Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What makes the difference - Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor Roads, by Un rosarino en Vietnam
60 dollars for a weekly pass. A heavy blow, well, at least if you're trying to stretch your budget - a tight one - on a two-three-year-long bed of travels. On the other hand I don't feel like visiting Angkor like the majority of the tourists that I've met so far does. Just one, two or three days. Wake up at dawn, sprinting from a hill to a temple, panting from a hut to a monument, back to the hotel at dinner time, with confused memories: where were the roots of those centuries-old trees, that wrap up the walls and the statues? And the bas-reliefs? What was the name of the four-faced-heads temple? Wat...Wat...Wat something...
Well, I'm willing to leave the "Wat something" experience to someone else. The weekly pass will allow me to take it easy - which, by the way, is my favorite hobby. I can see the temples at dawn today and at sunset tomorrow. I can focus on Angkor Wat one day, on Bayon and Ta Phrom another, on the circuit of the minor temples later on. Easy, relaxed, spending the morning or the afternoon at the guest house, reading, studying and planning my next visit. Or in Siem Reap's colonial quarter, taking photos, scribbling, peeking, nibbling, browsing, chatting, getting lost, watching, daydreaming - which happen to be my other favorite hobbies.
To tell the truth, I will start to use these tactics only on the third-fourth day. At the beginning the charm of Angkor will get hold of me and - victim of an irresistible greed for experience and atmosphere - even i will be swallowed up by the dust and the heat that choke this place. The first day I follow the standard procedure: I rent a motorbike with a driver who leaves me at the temples and picks me up once I'm done. I feel like a bag with arms and legs, hat and camera, only lacking brain and totally character-less. At the end of the day I feel uncomfortable: it's an indigestion of notions without the experience seasoning.
In the evening I meet a Japanese backpacker, dressed up the typical way: sunglasses and a small white towel wrapped around the head. I'll call him Akira, after an animation movie that I watched many years ago. Akira is visiting the temples by bicycle. Everyday he rents one downtown, rides it along the road that leads to the site and pedals his way around the temples.
"What's the difference?"
"You try first, then you'll let me know!"
"Alright, I'll join you tomorrow then..."
Obviously a bicycle is cheaper than a motorbike, good news for my savings. I'm not fit and the bike is not like the ones they use at the Tour de France, so I can only progress very slowly. Akira is right though, compared with the motorbike this is another story. I couldn't imagine that the sound is what makes the difference. It's as if I were in an old recording studio and a technician had turned off the engine's frequency switch, turning up the others. I can listen to the birds chirping, the children playing, a man who is sawing a piece of wood behind his house, a dog barking at a mole. Angkor, in perfect oriental style, is an archaeological site surrounded by people who keep living their lives, with houses, small shops, schools. It's a magical atmosphere that I would have completely missed hadn't I listened to all those sounds. It takes long to reach each temple, but the journey is not boring at all. I have time to look at the vegetation, at the fauna, the life, the colors, the shades. Sometimes i sink into this new Angkor, its hypnotic atmosphere, so deep that I cannot re-emerge before I get to a temple, and I proceed to the next one.
I get back to Siem Reap in the evening. I look at myself in the mirror: it's as if I had crossed the Sahara on foot. I'm soiled like a ridiculous chimney sweep of the fairy tales. The blanket that is covering me is not made of soot but of dirt-road's dust hardened with sweat. My shirt, which I would normally put in the washing machine, is beyond reclaim: I take it off and directly throw it away. I take a half hour-long shower, and I have to scratch very energetically to take off the crust that is wrapping me up.
Starting tomorrow there will not be any more day-long expeditions. I'll enjoy the temples two-three hours at a time. But the bicycle, that simple and clever idea that I owe to Akira, well, nobody is ever gonna take it away from me.

Angkor, Cambodia, March 2002

1 comment:

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