Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in Southeast Asia and a national symbol of Cambodia, is on all the ‘must-see’ lists. You simply have to go there – right after you’ve been to see The Great Wall and just before you jet off to see the Pyramids. It’s a ‘must-see’. You have to go. What do you mean you don’t want to? You have to.
When I was a teenager, one of my parents (not my father) disapproved of the kinds of books I read and nagged me to read classic literature. Though ‘Jane Eyre’ is almost certainly a better book than ‘The Babysitter Hammer Holocaust’ or whatever trash I was reading, I developed an unwavering aversion to being told what kinds of culture, literature or … anything I am supposed to enjoy or find meaning in.
I feel the same way when I’m travelling. Those ‘101 Places to Visit Before You Die’ type lists make me want to stay at home and pull the curtains. Just think – if you paid attention to the ‘101’ albums list, you’d be listening to a U2 CD by now. That’s how dangerous and misinformed those things can be.
So, I was not enthusiastic about seeing Angkor Wat. In fact, I was even a little angry with myself for going at all – angry that I’d given in and blindly followed the bullying, ‘must-see’ commands.
But, in the end … it was pretty good.
After looking around, I sat down in the shade and made the mistake of reading some of the ‘Temples of Angkor’ chapter in the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook. Out of the purple, adjective-laden prose, this sentence struck me as particularly heinous:
Holy men at the time of Angkor must have revelled in [Angkor Wat’s] multilayered levels of meaning in much the same way a contemporary literary scholar might delight in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Who writes this shit? It’s not just the reference to Ulysses (a book usually name-checked by the kind of people who sit in Costa Coffee wearing a trilby hat and strumming an acoustic guitar) that annoys me, it’s those verbs. Revel. Delight.
Lonely Planet writers never fail to leave home without a thesaurus in their backpacks. You can’t ‘go’, ‘see’ or ‘do’ in Lonely Planet world. You are commanded to ‘kick back’, ‘journey’, ‘soak up’, ‘bask’, ‘marvel’ or ‘contemplate’.
I’m going off-topic here, but I can’t resist the temptation to pull out a few more quotes from Lonely Planet’s Cambodia and Vietnam guides. These sentences are all from the worst-offending section – the chapter ‘highlights’ (always written as commands):
Stare in wonder at the delicate carvings adorning Banteay Srei.
Cool off under secluded waterfalls and taste a tipple with the local Pnong people.
Get imperious, making yourself at home in the Forbidden Purple City in Hue.
Unearth hidden treasures at Ben Thanh Market
Breach the rugged coast to see the hidden beaches and dense jungle of Cat Ba Island
This kind of writing threatens to stir the homicidal maniac inside me. At least I can find solace in the fact that the company didn’t profit from my purchase of pirated copies of their books.
Angkor Wat was very impressive, but I preferred Bayon (see picture at top of post), within the walls of Angkor Thom. I walked part way around the walls – moat on one side, jungle on the other.
A spider web:
Apparently, this used to be a city of a million people. Only royal and religious buildings could be made of stone – the rest were made of wood and are obviously long gone. The jungle has reclaimed most of the land, but the areas around the temples have been cleared and would feel like a peaceful park if it weren’t for the tuk tuks, motorbikes and minivans that zoom past, kicking up lungfuls of dust.
There were a lot of South Korean tour groups at the Angkor temples. Most of the middle-aged women looked exactly the same – neon pink and yellow sportswear, sun visors, permed hair, bleached white skin and bright red lipstick. I watched one of the groups and saw the guide tell them where to take pictures. They queued up and, couple-by-couple, had the exact same picture taken in the exact same spot. They then moved on and the guide chose another place for them to have their identical pictures taken.
I’m going back to Siem Reap in a week or so (I’m flying to Beijing from there) so I’ll see some more of the temples then.