A great battle is being waged in the world. A battle that shows no sign of relief, charging on as it has for the past 12 centuries, and due to continue long after you and I are dead. For this is no ordinary war, fought by no ordinary tyrants. It is a tug-of-war between 92 gods with crested helmets and 88 demons, both churning the ocean of milk by means of an immense serpent, for nothing short of the elixir of immortality. Who wins? The sculptures remain mute on the question. Who loses? Here too, the Hindu myth of Creation offers ambiguous answers. Good and evil are indiscernible, their faces shrouded in enigmatic smiles and in the weather-beaten blackness of the stone of Angkor Wat. Humanity watches and waits in humble obeisance. Cambodia watches and waits for the shadow of its tumultuous past to be lifted, for the Gods and demons to end their fierce play. For the leafy avenues leading to and out of the famous Angkor temples, to be swallowed up by vegetation and the cloying scent of peace.
A short plane ride from Bangkok or Phnom Penh will take you to Siem Reap, a city famous for the city within it. The Royal City of Angkor, ‘rediscovered’ by French archaeologists in the 1860’s has given Cambodia a little limelight as the harbourer of a special World Heritage Site. No longer hampered by security concerns, Cambodia enjoys a yearly influx of tourists who try to fit a trip to Angkor into their already stressed itineraries. Despite this new wave of attention, Angkor and Cambodia itself remain relatively unchallenged by the outside world. The roads in Siem Reap are red and dusty, flanked on each side by a sea of green, cut now and again by the sight of peasant women in bamboo hats. And in the horizon, the dark stupas of Angkor stand out, foreboding in their majesty.
It is difficult, however, not to feel uneasy in the face of Siem Reap’s inertia; its pleasant but unchanging air. It feels like history has kept the place, indeed the whole country, in a kind of spellbound state, from which it is only beginning to recover. The lush paddyfields that stretch undisturbed across miles bring on a jolt of shock as one remembers scenes from The Killing Fields. How many bodies and how many mass graves lie still undiscovered beneath the ploughs? Next to the benignly smiling faces of Jayavarman I and II, and Buddhas caught in the light and shadow cast by their saffron robes, are gaping bullet holes left by the Khmer Rouge. The ghost of Pol Pot also seems to hover in contemporary politics. Many Cambodian politicians still refuse to acknowledge guilt for the holocaust that happened here. No doubt there is still a great deal of voter intimidation and human rights abuses. Poverty too, though not strikingly severe, is evident. Our guide signalled at a few houses across the road, calling them ‘the houses of rich men’. They were simply concrete homes with encircling walls, as opposed to mud huts topped with corrugated iron.
Cambodia, in the short time that I spent there, seemed to me a country in the process of recovering, still removing its landmines, still trying to soothe its many wounds. But, as the monumental structures of Angkor bear witness, vision and energy are also characteristics of this country. Today though, the Gods and Demons of history continue to fight, occupying the limelight of Cambodia’s stage. One can only hope that in time, newer actors will venture forward and respectfully replace the old.