Preah Khan

There is a place in Cambodia that I will never forget. It is the reason I went back. If I ever go again, this place will be the reason. In the midst of all the madness –  the screech of “Lay-dee!” that follows you down the street, the holler of “Tuk tuk!” that can never be escaped, the dusty proffered hands of beggars that multiply with each turn of a corner, the defensive thrust of a prostitute’s hips in the pallid glare of a street lamp, the grip of an eager hand around your arm as you leave a bar by night, the endless grift, the burning heat and stench of a city in the desert – even amid all this there is a place of impossible peace.

Beyond a bridge of headless statues there is a corridor flanked on either side by forest, trees so tall you hurt your neck trying to see the sky. The trunks are strong and slender, wrapped with cheeky vines that hitch a ride toward the heavens. But the magic of the place is not the trees. From the vibrant canopy there rains a constant fall of small round leaves, while from the ground rise pale clouds of butterflies that scatter upwards in the patchy sunlight. It is as if the very air around you is alive. With every breeze it becomes a vivid, waltzing, glistening mass of green and yellow, as if a handful of gemstones has been tossed into the wind. The shadows of the leafy awning dance across the ground before your feet.

Unknowing, your feet have carried you on and now you pass under an ancient stone archway. That happens a lot in Cambodia, the crossing of hallowed stone thresholds. But here there is a place where nature has taken hold of masonry and denied the solid stone its very nature. Like curious fingers the roots of trees have wormed their way beneath the massive rocky slabs, uprooting mankind’s efforts they have brought the walls to rubble and vaulted sun-ward in solid, hearty mockery of our attempts at permanence. We will come and go, the trees remain. Which, I think, is how it should be.

Never work with children or animals… or anything in between.

Back to work, and interning in the Food and Beverage department has given way to babysitting: sucks to be the newest female on the island.

So there I was, in sole and clueless charge of a four year old with a mean case of tonsillitis. True to such tales as this he was utterly angelic, not least because a fountain of jet curls sprang from his head to fall into his big round brown eyes. But he was fractious, feverish, in pain and he wanted his mum.

Nope. “Mummy is working, she’s going to get your teddy, then she’ll be right back.”

Note to working mothers DO NOT LIE TO YOUR SICK CHILDREN. They hear you. They understand you. And they are elephants. THEY DO NOT FORGET. This poor little boy clung to her like a baby monkey. It was as if he were composed entirely of limbs which latched themselves to his mother and would not let go no matter what. And yet, inch by inch she peeled him off her and cajoled him and promised him she’d be back and bribed him with the promise of Teddy. Until at last he was sat disconsolately on the tall bar stool in the beachside restaurant. She dodged a tiny grasping hand and I, motherly instinct appearing from god knows where, stepped into the breach. Five tiny fingers closed firmly on a lock of my hair and that was it. I was doomed. From that moment until sundown 13 hours later I was absolutely forbidden to put this little boy down. He gripped me like a shipwrecked man grips driftwood in an ocean.

However, he hadn’t forgotten Mummy’s wretched promise to return with Teddy so not only was I left carrying many kilos of four year old for an entire day but my imagination was sorely challenged to come up with excuses for mummy. Four year olds are discerning little monsters you know, not just any excuse would cut it. I’ve never wracked my brains so hard in my entire life! At last I just gave in and raided mummy’s room for the teddy. By the end of the day I was a little jealous of Teddy’s lack of nerve endings. Who knew toddlers had grips of steel!?

And then there was lunch time.

After about half an hour I had achieved little other than a light coating of tomato sauce. This little boy was most definitely not up for eating anything. Not wanting my diminutive charge to perish from malnutrition while under my care I made an executive decision. I went full tactical.

1) The Element of Surprise.

Objective: refuel sick, stroppy, stubborn four year old with Margarita pizza.

Method: reduce the pizza to a number of very small pieces. Dispense with knife and fork. Pick up a morsel of tomato-y goodness. Wait for child to look away. Tap child excitedly on the shoulder and whisper like you have a thrilling secret. “Hey, what’s this?” Hold pizza at child’s mouth level. When unsuspecting target turns with mouth open in expectation – deploy pizza nugget. Repeat for 2 hours until at least three slices of pizza have been eaten.

Alas for dinner he had got wise to my wily ways come the evening and chicken stir fry was a whole different battle ground.

2) The power of jealousy.

Objective: line sick, stroppy, stubborn four year old’s stomach with fried rice so he can take his tonsillitis medication.

Method: This one’s a doozy. Simply assume an air of excitement and anticipation, dramatically poise your spoon quiveringly aloft over the child’s dinner and…. pretend it’s yours. Instant desire to eat! I learned this slight of hand after my poor little charge bullishly demanded a mouthful of olive tapenade for the unavoidably logical reason that it was my dinner, not his. The look of anguished confusion that painted his face as he tried to distance himself from his tongue, which had so cruelly betrayed him with this tart, salty substance… heartbreaking. Unfortunately the only thing I could find to save him was a painfully crisp and white table napkin. I felt a little sorry for the rest of my team back in Food & Bev who would have to deal with the now offensive napkin. But I had bigger problems to worry about….. it was time for pyjamas.

Never have I been so tempted to advocate sleeping in your clothes! Never! He threatened to jump fully dressed into the pool to protest the concept of pyjamas. Naturally getting a child out of their clothes and into their pyjamas couldn’t be one cohesive process, that would be much too easy. So, of course, I passed a surreal half hour or so while a stark naked four year old careened gravity defyingly around the room. I was wise to him though, and turned the air con up to arctic. He soon came begging for PJs then. Not exactly ethical I know, dispensing Guantanamo hospitality. But needs must when the Devil won’t get ready for bed.

After a sheepish phone call to housekeeping about the lake of soy sauce we had created in the middle of the swanky white sofa things got a little real. My charge decided to demonstrate all the ways in which the room was a death trap for tiny humans. He tightrope walked the edge of the infinity pool, beneath which (I checked) were a number of very solid rocks. He ran full-tilt around the bathroom after first ensuring the floor was the perfect degree of life-threateningly slick with soapy water. He skidded up and down the stone steps, which suddenly seemed to me to have razor sharp edges. He flung himself off the bed, the sofa, the deck chairs, the cabana – any item of furniture he could scale really – seemingly under the indelible belief that he could fly.

And then… then! Housekeeping came with fire! Into the pool went a very attractive, very aesthetically pleasing, hypnotic and soothing…. floating FLAME! The little curly-headed injury-magnet made a beeline straight for it. I snapped. I locked the door to the garden and *shudder* returned Surf’s Up to the beginning…. again.

Sorry. At this point I have to go lie down in a dark room. My PTSD is kicking in and I’m having flashbacks about surfing penguins with tribal tattoos and a penchant for the word “Duuuuuuuude.”

Bye for now.

xx

Don’t forget to brush.

Lets talk about ruins.

The complete and utter absence of ruins in my return to Cambodia has only highlighted for me the total ruin overdose I gave myself on my first foray into Khmer culture. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be as stuffy as it sounds. How about we start here:

Recognise that? Yep. Sunrise over Angkor Wat. From start to finish this day was a surreal one. Not least because it began at 3am. Anyone who has met the blind, fuzzy, snuffling creature that is me before breakfast will have a vague idea what 3am did to me. But post-shower, equipped with contacts and a couple of pancakes (Cambodia knows all about early starts!) I was just about human enough to jump into the waiting tuk tuk with my guide and set off… into the utter blackness of pre-dawn Siem Reap.

Naturally our path was lit by the flimsy blue glow of a mobile phone. Ah, Cambodia.

We pull up to a patch of smudges in the blackness, and my still-sleeping eyes work hard to pick out tiny points of light. They are a little way ahead of me, swirling in great circular eddies, twitching and jerking, some breaking off from the main body briefly before careening back. They are the torches of tourists in the night. My guide and I add our own white speck to the myriad and climb the shallow stone steps, worn smooth and hollowed out in the centre by centuries of sleepy dawn-seekers’ feet. Above the heavy silence peculiar to rural places, the slap and brush of flip flops is loud upon the stone bridge as we cross the bridge over the moat. People speak in whispers, unconsciously conforming to the natural hush of darkness. We shuffle on, out of our element in the torch-spotted darkness, unsure on the changeable surface of ancient stone beneath our feet.

But then the spell is broken.

Mosquitoes.

Thousands of them, careening into our moths, up our noses, whining about our ears in unknowable numbers. They throng about our bare throats and wrists, alive to the blood in our veins and oblivious to the rage they’re causing. Hands go up to cover mouths, heads go down to protect nostrils, minds drift back to the bottle of deet on the bedside table; unsure if it was deployed or not… praying it was.

But then the torture passes, we are across the bridge and soon a safe distance from the buzzing moat. There is the first hint of light in the sky, pupils contract slightly, the muscles behind eyes relax as straining to see becomes, moment by moment, less necessary. The column of pilgrims dissipates as people scatter among the stones to find a perch from which to gaze. My guide shows me a spot, then politely withdraws that I may enjoy the morning in the appropriate solitude. I nestle into a corner, resting my back against weather-worn grey stone and tuck my legs up against my chest. The rock breathes chill into my back through my thin shirt as I let my head rest against the wall, fixing my eyes on the sky.

Gradually black night ebbs into grey dawn, it melts into the grey stone of this most ancient of buildings. I am grateful for the muted browns and greens of my clothes. Anything brighter would have seemed… unkind. Unthinking somehow, in the panorama of gentle grey.

Lighter and lighter grows the sky as each moment passes. My mind wanders, seeks out old snippets of poetry, hums half-forgotten songs, remembers old friends and family left far behind at home, walks a little way into the future and wonders about my return to them, dreams idly of staying here forever. The sky takes on a little of the familiar blue among the grey. Over across the water, behind the famous moulded stones, a globe of orange has risen into sight and begins to glow.

“I use colgate myself!”

The peace snaps like an old ruler flicked once too often in the hands of the child beleaguered by boredom in class. I turn my head and there, at ground level to my right, squats a large family. The criminal against quiet has his back to the sunrise. His back! Turned foolishly toward the whole point of his being there! He expounds the virtues of his maximised smile. At length. He’s wearing bright orange.

And so it goes.

xx

Out of the frying pan…

*Parental Guidance* – The following post contains scenes of a disturbing nature.

*Young Adult Guidance* – If you have ever been/are currently/plan on becoming attracted to me…. prepare to be disabused. Eroticism is going directly to jail, it will not pass Go, it will not collect £100.

Mercifully near the end of my stay at the orphanage, our cat-fancying matriarch demanded modesty. Fair enough I had been wearing rather short shorts…. but for the love of electrolytes… it was 38 in the shade! Upshot? Trousers and the heaviest uniform t-shirt known to man.

I’ll give you a glimpse of my day.

Cycle in boldly sporting my short shorts (very little modesty on National Route 6 in general really). Change into mandatory harem pants and industrial strength t-shirt. Commence Operation Competitive Sweat. This is not your standard dewy glow my friends. This is the big leagues. This is the kind of sweat that gathers between your shoulder blades and slides maddeningly down your spine all day. That collects between your breasts and drips down your torso to soak into the waistband of your fetchingly elephant-bedeked trousers. It drips onto your feet from your knees and glues your legs to the plastic chairs each time your naive enough to sit. It drenches your clothes until they cling to you. It gathers at your temples, on your top lip, at the top of your spine, in your hairline, behind your ears, in the crooks of your elbows. Every available inch of your skin leaks moisture until the salty itch of it threatens your sanity. It starts to cause aphasia. What you would mean to say was “Class, today we will be concentrating on the imperfect participle of the verb To Swim.” What you would actually say was “Class, today I am sweating a waterfall.” Us teachers stopped actually teaching almost completely (almost completely – the kids did at least learn all the forms of and synonyms for the verb “to perspire”.) We preferred instead to trade exclamations on volumes of liquid lost per square cm of skin and fan ourselves with flashcards. We could talk about nothing else. The sweat (and the occasional foray of a student into the ceiling to retrieve the latest stupid cat to get stranded in the rafters) became our whole consciousness.

And all that is before lunch!

You can maybe understand, therefore, that the next stop on my travels made me a little nervous. After a trip to Hong Kong for work with Dad (which I will tell you about soon – there was an incident with ice cream that it is imperative you hear about!) I was headed to the Sweetheart Islands in the Koh Rong Archipelago, on one of which is perched a luxury resort hotel, at which I was the shiny new Food and Beverage Intern. I will admit to the odd nightmare about sweating into the molecular gastronomy of slouching New York juice magnates or perky Singaporean Travel Journalists. How on earth could decadent luxury and satanic temperatures co-exist!!

Thank god for a sea breeze is all I can say! And boy did my new office have a sea breeze!

Home Sweet U-PVC home

Right now, in this tortured moment, I would give my left arm for a fruit salad!! A glossy bowl of crisp apple slices, soft buttons of banana, plump grapes that slosh their juices into your moth when your teeth break their straining skins, dark, sweet cherries, tart luscious raspberries, intoxicating strawberries, maybe even a few daring cubes of kiwi and sticky orange segments! Oh be still my scurvy-fearing heart!

I can’t afford to lose my left arm though, even to satisfy impassioned fresh fruit fantasies; I need it to serve in the restaurant. “Serve with the left from the left. Clear with the right from the right.” So the mantra goes at any rate.

– These where my thoughts about a week into a month-long internship at a swanky hotel on a large boulder in the sea masquerading as an island in the Koh Rong archipelago. Staff, it turns out, do not benefit all that often from fresh fruit or veg, and since the budget for feeding the 160 odd staff at the hotel was smaller than a gnat’s nostril I’m not all that surprise that my entire body decided to protest the lack of vitamins.

Having said that, the flowery language on display here could well have been down to the ridiculously enormous spliff my roommate was smoking at the time. Such is life on a tropical island: struggling to keep a grip on your mind while your Swiss workaholic bunkmate gets blitzed out of her own in your plastic home which is, incidentally, about the width of a baby gecko’s arm span. Still, at least it helps me sleep through the bit of the night where the sky decides to fall in.

May I introduce, once again, the now infamous Khmer weather system… or lack of system. Around about 3am most nights the angels go bowling with a vengeance. I mean, this is thunder it seems as if the entire world should be able to hear! Not to mention the rain! It crashes onto the corrugated iron roof like an army of star jumping elephants! Meanwhile, if allowed to remain un-baked by my roommate, I lie wide awake wondering how long it will take to die when the roof collapses under the torrent and if I’ll drown rather than being crushed since none of the building materials in our house actually weigh more than me. If hot-boxed by the in-house dope dispensary, however, I sleep like a deaf brick. It’s fabulous!

Welcome to Sweetheart Island.

xx

Sigh

Everyone knows the worst thing about tourist destinations, right? Say it with me now… TOURISTS.

Tourists are the reason intrepid travellers, intent on freedom of spirit – the kind of freedom you get from carrying your whole life in a rucksack – get stuck with shoddy vistas like this:

Wonderfully crumbling, history-steeped ruins in the background…. garbage bin in the foreground. And all because tourists can’t be trusted to take their detritus with them.
Or you might get a scene like this:
Because tourists like to climb things and then fall off them. Like that Korean couple Chua Hwei told me about who fell down this:
You get this too:
Because apparently tourists like to crawl under things as well, and then act all surprised when thousand year old masonry caves in on them and crushes them into arrabiatta.
Relatives are never too thrilled about these events. They tend to be annoyed at not being invited on what turned out to literally be the trip of a life time and, in a fit of pique, sue the state back into the bronze age.
Thus…
The most utterly depressing thing about all this is that irreverence is infectious. I found myself brashly munching an apple while gazing out over this:
And casually parking my backside on things like this:
In my defence though, it’s useless to try for awe, it really is. Take for example this scene:
I was really having a crack at breathing it all in, feeling that peace which rises up out of the ground in places of human significance. Places that are haunted by the footsteps of others, others that have strode by where you stand, others that have paused in the same wonder you do. Hundreds of years’ worth of humanity hangs palpably about you. Up through your feet rises a feeling of belonging, a shadow of the men that dug the foundations beneath your trainers. As you raise your head toward the heavens and gaze at exquisitely, patiently, lovingly carved stone, which has withstood an age of wind and rain to stand before you as breathlessly imposing as when first it was built, it is as if all the lives this place has seen coalesce about you and you are, truly, a part of the great striving mass of man that seeks for greatness.
Until you notice that the woman in front of you is a fool. And that the navy blue panties she has imbecilically picked out that morning are clearly visible through her white shorts.
It’s tough to feel much pride in your fellow humans when they can’t even pick their knickers properly.
Ciao
xx