Temple fatigue

In Cambodia, monuments to religious fervor amaze and dismay.

click to enlarge NO APPARENT BONES: One of the 2,000 carvings of apsara dancers on the walls of Angkor Wat. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
NO APPARENT BONES: One of the 2,000 carvings of apsara dancers on the walls of Angkor Wat.

"My name is Ozymandias, King of kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

The first view of the foreboding ruins of Angkor Wat reminds one of Shelley's great sonnet, "Ozymandias." Out of the flat plains of Siem Reap, the massive three-tiered temple rises like some primitive fortress of the Dark Lords. It must have been a terrifying sight twice: once back in the 12th century when it was built, and again in the 19th century when it was rediscovered by French explorers. Considering the state of the world today, and the role of religion in it, it's still pretty scary.

We'd been in Bangkok getting to know our new grandson, Tai, and decided to see the famous temples in nearby Cambodia. (Tai's parents added that my ability to put Tai asleep, developed through decades of practicing on students, was useful but not necessary, and encouraged us go.)

We landed in Siem Reap with images of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge marching through our heads. These thoughts dispersed as we entered a scene out of Alice in Wonderland: eight jovial uniformed personnel, drinking tea and seated at an elevated table, tossed our passports back and forth for 15 minutes, occasionally stamping something, finally returning them with a smile and no comment. The stamps were impressive, and no one checked our luggage.

Cambodia's in much worse shape than Thailand. Wracked by decades of poverty, war and drugs, it hasn't recovered enough to benefit from its neighbor's newfound embrace of capitalism. The sprawling "village" of Siem Reap (meaning "Defeat of Siam," commemorating a centuries-old bloodbath with Thailand), lies in the area along the Siem Reap River, where most of the temples are located; it's surrounded by large hotels for tourists, their main source of money. The Cambodian riel is so devalued that the U.S. dollar is the de facto currency: we rode around in a cyclo — a motorbike pulling an open-air cab — hiring an amiable driver, Bun, to take us to the temples and around the city, for $12 a day.

Siem Reap is also the birthplace of one of the world's true heroes, Dith Pran, who died last month, at age 65. Pran, a journalist and interpreter, was the prime mover in revealing the horror of the Khmer Rouge's genocide, when they slaughtered 2 million of Cambodia's 7 million people. His description — vividly enacted in the 1984 movie, The Killing Fields — of Pol Pot's attempt to create a perfect Communist agrarian society by murdering anyone with education, including everyone with watches and/or glasses (!), shows from the inside what fanaticism is capable of: Pran was captured, survived by pretending to be an illiterate peasant, and escaped to Thailand, where he was rescued by reporter Sydney Schanberg, who later received the Pulitzer Prize for his book about Pran and Cambodia.

We enjoyed eating Khmer food (like morning-glory dumplings) in town, and French food at the elegant FCC Café along the river. At the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club), journalists lugging large cameras with telephoto lenses were leaning against the bar. Pretending I was in a Graham Greene novel, I took out my notebook and began writing some of these observations. If one of the journalists sidled over and said, "Bon jour, I'm with Le Monde — what brings you here?" I was prepared to whisper "Creative Loafing" (Flème Créatif?). But, merde, it didn't happen.

Most of our time was spent walking through and around the temples, past the monkeys in the trees, the beggars around the gates, the children (called "touts") tugging at us to buy postcards. The Ta Prohm temple is the most unnerving, still half-strangled by the roots and vines of the massive fig and silk-cotton trees that overwhelmed it (the temples were first damaged and looted by centuries of warfare, before they were abandoned to the jungle). On the long walk in to the temple, we heard primitive drums beating, and I thought of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; and then I thought, "No, it's just local musicians." But when we reached them, we saw that the musicians were crippled; their legs had been blown off by land mines, and there was a pot for money in front of them. And I thought of Heart of Darkness again.

Other aspects of these temples are more life-affirming: thousands of carvings of temple and village life. Although many depict war scenes, the most memorable are the carvings of the famous apsara dancers — 2,000 on the walls of Angkor Wat alone. This was, and still is, the traditional Khmer dance, performed in theaters throughout Cambodia by lovely young women with no apparent bones.

Despite the charms of the apsara dancers, the biggest surprise at Angkor Wat is its vastness: hundreds of temples (wats) spread over so many miles, each one ornate and magnificent in its own way. Considering the circumstances, the religious fervor that fed these impossible creations is almost as frightening as the certainty of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Nothing, they seem to say, can stand in the way of our view of the world. Perhaps this is also true of Western miracles of construction, from Stonehenge to Chartres. I came away from all of these immensities — maybe it was just temple fatigue — with a greater affection for simpler constructions, like the English cottage, the Swiss chalet, the American log cabin. I prefer visions that are both modest and affectionate.

Peter Meinke, after returning from Thailand, has been Distinguished Poet-in-Residence at Wichita State University in Kansas, and observes that Wichita is nothing at all like Bangkok. He'll be reading at [email protected] in St. Pete on Saturday, May 10, 7 p.m.

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