Cambodia- flat and marshy in the wet season, flat and dusty in the dry, the great, powerful Mekong sliding through its middle like a greased-up snake... Its tributary, the Tonle Sap, is the inspiration of Heart of Darkness fantasists; it flows out to sea for half the year and back into the Interior and the Great Lake for the other half. You don't have to live in Cambodia long before the river changes direction and begins pulling you deeper into the thick northwestern jungles, in which, at the northernmost perimeter of the lake, the frenchman Henri Mouhot chanced upon the seat of an ancient empire... a ruined city in the impenetrable wilderness mirroring his own empire and sending him irretrievably insane... We would go to the far northwest -bandit country- to see the relics of that dark empire.
But of course we begin in beaten-track Bangkok, The Big Mango, the Wonderful Hub and humidity-stricken on this sticky April afternoon.
Russ was already out of his head when I rang, so his fiancee Penh opened the door.
"Olly! You back! Come, smoke pipe," she said, smiling drunkenly.
"Yes," I said, "Back from Cambodia and heading back - overland - in a few days. Grinning, Russ? Grinning is sinning." Russ smiled. He recognized the plagiarism. He crooked his index finger and jabbed it at me.
"Danger junkie!" he said. I shrugged.
"Dope is hope!" Penh blurted, who'd read the book too. "We all go buy beer."
"We'll get a case," said Russ.
"Great," I said. "We'll have enough for Ros and Los when they arrive."
"Human sponges," I assured him. "Flying in from New Zealand and then we'll jump on a bus for the border." Russ smiled as the box was loaded up.
"The border region's fucked," he said. "Bandits are always shooting up Thai villages and stealing their motorbikes."
"Yeah," I said. "Those fuckers are vicious. Some of them have been fighting since they were kids." It was true after all, and those kids have never experienced life which is not subsistence banditry. The thought depressed me and I was suddenly struck with fear- what in hell were we doing going to this horrible doom-struck region? Where all the crazy people have guns, but you'd have to be crazy not to have one either, Catch-22, come on in and join the mayhem... Awful. But there was this temple: two square kilometers of 12th century city center in heavily mined jungle north of Sisophon, the most important Bayon-period site west of Angkor, built in memory of a battle-slain prince... You see, myself and Ros and Los had a strong feeling of duty towards this trip; for historical and archaeological reasons. No one had been to Banteay Chhmar for at least 25 years except looters and soldiers who exploited the ruins for profit and cover and the last proper survey of the site was in 1910. We were more than travelers: we were pioneers.
When the time came to go meet Ros and Los I was already at Hello Guesthouse. "Hiya, y'all," said the Thai waitress. "You guys wanna beer?" Ros put her hand over her mouth and I ordered more Saeng Thip.
"Jesus this place freaks me out," said Ros.
"Everything is warped here," said Los. "It's not Thailand... what did it say in The Beach? A decompression chamber between east and west..."
"That's a good phrase," I said.
"And it's not like it'll be hard to find a place to stay," said Ros. Los gave her a pained look.
"Don't worry," I said. "As soon as you get your visas we'll be off. It only takes an afternoon."
We got to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet just after the border closed for the day, so we were obliged to take a room and fill the wash-hand basin with ice for our Bourbon. We had not intended to drink it; it was strictly for Bribery, but our self-control had melted like ice cream in the hot bus.
I woke up the next morning and instantly regretted it. Ros was rummaging in her bag without moving from her "sleep" position.
"Open your mouth," she instructed Los and squirted some Laser Juice down him. He convulsed with horrible body-wracking coughs and then sprang out of bed like a gecko I once saw fall into a coffee pot.
"It's the shit for early mornings," said Ros. "I get it from a friend in Kyoto. It's legal in Japan."
We were the first across the border, horribly wired, chattering in bursts and sucking our teeth, walking into the market to buy ganja and breakfast, anything to dilute the intensity and give our teeth some action.
The dry-mud-wretched market sold things which are illegal in Thailand: Tigers' teeth and dicks were everywhere; so were French antiques; rubies and sapphires from the Khmer Rouge mines. Over delicious Vietnamese crystal spring rolls we looked at a couple of rubies a swarthy salesman offered. He sagged visibly when Los brought out his special tweezers and jeweler's glass... They were worthless, but to cheer the man up I asked him how he got them. "I am Khmer Rouge," he said.
After breakfast a young man took us to a small shack with soft porn on the walls and prepared for us the most magnificent bong I have ever set eyes on. The bowl came off to facilitate filling and it was decorated with amulets and charms from ivory Buddhas to American eagles. Once the smoke was cutting the Laser Juice we left Poipet for Sisophon in a share taxi the friendly pimp helped us negotiate, and two hours later we were resting our shattered behinds in a fine roomy hotel. Dancing Road indeed. There was a brothel round the corner with outrageous architecture where the nephew of the Khmer Rouge provincial commander hung out, and we heard he had a car for rent.
"Is it safe?" Ros asked the nephew when we tracked him down.
"You have guide, very safe." I asked him if he knew a guide, but he just looked at me blankly. Los stepped in and spoke in rapid French to the man. His face flashed with relief and poured out the old colonial language.
"He says," said Los, "That he'll be our guide. He's been there before and knows a few people in the village."
The man turned to me and Ros and said in halting english, "I am... nephew? of Khmer Rou' big boss."
"Okay," said Ros. "Ask him if Pol Pot is still alive."
"Never mind about that," I said. "This is a travel story. And with him as our guide we won't have to worry about roadblocks. We can finish the Bourbon."
We set off for Banteay Chhmar at 6 the next morning with the Bourbon in the bag, a brace of joints in a spectacle case and a red ribbon tied around the wing mirror to show our respect to any blood-crazed Khmer Rouge ambushers we might meet...Later, in the middle of the road, we saw a mine with a teepee of sticks over it and the common yellow sign. A soldier napped in a hammock nearby. Anticlimactic, really.
The driver knew how to find a line and choose a speed to get over the worst bumps, but we were still thrown around the pickup cab like lottery balls. We pulled a column of dust between yellow fields as high as the borassus palms and kissed everyone we passed with weird dopplerings of the Grateful Dead.
Eventually we stopped under a shady tree on the edge of a small village that looked like a hippy's dream of India. It was quiet and we lit cigarettes while the guide spoke to two shirtless young men and a boy in a government army jacket.
"Pas de probleme," he said. The boy went barefooted over the rocks and disappeared into a bush, part of a wall of thick-leaved undergrowth. We followed hotfoot and pushed through the scratching twigs... and into the remains of this enormous complex. Banteay Chhmar covers two square kilometers and there are enough rest-houses and hospitals nearby to give archaeologists heart palpitations... if they're quick: the fantastic depictions of the prince getting it from the Chams have almost all been stolen, short work and a massive profit for looters.
But two square kilometers holds enough prizes... we clambered over blocks of stone, all at bizarre angles and stood entranced by exquisite carvings only to realize we were standing on them too... we eventually reached the central square.
Looking down on us from all four sides of all the towers still standing were huge grinning faces, meshed with the jungle and with the same smile of indefinable meaning on colorless lips that Kurtz had when his people roared a chorus for him. Sombre pride and ruthless power... enormous barbarities in the jungle, even when this had not been a jungle but a thriving city under King Jayavarman VII back in the 12th century. He forced the whole of Cambodia to go Buddhist with methods that the Gautama would have found unsound... The faces... Is it Buddha? Is it Jayavarman thinking he's Buddha? Wherever you stand in a Bayon temple, there are at least 4 faces looking at you, smiling enigmatically, just like he knew the hair-tearing that would happen when archaeologists found the stones intact but the libraries decomposed, no facts, just faces smiling down, silently possessing their terrible secret...
We got down to the jungle floor around the perimeter wall, and then a terrible thing happened: without warning, a vicious and depraved red ant hurled itself at Ros. Remorselessly it savaged the inside of her ear while she howled in distress and pulled it out piece by piece. The commotion attracted a fat, evil spider who, aghast at the horrible fate of its insect brother, leapt onto Ros, its fangs dripping terrible poison as they sank into her arm. Ros's screams became a savage screech she bashed the venomous hexapod with her fist, making mush of the skittering beast.
Ros said she wasn't going to let an insect put her off this archaeological triumph and we continued around the bas-reliefs but a nasty red bump rose, and knowing that while some Cambodian spiders are harmless, others are horrible sacks of deadly poison, we thought it prudent to get back to our stash of antihistamines. So we left double speed for Sisophon. We had angered the insects and had to bow to the freakyfluky style of the jungle.
In Sisophon we sat freshly showered, changed and healed, in front of our Beer Changs at a roadside noodle house. A few soldiers came and went, wearing the olive green of the Khmer Rouge... One was carrying an M16 with a grenade launcher attached. Sudden fear. Avoid eye contact, make no sudden movements... Did he realize it was my taxes that paid for his training? And where was he on the night the Sihanoukville train was ambushed? I was frozen in my seat with fear until a grotesquely obese man came in, sat at another table and interrupted my morbid train of thought.
"Jesus!" whispered Ros under her breath. "Look at that freak!"
"Don't stare," said Los. "He's obviously some kind of bandit chieftain."
The man barked some command that we interpreted as "Noodles!" and the cook/waitress woman dashed into the kitchen like there'd been a grenade at her feet. Almost immediately he shouted the command again, his voice rising with impatience and MSG cravings, and thumped the thin metal table with his fist, making a huge clang. Before the sound died away a bowl of steamy noodles was in front of him.
"The Grand Poobah is anxious to be fed!" I remarked.
The Grand Poobah was joined by his cohorts, less fat, but the way they chain-smoked it wouldn't be long before their lungs were as black as their doubtlessly vile hearts. We gave up waiting. The Grand Poobah and his oily army of respectable businessmen clearly had priority when it came to noodles.
Nighttime from a weird Thai eating-house. Drunken politicians capered in the back room with the bar girls. The broken glass didn't seem to bother anyone. Los caught a fresh bottle of Beer Chang with his sleeve and it shattered on the concrete floor, but no one seemed to mind, except Ros. She vainly signaled to the waitress who was parked in front of a fan with her head on her hands, watching an ant trail going into a sugar bowl.
The next morning were splitting up: Ros and Los were going on to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, I was heading back to Bangkok to catch my plane to Hanoi. They went off to catch their share taxi and I watched Sisophon go by while finishing the grass. Then I jumped on a truck to the border, got the stamps and strolled across the bridge to an express bus with reclining seats and air conditioning. When it started up and moved off it was like drifting on an ocean of cream.
The obstacles we new-school explorers -as we like to style ourselves- encounter and overcome for international thrills have changed since the Mekong was mapped, but they still exist... we have swapped impenetrable jungles for impenetrable bureaucracy and oh yes, there are plenty of new and exciting perils out there... Cars crash, especially on mined and muddy tracks, AK toting thugs high on yaa baa will take your wallet and pistol-whip you if there's not enough... and behind it all, the prime attraction, are the ancient stone faces of the Bayon, washed in the blood of millennia and cradled by the murderous jungle... And when no one is around, the faces wink slyly at each other and laugh and laugh and laugh...