Cicadas chirp and the fragrance of jasmine wafts across as I walk down the sunless hallway. I have come to Siem Reap, Cambodia with expectations. I want to be Pierre Dieulefils spying Victory Gate peeking from the luscious tangle. I want to be Nathan Drake hunting for Jayavarman’s crown among the haphazard rubble. I want to be Jean Commaille capturing the eerie Bayon profiles in watercolor.
A dragonfly curtain parts when I emerge into the courtyard to encounter a hundred vacuous faces staring into their cameras. Two girls scream as they chase each other around the cornucopia of fallen slabs. Their brother howls in misery as they steal his hat. A mother yells at her son because he has strayed out of her eyesight. A lady holding a canary-colored parasol jumps in front of me and twists into various contortions to achieve the perfect pose for her selfie. I duck back into the passage, playing hide-and-seek with my unknowing participants. I clamber down the only vacant corridor, however, the shrieks and guffaws and interminable shutter clicks echo and amplify in the narrow space.
Travel abhors assumptions; at every turn it takes the opportunity to disappoint. At Ta Prohm, I seethe among the thousands upon thousands of tour groups milling like killer ants over the debris and crowding into the minuscule chambers. They have a bathetic effect upon the romance of jungle and ancient ruins. The drama of discovering wilderness devouring undisturbed residuum from a past civilization is inexplicable. I know that it is only the skeletal refuse of a complex and vast metropolis. I understand that once this dense forest was plastered in wooden huts, canals, roadways, and palaces teeming with people. I realize that the moss eaten laterite does not resemble the garish gilded magnificence of the original Khmer edifices. I prefer the decaying bones; dignity effuses through the crumbling framework. The viscous grip of the ropey fig trunks entwined about the sanctuary roofs seduces me. The mood piece I envisioned is what I presume to experience.
I meet my driver Mr. Satheay and tell him that I yearn to avoid hordes. He giggles and takes me to the Elephant Terraces. The weather darkened platforms are empty of people. A monkey perches on a toppled column chewing his banana in peace. I wander the gallery of carvings, musing over broken symbols and headless figures. Every so often a polished white statuette gleams, incongruous and jarring among the soot colored compilation. Restoration work is essential in archaeology to gain a fuller comprehension of history, but I had not anticipated how incompatible it would look amongst the deteriorating decorations. Although the reconstructions replicate authentic workmanship, it feels as if I am witnessing a plastic head upon Michelangelo’s David. Expectations of mystique vanish and I scurry away, disenchanted.
Outside the vast Angkor Thom compound I battle a phalanx of tuk-tuks, idling buses, taxis, coconut sellers, and tots peddling hats. The provocative postcards never reveal the tumult of humanity encircling each temple, desperate for lucre. Seething with frustration, I stomp in and out of the empty rooms in a heat addled daze. What was the purpose of these quarters? Devoid of meaning, they tell me nothing about life back then. The small of my back has grown a leaky faucet while the parade of tiered galleries and stepped rostrums merge into a hazy blur. Turning a corner I see a monk, his face mapped in wrinkles, mesmerized by a panel. He studies it as if he had unearthed creation’s secret; I study him, wondering how he is oblivious to his raucous surroundings. When he leaves, I scoot over to the area to examine his object of attention: two exquisite apsaras float in a midair tantric pose. Their delicate voluptuous bodies contort in the joys of dance, at once transcendent and sensuous. They are whispers from the past and I stand transfixed before the effervescent pair. The multitudes fade, the cicadas begin their melodious orchestra, and I imagine a scene from yesteryear: the real dancers sway hips in the courtyard to languorous strains.
Perhaps I do not need to imbibe the entirety of these sites, perhaps I need only find a niche which can transport me backwards in time. At Bayon tourists swarm over the enigmatic visages and the dim maze of tunnels crawls with cell phones. I am determined to engage with the place, so I hunt for a spot where I can view the stacked effigies. A couple takes over a ledge, a family of four picnics on choice mantel, a kid seizes a sill. I wedge into the corner opposite to view two of the bodhisattvas. Taking out pad and pencil, I concentrate on sketching the sphinx-like profiles. Cracks and abrasions make outlines difficult; still I persist as beads of sweat drip onto the sheet. The drone of voices fades into the background while I struggle to express on paper the terror and elegance of the countenances before me. I picture the artisan hunched in absorption, bare toes clinging to wooden support, striving to embody serenity onto stone. He and I are one at the moment, engrossed in our work. I have created my own peace.
Hours later, as the sun sets, I request Mr. Satheay to take me to Angkor Wat. There is a traffic jam of vehicles and vendors leaving for the day. I grapple against the flow of a sightseers’ stampede, following the twisting arcades to the rear of the multiplex. Scaffolding encases most towers, tarp hangs over many entrances. New, soap-hued pavers interspersed among the soot hued walls twinkle in the fading light, smug and opulent. I ignore the repairs, instead marveling that I am allowed to walk within collapsed grandeur, able to touch beguiling craftsmanship. A woman, barely perceptible in the shadows, sweeps dust off a doorframe. Squinting to detect her, I notice the portal leads nowhere; rather it is a frame displaying shattered pillars. Dragonflies flit through it towards a banyan tree. I chase after them and run into a carved window shuttered for infinity, a surreal spectacle I would not have witnessed if it had not been restored. I fixate upon its dreamlike essence, lose myself in its romance.
I came to Siem Reap with expectations about what I would uncover and how it would look. I am leaving grateful for the unexpected gifts the universe has brought to me in this place. To be still in the midst of chaos, to submerge into a fantasy world through the gyrations of a sculpted wrist, to discern beauty in tumult are enviable abilities to me. Yet, here I sit upon an aged stoop, an explorer of fresh delights; an adventurer amid the extraordinary because of a felicitous circumstance and a faded apsara.