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.
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.