Dawn and the jungle offers its secrets slowly in the half light. The Angkor temple of Tha Prohm is now a part of the forest, its stone architecture entwined in roots and branches of ancient trees like an Arthur Rackham fairytale illustration. It’s irresistibly romantic and, arriving there alone at 5.30 am, we feel like its discoverers. Our footfalls are soft on moss and stone, on root and earth, and our breath lives among the dewy vapours rising visibly in the new sun’s heat.
We have two hours until the other tourists arrive and we join them at Bayon, a temple of more than 200 faces. I indulge my human compulsion to seek out and be captivated by faces, especially those of people. I attribute meanings to the expressions carved 600 years ago in the stone faces and imagine lives led by the carvers and their serene muses. I am baffled by the need of the Asian tourists to appear before the faces, and to mimic the actions of the figures, while posing for photos. And yet I wonder at my preference for photographing the ‘pure’ carvings, an inauthentic record, as though the myriad of tourists visiting this monument were absent.
We visit a few other temples before reaching the triumph Angkor Wat. It is awesome in its scale, the biggest religious building in the world and it even has two libraries (although it lacks the magic of my favourites). Bas reliefs on the first of three levels, showing heaven and hell, depict the horrors of creative torture in exquisite detail, the likes of which I will not experience until visiting a museum describing Khmer Rouge practices, in Phnom Penh.
It’s not the only historic reference to resonate in the present, I fear. The great Angkor empire was in part brought down by environmental destruction. Widespread logging to provide timber for housing – stone was reserved for the divine and the impressive libraries – caused soil erosion and the rivers to silt up, leading to irrigation problems and contributing to the collapse of the mighty civilization. Logging and proposed damming of the Mekong and its tributaries promise the same unfortunate future for the Khmers’ descendants.
On our way from the temples back to Siem Reap (literally: Siam Defeated) our tuk tuk passes a horrific accident between a motorcyclist and a young boy on a bicycle. In an instant, Nick has leapt from our tuk tuk with a bandage from who knows where, and is tightly encircling a gaping wound in the motorcyclist’s head. Blood is everywhere and we want to take the injured to a hospital in the city. But the police arrive and stall the process. In this socialist state social care is costly, available only to those with funds. There are instances in the newspapers here of women being turned away from hospitals in labour, to die for want of funds. We hover, impotent in the growing crowd, and then leave our half drunk bottle of water with the injured while we return to the city. While Nick washes blood off his hands and clothes, we wonder about the fate of these and other casualties that have grazed our travels over the past six months, including a pregnant woman in Pak Beng, Laos, who we carried from the middle of the street where she lay, into a tuk tuk to hospital, her waters already broken through her sarong.