15 February 2016
What is the point of going to the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa when you can simply Google it? Thus two years ago a friend of mine challenged my high hopes for my travels. All I insisted was that I needed to see it with my own eyes. ‘It’s about the experience in the flesh!’ In literature classes I came across the grandiose idea of distance and authenticity. The original object loses a certain degree of its authenticity when one looks at it in a different temporal space, or through the camera lens or the glass that protects the painting. Yet, inside, I concede I might have had a better experience scrutinising, analysing, and appreciating the painting on my laptop at home ; when I got to the Louvre it was so jam-packed with tourists who pushed and fought for the best angle to take a picture of the painting that all I was able to see were cameras and the backs of people’s heads. It was not until I travelled to Cambodia a few days ago that I was finally able to grasp the meaning of experience and travelling.
I am the kind of person who loves knowing what I am going to see in the trip and I make the most of my time by doing as much as possible. And so I looked up information online before the trip, listened to the tour guide during the excursion and was never a second late for any activities. I told myself that I had to experience Cambodia in the most ‘authentic’ way possible.
One of the highlights of the trip was watching sunrise at Angkor Wat. That morning I woke up at 4:30am with around 20 other travellers. I put on the cyan skirt with elephant patterns that I had bought in a local market the day before. It was a one-piece, Cambodian-style skirt with flowing sleeves and a narrow cotton band that fastened the light fabric to my waist. When we walked out of the hotel, there was already a long line of tuk tuks which had been arranged by the tour organiser Semester at Sea, waiting for us. Tuk tuk are the local taxis; they are motorcycles with an open carriage attached to the end. Though the sun had not yet risen, there were already a lot of motorbikes and bikes on the highway. Schoolchildren in their uniforms hurried to school. T-shirted hawkers in set up their stalls. The city woke up as early as we did, though for different reasons.
The dawn at Angkor Wat was one of the best visual experiences I’d had. The sky’s hue changed slowly from pitch black to blue against the temple’s greyish silhouette. Stars shone shyly,scattered across the sky. Insects buzzed gently as a stroke of faded crimson appeared from nowhere in the sky. Morning finally broke. The sky brightened up and the details of the massive Angkor Wat became visible. At half past six, the bright red sun emerged gloriously from the east of Angkor Wat, signalling, as their religion proposed, the rebirth of the day. The image of the temple was reflected on the surface of the ponds for soul cleansing. It was a picture I was constantly seing on postcards and travel guides and which was too perfect to be real. The sight of Angkor Wat at sunrise was at once colourful, dynamic and serene.
The serenity was broken by a hawker yelling ‘hot coffee? Sir? Madam?’ Tourists gradually broke off to enter the site and evade the hawker. I followed our tour guide who showed me around the inside of the world heritage site.
We climbed up steep steps and reached the outer ring of the temple. The walls were covered in Hindu reliefs. The carved images depicted the war between gods and evil spirits I was mesmerised by the intricacy of each figure’s details. For instance, gods and their followers wore conical hats whereas evils wore M-shaped ones. Different gods rode on different animals. Agni, the god of fire,rode a rhino and Vayu, the god of wind, a horse. They all had different facial expressions, weapons and postures that carried symbolic meanings. These figures filled the whole wall. Each figure interacted with one another in a complex and symbolic way. Words couldn’t describe the intricacy of the designs. They reminded me of the paintings on the walls of the Egyptian pyramids that I read about in encyclopaedias as a child, this was real, this time I was walking among them.
In spite of my awe, I was all this time unsure whether my feelings were authentically mine or whether they were merely what the words the guide books, tour guide and encyclopaedias had imprinted in my mind. When these resources mentioned the history, the grandeur, the magnificence of the World Heritage Sites, I felt that I was pushed to think in certain ways, and to see certain ‘special’ things that the book expected me to see. I was directed by railings, signs and maps that restricted me in terms of where and how I should go and how I should feel about them. The words ‘beauty’, ‘greatest human architecture’, ‘not to be missed’ kept coming up in the guides as if to brainwash me. No doubt, these sites were awe-inspiring and had great aesthetic and cultural value. Nonetheless, I felt alienated from my own feelings,that there was a pane of glass through which I was looking at the temples in a certain light – the same pane of glass used to shield the Mona Lisa. Only this time, it was used to shield Angkor Wat from the misinterpretation and miscomprehension of tourists.
But how can one know for sure if historical sites are not misinterpreted? By misinterpretation, I also meant the feelings the sites should engender. I for one believe that perhaps sometimes the most authentic feeling one could ever have from visiting a place can only be generated when one does not know what to see and expect. One has to undergo all possible experiences to come up with an original feeling. In this way, one could have a personal connection to and understanding of the place without the influence of authors and ‘experts’. Surely one could consult a book for facts and history for enrichment. But ignorance and the willingness to admit one’s own ignorance, is to me,genuine experience, and one only truly begins to learn about a place by travelling.
I was suddenly conscious of how ‘unauthentic’ I was in experiencing the Cambodian way of life. No locals were wearing the elephant patterned skirt I was wearing. I blended in perfectly with American, African, European and Asian tourists who were all wearing elephant-patterned trousers, dresses and skirts. The schoolchildren I has seen that morning, the hawkers or the local citizens wore plain t-shirts and regular trousers. The locals weren’t in Angkor Wat for sightseeing. They didn’t take tuk tuks with a driver who provided chilled bottled water and cleaned the pink sofas before the next rides. The locals didn’t drink coconut water and fruit shakes every day. That afternoon, conscious of an uneasiness to be ‘authentic’ again, I changed into my long travelling trousers.
That afternoon, we went on a river cruise, on a river whose name I had never heard of and did not know how to pronounce––Tonle Sap meaning “River Fresh”. The highlight of the cruise was to be the water village on a large pond that spreads across 14km in one part of Tonle Sap. We boarded one of the boats among many along the harbour. The boats were rusty and weathered,he paint tarnished. The sides were scratched and covered in mud. Behind the captain’s seat was a sign that read ‘are you happy? If yes, please tip’. The boat’s engine started and off we went. Along the banks buffalos bathed in the mud. Lush green shrubs and mangrove trees contrasted with the brown yellow river. Adults and children giggled whenever the big waves caused the boat to rock. Parents held on to their children and pointed at the sights that amazed them. ‘Come look at the water buffalo son!’ They waved excitedly to the children in the school that floated on the water. This place had everything to resemble the Adventureland in Disneyland, or I should say Adventureland had everything to resemble this place – the river that had the same colour as the one in Disneyland, the wildlife, the landscape, the laughter.
Yet something was wrong with this picture which the tour guide did not introduce to us or did not intend to highlight. The river water was turbid. Mud and algae clogged the river. Trash was floating everywhere along it. Children defecated in the water and drank directly from it. People washed their clothes and food in it and bathed in it. Heavy machines dredged the mud that clogged the river. Bubbles on the surface floated along the river banks and on the lake. When trucks drove by, sand and dust rose in a flurry toward the river. Our boat drove right into the ‘sandstorm’ and I had sore throat for a day or two afterwards from inhaling the particles. There were other fishing boats with deafening motors that emitted black smoke along the river. Tons and tons of solid waste were being washed on to the shore. There were tires, metal sticks, construction materials, water bottles, animal corpses, coconut shells and etc. There was also a queer smell of sweetness, incense, gasoline and rotting food. Yet the people there seemed to have no problem with it. That night I kept on pondering questions such as whether the villagers were satisfied with their living conditions and whether I had the right to imagine a cleaner or better-managed place to live in and what I could do to contribute. I also wonder if it was even ethical for me to compare my home with theirs, and if I could refrain from comparing, feeling shocked or sympathetic for them. Perhaps they didn’t need sympathy. Perhaps they loved their way of living. Recalling the five-year-old boy who was playing the game of poking the coconut shell with his rotten wooden stick—spear—on the shore, I thought, perhaps it was I who needed their sympathy for constantly focusing on the negative when they found nothing negative about their home.
When I looked again at the sign behind the captain’s seat at the end of the river cruise, I felt happy. Being in the village which was not recognised as a world heritage site allowed me to know what the actual culture and way of life of Cambodian villagers. That was one of the many faces of Cambodia that I could never read from a travel guide or encyclopaedia. Perhaps some might find that Tonle Sap had no aesthetic, architectural or culture as significant as Angkor Wat for it be recorded in the World Heritage list. Or perhaps Tonle Sap would only be regarded as the ‘Junkyard Disneyland’ in textbooks as if it were the epitome of the world’s most polluted places. In fact, when I returned from the Cambodia trip, my environmental science course project focused on how polluted the place was and what should be done to make it a ‘better’ environment for living. I was happy, for I had a personal experience in an unrecognised place unshaped by others and was able to recognise the possible happiness of a different way of life, like an unpolished gemstone, which could only be unearthed through one’s own excavation on-site.
Was there anything that effected me in the World Heritage sites then? Surely there was, though it was not really the architecture and the history as I expected myself to have when I was researching at home. As I walked through the gates and the convoluted labyrinthine paths of Angkor Thom, I felt déjà vu from watching the Ghibli film Lapita. The might of this great ancient temple with its sophisticated layout and intricate brick walls could not withstand being corroded and consumed by the forest. Buttress roots carved deep into the base of the walls. Thick,rigid aerial roots extended like a claw. Even miles and miles of walls, covered in soft lichen,slowly digest the ruins, the shells, the skeletons of this dead temple. In this constant tension between man and nature, human civilisation has been fighting a losing battle against the invincible and ever-living nature.
From the ashes of this bygone civilisation, the modern life of Cambodia emerged. My friends and I strolled along the tunnels and paths. Suddenly a friend spotted two packets of postcards on a stone slab. ‘Someone probably left them here.’ We were talking about how weird it was to see postcards here and some girls were tempted to take them. Then I saw her. The Cambodian Shita. The Lapita Princess. She was around 4 years old and had beautiful tanned skin. Her long dark hair brushed against her face as she scurried towards us. Her tattered red cotton dress hung gently on her slightly chubby torso. Her expression carried a sense of irresistible innocence. She climbed on to the slab and asked, ‘you wanna buy one?’ The girl who initially wanted to take the postcards said ‘oh they’re yours? They’re really beautiful but I don’t have any money with me, sorry.’ We began to move on to the next section and the little girl started crying. All of us uttered ‘oh no’ and someone in front of me said ‘keep moving, keep moving. That’s how she gets you to buy the postcards!’ We had been told by guidebooks that we should not buy souvenirs from local children for they were supposed to be in school. If we did, it might encourage their parents might be encouraged to keep them from school to earn money. The little girl kept chasing after us and screaming ‘I just need one more. One! One! Please!’ through several tunnels.
There was a pang of pain in my heart. Imagine the wealth of those who commissioned the construction of the temple. Angkor Wat was built for the king himself and only royalty could enter. Angkor Thom was similar. This little girl who also called this place her home had no such wealth. Like a princess who had lost her crown, she begged the mercy of foreigners and strangers–– intruders in her hometown––to earn food for herself and probably her family too. I turned back to look–– the little girl had already disappeared into the forest . Tour guides and tourists emerged from the gate where she had been. The whole chamber was filled with their conversations about the history of this place. ‘Yesss the temple wass diiscovered under the jungle and the floorss were reconstraaated brick by brick by efforts of international cooperation… [sic]’ All they remembered of the temple were the lifeless bricks, gates, reliefs and statues. They neither noticed the Cambodian girl who was a part of the ‘intangible heritage’ of this mighty land—still living, still breathing, nor did the idea of ‘constraaating’ a school brick by brick for the girl ever cross their minds.
The world remembers Cambodia for Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. On the avenues signs for ‘Angkor Wat Paradise Hotel’, ‘Angkor Wat Holiday Hotel’, ‘Angkor Restaurant’ at every turn celebrate the legacy of the famous world heritage sites. But what was the name of the boy who poked the coconut along the… the… what river? Who was the girl who cried at not being given money in the ruins of Angkor Thom? What was life like along the steaming river strewn with human waste and algae? Ask Google. I had been sure it would provide you with the online experience just as vivid and arresting as being there, talking to Cambodians, seeing, smelling, tasting, and really, immersing in Cambodia.
Zabrina Lo is a final-year student reading English Literature and Film Studies. She loves having her lectures on savannas, in the sun and pretty much anywhere but the classroom. She is one of the founding co-editors of EDGE. [Read all entries by Zabrina.]