Among the Living and the Dead of Angkor Wat

by Pico Iyer. Shambhala Sun, March 2001

Pico Iyer visits Cambodia's famed monument and ponders the conundrums of travel-cell phones and ancient spirits, killing fields and champagne breakfasts, beauties past and tragedies present.

Eyes followed me everywhere I walked around the half-lit monuments of Angkor-out of darkened doorways, out of openings in the carvings of devils and dolls, out of little Buddhist shrines illuminated by the flicker of a guttering candle. An old crone waved an incense stick at me as if it were a curse, and another, her lips stained red with betel nut, spat out what looked like blood. Everywhere, soldiers were standing in the shadows of the temple, scarcely discernible by candlelight, and a white-robed soothsayer, in a sudden patch of sunlight, was dealing out futures to villagers. The Buddhas I saw in corners were not serene or reassuring presences, as they might be in other parts of Asia. They were often skeletal, or pinch-faced, like wraiths in some complex pagan pageant (as befits, perhaps, an area that went from Hindu to Buddhist to Hindu to animist monuments during the six centuries of its creation). All around the scores of temples scattered across 77 square miles of jungle in northwestern Cambodia were images of snakes, of leper kings, temples to Yama, God of the Dead.

"Look, there are demons here, look," said my guide as he pointed out the frescoes that twist and swarm across the sprawling complex known as the Bayon. Indeed, there were demons everywhere. Every time I got out of my car, wild and dusty children swarmed around me, like spirits of the jungle, waving Buddhist amulets at me, waving fans and postcards, calling out, "Mister, mister, only one dollar." Their sweet, strange faces seemed spooked, of a piece with the ancient carvings all around, and if I said no to one, her features would scrunch up till they looked like a howl, and her eyes themselves a hiss.
From the trees all around came the chattering of green parrots, and in and out of all the stone corridors of the temple, children were slipping and slithering, parroting back the sad excuses of foreigners with an eerie exactness: "You come back tomorrow, you buy from me?" "You buy T-shirt, you buy only from me? Sir, sir, you buy from me?"

On New Year's Day I drove out into the darkness with a handful of others, a lonely winking light from a policeman on a motorbike in front of us guiding us through the dark. At 4 a.m. or so, we disembarked near the temple of Preah Khan, a 12th-century Buddhist monastery almost enfolded in jungle. We each were handed an oil lamp and invited to walk into the night.

We walked and walked, through a long avenue of candles, the forest buzzing on every side, the trickle of lamps in front and behind flickering like fireflies. Into the heart of the old, half-ruined building, up unpaved steps, through a chattering of crickets from the silk and cotton trees nearby. Through a chamber for Buddha, another for animist spirits, a sudden phallic Shiva shrine. Every now and then, by the light of candles placed in the broken windows, we could see a man watching in the dark, a child creeping out from behind a pillar.

Finally, after forty-five minutes of walking through the lane of lights, we came into an open space at the far edge of the eastern causeway to see white-cloth tables and all the appurtenances of a sumptuous New Year's Day champagne breakfast laid out in the jungle (put on, free-of-charge, by the Grand Hotel d'Angkor). And slowly, as the light seeped into the area-with a group of Cambodians gathering on a ridge above us, in cowboy hats and baseball caps and the red-and-white scarves associated with the Khymer Rouge-we watched the features of the ancient structure emerge from the trees and come into sharper focus.

Then, suddenly, from a nearby courtyard, we heard the sound of traditional Cambodian instruments. We followed our ears to the Hall of Dancers, where a group of tiny children from a local school was performing angel dances in the place erected for such rites eight centuries before.

I brought, I suppose, an active imagination to Cambodia, and all the associations built up over years of the great extended holocaust of my lifetime, the Khmer Rouge (like those encamped nearby) having killed one-and-a-half million of their countrymen or more in the fields of Cambodia, those around Angkor included. But still, I had gone there with no particular expectations, simply to accompany my mother to the legendary religious site she had been dreaming of since she was a little girl.

In the other old monuments of the world-Machu Picchu, Borobodur, the pyramids of Yucatan and Egypt, Rome-I had been forcibly reminded how insensitive I am to history; they were living places, certainly, charged with memories of all that had taken place there, but I had left them feeling that they were of interest mostly to historians or sightseers.

Angkor, however, was different. It was alive, for one thing, electric with the unburied presences of the jungle all around, the soil, the long-ago workers who had built temples across an area twice the size of Manhattan, and the blood-soaked fields all around. Angkor was the shrill whine of cicada bells issuing from the trees, and the little girl who put a pink water pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger. It was the bullet holes in the temples and the marks left by recent tanks, and the creepers enfolding the shrines of the "holy city" (as "Angkor" truly means), the finger-like roots swallowing up lichened archways, the protruding branches encircling a face of Vishnu, snake-like vines threatening to pull the buildings back and back into the forest.

At times there is an overpowering sense of Eden to Angkor-the virgin light falling through the trees, the houses on stilts above the green paddies, the water buffalo chomping along immemorially beside Tonle Sap lake. But look a little closer, and you notice a one-legged man hobbling towards you with a dirty cup extended, or a swan-necked girl following your every movement from afar. Walking along the national highway, unpaved just a few minutes out of town, you can feel yourself in some sepia-colored dream of a temple in a jungle from an earlier time. But tugging at you from the edge of the idyll is a girl who stops at the waist, rolling towards you in her aged wheelchair, and pulling you back into something primeval-atavistic-where all the lights are turned off and you can't tell right from wrong.

The reason I had gone to Angkor now was that, for the first time in my memory, it had become possible to visit the embattled monuments with relative ease. For years I'd been trying to fix up a trip for my mother, but every time I was about to make our reservations, fighting would break out again, or some political convulsion would yank the country back into the darkness, behind the creepers. The area around Angkor is still not entirely safe-2.6 million land mines remain unexcavated there, I was told, and it could take twenty years at least to find them all-and the political situation is still as changeable as the wind. But now, for the first time since 1969, there are direct flights from Bangkok to Siem Reap (the provincial town four miles from Angkor Wat), allowing you to bypass the tumult of the rest of Cambodia. And, as of the last day of 1997, the Raffles International Group of Singapore has reopened the restored Grand Hotel d'Angkor, a sumptuous French Colonial palace built in 1929, and now a luxe hommage to the nostalgia of Indochina, all wicker chairs and slowly turning fans and teak paneling, a vision of Banana Republic chic.

Knowing that Angkor had been cut off from the world for more than twenty years, and knowing that it could disappear again at any moment, if not through the intermittent fighting nearby, or the simple encroachments of the jungle, then through the sheer press of human bodies, I told my mother we should go now. Angkor would never be frictionless, I thought, but it would surely never be much more accessible than now.

I think of myself as a relative veteran of the moral and political conundrums of visiting difficult and wounded countries-in Tibet and Burma and Cuba, I had visited every corner of the debate about whether to go to a land in which almost every penny you spend will go towards a government that is oppressing its people and destroying its culture. I'm used to those wrenching forms of calculation whereby one tries to puzzle out how much one is helping those in need with cash and information and visions of a distant world (changing their own home in the process) and how much one is harming them. Yet I've seldom felt the ache so plaintively as in the Grand Hotel, where every $6 cup of coffee costs as much as the average Cambodian earns in a month (and the $1400 a visitor may spend on a bathrobe in one of the elegant boutiques could support a whole village for a year).

Sometimes I stood on the terrace of my beautifully appointed room-all wooden desks and framed prints, with copies of the Herald Tribune flown into the gleaming Business Center every day-and watched the workers far below, crouching down to make the four formal gardens, the jogging track, the 20,000 trees around the swimming pool and the pavilioned spa immaculate. As soon as the hotel walls ended, the overgrowth began again, and there was nothing in the distance but a rusted ferris wheel.

When you visit Angkor Wat, the glorious centerpiece of the Khmer Empire (so central to the country's sense of itself that it has appeared on five consecutive national flags), you find yourself walking through a long causeway of the crippled: a boy grins at you from a broken wheelchair, a man with stumps for legs holds out his hand for help, others in khaki fatigues like ghosts from the time of Pol Pot smile over their souvenirs, and little girls with cataracts play with monkeys on a string.

It's a transporting thing to come upon the vivid carvings of the temple that take you up, up, up the chambers filled with gods and candles, to a roof from which you can see across the trees (the Buddhas around you sitting under the protective hood of a cobra). Yet it is a desperately poignant thing, too, to see the children, with faces that are unnaturally old (and bodies that seem unnaturally young), calling out, in all the languages of the world, "Hello papa! Madame, madame! Esta bella!"

What I had learned by day, then, was supplemented by the lessons of the night. In the blue tropical mornings and afternoons, I took in the wonders of the past; after nightfall, I returned to the hotel, paged through a copy of The Merchant of Venice in its paneled library, and mused on all the riddles of the present. To give money to that little girl whose face looked as if it had been defaced by acid might be, inadvertently, to give money to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who were still shadowing the country; yet to withhold money from her might be to hasten her decline. And why give it to her and not the man on crutches, or the blind father wailing a plaintive melody? Cambodia is a kind of emotional puzzle with spikes, and anyone who puts his hand into it emerges with bloodied fingers.

The locals I met, of course, seemed to see only good in tourist faces. "Now is a marvelous time for us," said a young friend named Phalla, one lazy afternoon in Siem Reap. "Now we have cell phones; three years ago, only guns. When I came to Siem Reap, ten years ago, we never saw a foreigner." For Phalla, clearly, tourism was a blessing from the heavens, offering him opportunities that had not been known in the Cambodia of his lifetime. He had picked up English (and watched CNN every morning over breakfast in a tiny local cafe); he dreamed of setting up his own travel agency.

"Tourism is good for us," he went on, echoing the New Year spirit. "We worry about our monuments, the conservation; but we are happy that the money is here, even if only 7%, 8% goes to the temples." When Pol Pot instituted his Year Zero in 1975, people were routinely executed for wearing glasses, for speaking English, even for having gone to school. To this day, therefore, Cambodia is even more desperate than its status as the poorest country in the world outside Africa (in per capita terms) suggests. By the time Pol Pot returned to the jungle in 1979, there were scarcely 300 people in the whole country who had received higher education.

And when I looked at the little girls selling postcards for $1 a set, I wondered what alternatives they really had. If they weren't living off visitors, how would they be living at all-given that their fields, their lakes, their villages had been devastated? Tourism was turning the children into parasites, yet the absence of tourism might turn them into skeletons. (It was striking, too, to see how these kids with no formal schooling were picking up bits of Japanese, French, Italian and English). Give money officially to Cambodia (as the UN had done recently, to the tune of $2 billion), and it promptly disappears inside the coffers of those who need it least; put it in the hands of a child in a T-shirt with a skull on it, and at least it seems to go to someone who needs it.

At the Grand Hotel, the workers in the hallways, achingly sweet and eager to please-every time I passed them in the corridor, they would stop what they were doing to smile and wish me a good evening-seemed glad of the chance to have any work, and to expand their horizons. Most of them had learned English only because they had been forced out of their country to refugee camps in Thailand, where English was taught. On New Year's Day, they placed candles in lotus leaves and sent them floating across the hotel swimming pool, turning the night into a field of little lights.

The people who officially oversee the "City of Monasteries"-Auctorite Apsara, as the signs on the vans say-try hard to ensure that tourism does not overrun the mysterious site: so far they have resisted the idea of a Sound and Light show at Angkor Wat lest it damage the sandstone walls, and they try to enforce strict rules over all the new buildings that are coming up. (The road from the airport into town is lined with multi-story new palaces being built-all hotels, but all constructed by decree in traditional Khmer style). Good will, however, is powerless against sheer need, especially in a country as broken as Cambodia: when a foreign company comes in and wants to build a hotel larger than four stories, all it needs to do is place a few coins in the right palm, and suddenly the rules are forgotten.

"There are serious, serious problems connected with mass tourism," I heard on New Year's Day from a foreign archaeologist at Angkor, one of the many overseas workers who are working heroically to protect Cambodia's monuments and its people. "But so long as some of the money goes to Cambodians, it does some good. They may get a museum going; they may start returning statues from the Conservation Office stores to the sites." Right now, the fact remains that one of the most astonishing World Heritage Monuments on the planet still lacks a real museum on site, or any kind of Visitors' Center from which to get reliable information or help.

A visit to Angkor Wat at sunset is already a journey through a mini-Coney Island of sightseers and tour buses and legless Cambodians trying to make contact with them. Urchins come up to you with postcards, soft drinks, guide books. "Onne-san! Nomimono? Mitte, kudasai!" ("Sister, you want a drink? Look, please look," in Japanese). A trio of broken men plays stringed instruments, and toddlers use the discarded boxes of Kodak film as toys.

"You remember me?" a little girl cries out in the failing light. "I saw you yesterday, Preah Khan. Yesterday you say tomorrow. Sir, you remember me?"

The final complication of Angkor, of course, is that the temples themselves are as vulnerable as the country around them, and the government's very realization that Angkor is its greatest asset has done as much to imperil the monuments as to protect them. Ever since the temples were first built, more than a millennium ago, they have been a prime target for looters, often from abroad-even Andre Malraux, later France's Minister of Culture, was apprehended trying to smuggle nearly a ton of statues out of Angkor in 1924-and the chaos and desperation of recent decades have only intensified the pillage. Even now, many-ton statues (hardly easy to transport across borders surreptitiously) suddenly show up in Bangkok antique rooms, while other priceless antiquities are found in the jungle, broken, a few hundred yards from where they sat for centuries. As recently as 1993, the Khmer Rouge were holding the exquisite temple of Banteay Sari hostage-close to fifty land mines have since been excavated there-and seemed ready to take Siem Reap. And when the guerrillas are not looting the temples for their own gain, the equally penniless military men are doing so, with the help of power drills.

In Preah Khan, the Buddhist training center where I saw in the New Year (another likely target for Khmer Rouge guns in 1993), a British archaeologist, helped by the World Monuments Fund and the Ministry of Culture, has been working for years to restore it to the state of a "partial ruin" and to train a new generation of Cambodians to appreciate and tend to their heritage. Now, though, the government wishes to cut down some beautiful 200-year-old trees to ensure the safety of the Hall of Dancers, leaving all who care about Cambodia in an agonizing position: to protect the temple is to damage the environment, and yet to do honor to Nature is to imperil Art. And to worry about either can seem almost obscene when 40,000 people in the area are limbless because of land mines, and the children are calling out, "Sir, go to school, go to school. Four hundred, five hundred [riels]."

Besides, what really distinguishes Angkor from most "ancient sites," I was coming to see slowly, as I wandered among headless Buddhas and children playing weird, thwanging tunes on jew's harps-the buffet-table at the hotel offering "Serpent Head" every day-was that it belongs as much as ever to the haunted country all around: to an uncanny degree, the people living nearby the old temples are living in a way not so different from those ancestors who must have erected the buildings centuries ago. You can see a few signs for "Konica Photo Express" in the scrappy little town of Siem Reap, and children can be spotted in weird, batiky shirts representing Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic; but stray only a block from the rickety main street and you are in a village made up, essentially, of crowing cocks and mangy dogs and flimsy houses, one of which collapsed on the mother of a minister while I was there, killing her. There are almost no road signs or cafes or anything in sight; when people talk, it is in the age-old terms of fish and rice and jungle and night.

At the Bayon, a hundred and fifty or so stone faces stare down at you with the implacable gaze of Easter Island statues, their expressions not benign or protective, often, but leering, scowling, grinning with a kind of demented malignity. The place has always unnerved foreigners (Paul Claudel, the French diplomat and writer, called it "one of the most accursed, the most evil places that I know," and even Pierre Loti, the lifelong enthusiast and romantic, became "overcome with a peculiar kind of fear"). But what gives it its particular resonance now is that the children all around-wincing, gentle, wizened, sad-look so much like the offspring of those statues. It makes you wonder even more what development will bring.

My last night in Cambodia I returned to Angkor Wat to see the magical temple for the final time. Above the long avenue of the blind, the limbless and the deformed, a glorious full moon rose, and a lame man on the ground played a haunting melody on his flute, as darkness fell and the night began to chatter. The temple complex was much smaller than I had expected-it does not open onto a city of other monuments, as I had imagined from the pictures. Yet the experience of being there was infinitely more profound than I had expected, and when I went back to the hotel I knew I would be telling my friends to come to Angkor if they could-so long as they recall that, together with the 8,000 apsaras, or angels, that archaeologists have counted in the area, there are probably an equal number of dark spirits.

The next day, as he took us to the airport, our unfailingly sweet and intelligent guide turned around in the front seat and said, "Thank you for coming here, for giving me employment. Tourists are very important for our economy, also for the conservation of temple." "Before, we never thought of this," he said, referring to the protection of Angkor. "If you do not come..." And with that, his voice trailed off. In the departure hall, a little bowl had been set up for foreigners to place coins or banknotes (worth three cents each), under the sign, "Please Help the Poor Victims." In the distance, I could almost hear the voices still calling out, "Hello papa, why you not buy?"


Pico Iyer's latest book is The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (Knopf).