Mention Siem Reap and most people will think first of Angkor Wat, the 12th Century sandstone temple. Then they think of Cambodia and its killing fields. With expectations slung like a hammock between two polar opposites we had no idea what our trip held in store for us.
Our first glimpse of the place came in the form of our smiling guide.
“My name is Samnang,” he said with a slight bow, pressing his palms together in prayer and holding them high, his finger tips close to his lips. “It means lucky, so most of my customer call me Lucky.” Then he giggled, his laugh sounded like a shallow stream babbling over stones. It reminded me of something. Well, he was certainly jolly. I have long held a secret belief that those who laugh a little too much are actually hiding great inner pain.
We waited for our friends Sue and Pete to arrive on their flight from Phnom Penh and were led to our private minibus and driver. Lucky finished all his sentences with that tinkling chuckle. I was not sure if it was going to drive me nuts by the end of the week.
At our hotel, the Shinta Mani Club, selected by Pete, who had organized every detail of our four night stay, we were greeted with a tray of rolled cold towels scented with jasmine oil. On the tray a pink lotus flower opened its heart. I know how boring it is to read eulogies of a hotel you may be unlikely to visit so I will simply say this… the corridors are scented with eucalyptus and decorated with candles… the restaurant has swinging ‘beds’ suspended over a lily pond and that become a table for four… the staff say ‘welcome home’ when you return from your trip and happy hour offers two cocktails for the price of one.
We were given a welcome drink on arrival. Lucky too. We chinked glasses, noticing how Lucky held his glass with two hands and seemed determined to chink his glass lower than each of ours.
“Height important. Like bowing,” he explained. “We show respect by bowing higher than the other person. When we touch glasses we use two hands and try to chink lower than the other person.” He laughed again. Sue too started racking her brains for what it reminded her of. Soon she had it.
“Amadeus,” she said. “The film. It’s Mozart’s laugh.”
She had nailed it.
No, I shall not bore you with details of our visits to the wondrous temples that litter the green pastures and country roads as if dropped from heaven. Nor the sunrise over the largest religious monument in the world. Nor the sunset, mainly because I’d be fibbing. We were up at 4.45 am and not home til 7pm and kind of missed them both because of cloud. But I will mention that I soon stopped noticing that giggle and instead noticed the way his smile always reached his eyes.
Our last stop on our tour was the War Museum. Our guide an army veteran of 30 years had been wounded 20 times and was totally blind for six years. He’d been shot, struck by shrapnel and caught out by landmines that killed his friends. He also lost half a leg
“I’m lucky,” he said, his smile weak. “I spent most of my time in hospital.”
Back in 1979 this man lost his entire family in the space of an hour. He was nine years old and had just been mushroom-picking. At the age of 13 he joined the army.
It was a shabby place; tanks, artillery and personnel carriers rusted in scrubby grass. Photographs faded in the sun and rows of guns, bombs and landmines lay dully on wooden shelves. But our guide showed us his bullet wounds and let us feel the shrapnel in his knee and hand. He prayed over his friend’s dried toe-bone that still lurked on the lip of a ruined tank. We walked silently past reconstructed minefields, our appetite for yet another fabulous lunch wiped out.
Our guide finished the tour and sat down heavily on a bench beneath a fan that turned slowly in the stifling noonday heat.
“Are you married?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, wiping his blind eye on his sleeve. “It is very hard for someone with one eye and one leg.” Then he put his hands together and bowed. As did I.
On our last day in Siem Reap I wrote the following poem:
More than just temples
I swim slow laps
in a pool that’s dark as glass.
I swing on a low bed
that skims a flower-strewn pool,
eat my fill of buttered fish
and raise a glass of ice-cold wine,
its surface damp with tears.
White cloths of jasmine scent my hands
and I flat palm them into prayer.
I bow deep. They bow deeper.
They swing away the noon-day heat
in hammocks strung from rafters
and they follow us with laughter
as they offer clothes and cards and flutes.
They walk endless laps of ancient grounds,
this red earth on their feet.
They beg us for a dollar
so they can learn and eat.
And so we soothe survivors’ guilt
with wallets fat from Western rules.
You see, we watched these killing fields
on shiny screens and so we understand.
We see these fields of lotus flowers,
the paddies, lush with rice,
the lakes, the goodness they made manifest
in beatific, beauteous stone.
Wiped out or maimed by bombs and bullets,
landmines, evil hands
that did not see the travesty
of civil war.
Beneath the surface and the glowing smiles,
the neon lights of Pub Street,
of Samnang’s Mozart laugh,
these gentle hearts remember
for they know genocide.
I buy gold earrings made from bombshells,
pay my dollars,
take a tuk-tuk ride.
November 24th 2014, Shinta Mani hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia