signalling involved, none of the omnipresent horns that people joke about hearing whenever they’re in a Chinese city – I’m never going to laugh at the horn use again, though I haven’t gotten angry at them since I figured out what they were for…), but Cambodian, and in Southeast Asia they’re very serious about not showing anger in public.  Smiles from me, smiles from him, “Are you okay?” “I’m fine, how are you?” “I hit my side, but I don’t think it’s serious.  How is your motorcycle?”  Five dollars from me to him to pay for cosmetic damages to his bike (that’s enough to fix such things here, I checked later), and we were done.  In China, this would have involved at least twenty minutes of us screaming at each other in Chinese, and woe betide me if I didn’t speak enough Chinese to communicate how furious I was with him or understand how furious he was with me.

There are tons of little differences like that between Cambodia and China, things that fly under the radar for the first two days or so when you’re so busy walking around and looking at how hot it is or how old the temples are.  First, everyone here speaks English – in fact everyone here speaks English on par with most rural English teachers in China.  Second, that thing everyone tells you about how you’re not supposed to get angry in Asia, because you’ll lose face?  Totally true for Cambodia at least.  Nothing could be further from the truth in Mainland China, where people get in flamboyant knock-down drag-out fights over a five kuai discrepancy in the bill, or somebody trying to charge them a little too much for a soda.  Maybe this is the result of Communism in China, maybe the Chinese generally are less concerned about face than Cambodians.  I don’t know.  Third, the chickens.  In China chickens are like ours in the States, or at least how we imagine ours look in the States to be even if most stateside chickens actually exist on life-support in agrobiz farms (if you believe the media): red and brown, large-ish (shin height), disgruntled.  Chickens in Cambodia look like small turkey vultures: long legs, fast runners, agile, lizardlike necks, wide wings, and black enough to use as a voodoo sacrifice.  It might be that that’s struck me the most, more even than the fikus and banyan trees: the different chickens.

The wreck dealt with, Carl and I continued on to buy our tickets and explore the temple city complexes of Angkor Wat.  And as we did so, we realized what had caused the bike to wreck, outside of course of all the usual factors: evil temple spirits.

Because this is the kind of place that *has* Evil Temple Spirits.  It’s also the kind of place that has irate giant Shiva statue golems, Cambodian warrior zombies, giant rolling stone boulders, and a John Williams theme cued at the appropriate moment, or a treasure chest down the side route that you know when you see it won’t lead out of the level.  Angkor is ancient – temples built over a time span of around 400 years, nearly a millenium ago, practically as old as Oxford – and Angkor is immense, but it only became known to Westerners after a visiting French friar published his memoirs in 1868.  French explorers visited it as they searched up the Mekong for a hidden water route into China, shades of the Northwest Passage in Canada, and in the early 20th Century restoration work started, and preservation against the jungle.  The French left in 1970 only to come back and resume restoration and preservation in 1995.

But it’s difficult to recapture now what those original explorers saw when they came up the Tuol Sap lake and trekked through marsh and jungle to these ruined cities and vast temples.  Not because restoration has harmed the landscape, or even tourism, but because this place (and places like it) have grown so large in our collective cultural imagination.  Indiana Jones runs through the corridors I walked through today, forever; countless zombies have been fought in countless video games.  Children dream of great stone faces in the jungle.  As I rode up the Tuol Sap on small, blue-and-white sliver of speedboat, sunning myself on the roof because I didn’t have a ticket to sit inside and glad of it (the inside windows were tinted orange and there was a strange smell, giving the entire space the air of an infernal waiting room), stilt-houses and boat-houses passing on the shore as we proceeded inland, reading once in a while from the New Science of Giambatista Vico and from rich, self-indulgent Saul Bellow, the great question in my mind was just how much was real, and how much fiction created by overenthusiastic Hollywood propmasters.

The answer is: it’s pretty much all real.  That is, I haven’t gotten chased by zombies or sword-fought giant Shiva golems – YET – but I know such things are waiting for me around every corner.  Consider Angkor Wat, the City-Temple, or the City that became a Temple, basking and burning in morning sunlight, accessible only by ancient stone causeway across its great moat, the causeway guarded by lions and those multi-headed cobra Naga god-guardians I have mentioned before.  The structure is four stories high and carved, everywhere carved, on the outside with some Buddhas (no Bodhisatvas – this is a Theravada Buddhist country, where monks sit in temples and read scriptures and aim at the snuffing out of the lamp and the end of eternal consciousness, check please) in some places – Angkor was a Vishnu temple first, then three hundred years later coopted as a Buddhist temple – but mostly with Aspara, the divine dancing girl nymphs who thronged these temples in the Old Days, before the Thai invaded and carried them away.  Inside the gaping stone mouths of the main gate, you proceed across a great field down a causeway lined with gods, to the rising temple-mountain pyramids inside the temple complex proper – the entire outer wall that you’ve just been staring at in awe is just the fence.

Angkor Wat, like most temples no matter the religion or gods involved, is a holograph of the universe: whenever you regard one aspect of it the entire cosmic picture becomes clear.  The dimensions of each section of the temple are tied to the four Ages of the Universe in Hindu cosmology, so that as you proceed inward you are moving back in time to the beginning of the universe, when all was Brahman.  And with moat outside, and lakes inside, and the pyramid-mounds at the very center, it is also a picture of the Hindu world, centered around Mt. Mehru over which the Gods and Demons fought a great tug-of-war match at the dawn of history, each side pulling on one end of the Naga world-serpent until the mountain itself began to tremble, then shift from side to side, churning the seas like a bucket of milk.  And then, to make everything right, Vishnu incarnated as a giant tortoise to support the mountain even after it had broken free of its earthly mooring.

Walking through the inner sanctum we speculated: what went on here?  What rituals were celebrated, what worship conducted, what games played?  Were heads kicked down the steep stone steps?  Temple orgies (the cult of Vishnu was far from the 10th century Cult of Shiva, which thought of all the universe as coitus of Shiva and Uma his consort, but it was pretty sexy in its own right, especially with all the Aspara)?  Guidebooks have been consulted, but are silent.  There are no depictions of ritual that we could find in the bas relief carvings, but there are plenty of war, and of heaven and hell.  One entire wall is the final Battle of Truth scene from the Mahabarata, two great armies of Dhritarashtrids and Pandavids locked in mortal combat with elephants and weapons and magic and hands and feet and teeth, no two figures the same.  Mind-blowing.

Angkor Wat, it must be noted, is more than just the one temple you’ve seen pictures of.  It’s a vast temple-city complex, including the Wat to the south, and to the North the 10 square kilometer fortified city of Angkor Thom, the capital of Jayavarman VII from whose personality emanated a great portion of the works here.  His were the Terrace of the Leper King, where a statue defaced by time watches over what must have been an army parade ground, next to the long Elephant Terrace where stone-carved pachyderms watch passerby.  And his was Bayon – my personal favorite temple so far.  This is the one with the faces.

Bayon was the spiritual center of Jayavarman VII’s world, and his empire (including 54 provinces, over half of which have since been reconquered by Vietnam and Thailand).  There are 54 towers, each tower with four sides, each side with a giant face.  The outer wall is in a poor state of repair, so visitors can clamor through whichever part they so choose – but everywhere is Observed.  There is no place within this entire maze that is out of the view of some God or other; even seemingly dark passageways have discrete viewing holes cut in their top through which the stone faces could, had they eyes to truly see, stare down at you and judge.  They smile, and you think you are loved, but it’s a creepy effect.

There was, Carl reminds me, a 19th century prison concept, championed by Lord Byron’s crazy wife, called the Panopticon.  Prisoners would be held in a series of cells organized radially around a central empty shaft, cut off from one another but for the wall which faced inward.  Up the center of the hollow prison tower rose a black spire of one-way glass, in which the wardens sat.  At any time, any prisoner could be observed by the wardens, for any reason, and the prisoner would have no way of knowing.  The idea, the Panopticon’s proponents would say, was to remind the prisoners of the omnipresence of divine justice.  It sounds, to me at least, terrifying.

And this is one aspect of the world presented in the Bayon temple.  Eyes everywhere, benevolent eyes but omnipresent, and omniscient, and omnipotent.  In the world you are always in view of a network of gods, aloof, watching, judging – or, equally likely the purpose of the structure, you are always in the eyes of the King, who watches you and judges you and has complete power over your life and death, should he choose to exercise that power.

So yes, impressive, even beautiful, but, as I said, creepy.  The stares of the statues made me feel unclean – of course I *was* unclean, covered with sweat and dirt and sunburned (Cambodia’s tropical if not equatorial, and the sun here is powerful stuff), but this was uncleanliness of the more moral sort.  And around every corner, the constant worry: Cambodian warrior zombies now?  No… how about *now*?  It didn’t help that the holes in the ceiling and the gaps between walls and tower made the entire place feel like a Prince of Persia level.

In repose atop an ancient stone monolith, Carl and I discussed the religious/existential thinking inherent in video games, where doing something like lighting incense can have long-ranging effect on what really happens in the real world – see comment in subject matter.  Sympathetic magic works, and what we do in Important Places *matters*.  So in some ways games give us practice for a certain kind of religious thinking.  Or existentialist/absurdist thinking, c.f. Mario, working man in strange world filled with critters that can and will kill him but are absolutely ridiculous, turtles, carnivorous mushrooms, always running, and when he gets to the goal – love, political power – he finds it’s actually in the next castle over.  Or maybe I’m overthinking this…

At last, exhausted, we returned to the guesthouse, my body aching all over.  It was only around 3:30 but it felt like 5:00, so early did we rise and so intense was the sun.  I had a fruit smoothie (they have amazing fruit smoothies here), and fell into the sleep of the exhausted pilgrim.  And now it’s 8 pm and I’m alive and I’ve seen the temples and I’m going to get some dinner.  Tomorrow, more temples, more exploration, hopefully 100% fewer bicycle accidents.  All this is still bouncing around in my head, with the images from Tuol Sleng and the landmine and snakebite victims we pass on the road, Aspara dancers and local dancers and prostitutes, and I’m not certain what to make of it or that I need to make anything of it.  Pilgrimage is about integration, pulling things that are bigger than you into yourself and making yourself bigger in the meantime.  So we’ll see.

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