Part III of a novel:
Trip like Cambodia
Saloth Sar was a dimwitted kid from a small Cambodian fishing village. His family had some means and sent him to Catholic school in the big city of Phnom Penh. He did poorly, but somehow obtained a scholarship for technical studies in Paris, where he fell in with a group of anti-intellectual French radicals. He failed out of university and returned to Cambodia, where he immersed himself in the revolutionary politics of the mid-20th century, founded the Khmer Rouge, took over the country, changed his name to Pol Pot and systematically killed millions of people.
Pol Pot believed in a proletariat of uneducated peasants – a closed, xenophobic system of pure agrarian labor, similar to China’s Mao and the Great Leap Forward. His regime conquered from the fringes of society, spurred by deep-seeded confusion and helplessness within cities. There was a lot of that going around in the 70s. He evacuated the cities and rounded up anyone and everyone that didn’t fit his idea of a true Cambodian commoner. “What is rotten must be removed,” said the Khmer Rouge. This included all doctors, lawyers, artists, monks, politicians, soldiers and the rich – anyone who could think critically enough to oppose the man were sent to farms and worked to death, collapsed from rampant famine, slaughtered by children wielding blunt objects. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Two million people – 25% of Cambodia’s total population – killed.
1975 – 1978. Then Vietnam chased him away, tired of the border skirmishes. Pol Pot lived out the rest of his days in northern Thailand. He died at age 73, never brought to anything resembling justice. The genocide victims of Cambodia remain buried in mass graves throughout the countryside, but specifically around Phnom Penh in the Killing Fields.
Tourists visit. They stand in those fields among the piles of skeletons to feel the haunted land. It looks like any other prairie. The sun shines. Wind blows through the leaves. Imagine a young child whose head was bashed against a tree – try to comprehend the amount of terror she faced before dying, and conversely, the mindset of the older child doing the brutal killing. Killing tree, says a sign. Please don’t walk through the mass grave! says another. Tour guides talk about it every day. Imagine. Try to comprehend the chaos and mind games that could permit such a thing, and the modern Cambodians that live among it now. You stand there, staring with everyone else, buses and buses of tour groups pushing through. It might occur to you that the Killing Fields are poorly preserved, shoddily curated. Your view is blocked by herded tourists photographing the piles upon piles of skulls.
There is total horror in this world. It floats about, coalesces in the utter mayhem of history and lingers there, hovering like ideas in the mental spaces of modern Westerners sorting out lodging and meals. Some people leave Tripadvisor reviews of where to sleep while others sleep eternal.
We want grandness. We want temples. We want the heights of historic spirituality, of magic and ancient lore. We’re not going to Phnom Penh, to the ghosts of torture and evil, the tourism of pain and poverty. We’re landing in Siem Reap near the lost city of Angkor. We maneuver through immigration, find a taxi with Anish’s name on it, and take a tuk-tuk to the Shinta Mani resort. It’s sweltering.
Few people mention the bad things. Most travelers describe how fulfilled they are from seeing the famous sites, the friendliness of the people, how life-changing the overall experience, but they leave out the annoyances. You can read about all the countless reasons to go, but you never read about the humidity, the abject poverty, the mosquitoes.
The sun lowers on the resort. I’ve drifted out of consciousness while lounging in a deck chair by the pool. Mosquitos discover my tanned body, shirtless. They swarm, feast on me as I sleep unknowingly, piercing my flesh with their mouth-swords. The hotel is overstaffed with the friendliest of Cambodians, all offering water and cool washcloths, but none of them protect me when it matters most.
“Can I get you another beer, sir? Or anything else?”
“Yeah can you please genocide these mosquitos?”
Covered in little red welts, itching, life annoys me. I think of angst, compare all these finer things in life I’m now surrounded by, and wonder what I’d pay to rid myself of these bites. It surprises me that no billionaire has funded the total eradication of certain things. Surely there must be a way, through science, to rid the world of obnoxious pests. New York City has its bedbugs, cockroaches and rats. Don’t we hate them? I know no one really complains about the pests when describing their trip to New York, but it’s a factor, isn’t it? If I could, I’d wipe out these creatures that wreck such havoc. I think it’d be good for the entire planet.
People get so worried. As if we must protect every living thing. It’s stupid. We don’t try to save cancer cells. Life is just gene replication, and not all of it is precious. Species die off all the time – I’m not an advocate per se, but is it so bad in the end? If the condor and mammoth can pass away, can’t we more actively get rid of gnats and things so pernicious? The life of living people is worth more than a bundle of cells. But even fully grown adult beings aren’t equal – it depends, in my opinion, on flourishing. I want life to flourish. That’s the point here. Good life, not tumors. This is the point to all this. If it’s not possible, what is life worth in the end? A soaring bird is worth more than a parasitic tapeworm. A warring tribe is worth less than a prosperous society. And no life matters as far as galaxies are concerned. These are my judgments lately. I’m open to being challenged.
But at the very least:
Malaria. “Bad air” was a mystery many years ago. It was as if the air just become toxic. People took all the mosquito bites for granted. Dengue, Yellow Fever, West Nile Virus and Zika – mosquito-borne parasitic infections cause millions of deaths each year, under cover of near invisibility, specifically in tropical climates and impoverished countries. As if we even needed further reason to hate these things. There’s a way now to eradicate populations of mosquitoes by genetically modifying males, introducing them into ecosystems where they inseminate eggs with blanks. They’ve been introduced in some places. Why stop there, though? Why not eradicate all mosquitoes? Here I am in Cambodia, bitten up, not exactly worried for my life, but it crosses my mind. Maybe I’m not in sub-Saharan Africa, but this country is definitely “developing”. The problems that come with that are annoying. More annoying still are these bites in specific.
It’s hard to enjoy a holiday when your skin itches, when you scratch uncontrollably at your very body, this vessel we’re confined to, mortal, the heart beating finitely toward a quiet, pleasant end of itchiness, the sweet release of death.
♫ I want your ugly, I want your disease. I want your everything so long as it’s free. I want your love… ♫ Sultry, soothing vocals ooze over a delicate piano, a bossa nova cover of the anthemic pop song. We’re in a lounge called Miss Wong, drinking espresso martinis. My mind drifts to Allison, listening to Lady Gaga in the car as we drove to the shore, her bopping her head to The Fame Monster. ♫ I want your love and all your lover’s revenge, you and me could write a bad romance. Oh oh oh oh oh oooooh oooh. ♫ The familiar melody, the New York memories, the sting of loss and idealizing of good times gone, the sense of some classic époque that I’ve never actually lived in this old-timey lounge… I settle into my body, warm, wistful, and feel the sensation of nostalgia wash over me.
Anish raises his glass to mine. They clink with a slight vibration. I picture the sound waves spanning into the past, past the tasseled furniture and sepia photographs, through jazz and a sense of mystic powers from ancient temples, and into the future, our tomorrow of visiting Angkor, of Bangkok thereafter and who knows where our lives will go, what will come of anything, when anything comes at all. The present is a vibration and I wave at it.
We eat at Haven, a highly rated restaurant with a humanitarian philosophy. The sense of generosity is built into the consumer experience, the kitchen staffed with struggling kids, some profits going to charity. We enjoy good food along with a sense of well-being.
I laugh at myself.
There are gurus and yogis out there who espouse a certain mindset, a special way of existence beyond the drudgery that plagues so many. They offer wisdom, to be sure, but it is often tangled in the ordinary pursuits of hedonistic pleasure, right along with the rest of us. Maharishi taught enlightenment in India to the Beatles in the 60s. He was consumed with a totally transcendent way of being. He was also attracted to the female guests, pursued them sexually in ways Lennon deemed rapey, and the Beatles left. “Sexy Sadie” is about him – he “made a fool of everyone”. Poonjaji, Osho, Trungpa, Tendzin, Gurdjeiff – all these men had devout followers who would give them their wives, and ice cream for breakfast. No matter how spiritually in tune a person is, there seems to remain an inherent animalism.
We walk through the night market, get a taste of the major party scene, backpackers everywhere, falling over, drunk. It’s probably like this every day – loud, messy, raucous – since backpackers don’t care about weekends, but it seems especially rowdy. “Turn Down for What” plays loudly out of an Irish pub. Dudes spill out onto the dirt road; one slams into Anish and mutters some oafish apology, then continues screaming.
“Oh shit, it’s St. Patrick’s Day…” Anish realizes.
“Ugh, the worst holiday of the year.”
It began as a religious holiday to honor the patron saint of Ireland. It was during lent – that Catholic time of penitence and self-denial – when the ban on alcohol was lifted for the day. That’s why it has become synonymous with getting wasted. Do people really need this excuse to drink? And does it really warrant an exported day of crass Irish commodification? Surely people aren’t spilling out of French Bistros around the world on Bastille Day. Kiss me I’m Italian buttons aren’t ubiquitous. And Jews haven’t popularized the yarmulke for everyone to wear on Rosh Hashanah. Why do people need to wear green and talk about clovers and leprechauns? What weird holiday is this?
The drunk bro pukes on the sidewalk next to Anish. We jump out of the way.
“Fucking hell!” Anish checks his shoes.
I wonder if we belong where we are.
These streets are for the braindead crowds. Reckless, loud, college t-shirts and beer goggles. Or it’s for the older ones, over the hill, just trying to see the wonders of the world, not get robbed, not get sick, make it back to home in one piece with predictable pictures and stories. How predictable are we?
Anish hits an ATM, takes out a bunch of riel and hands me some. An allowance.
“Here, why don’t handle the cabs and drinks with this.”
“Word.” I’m his bag man.
We come to a place called Laundry. It has a movie projector and a pool table and looks a bit ‘alternative’. I get us drinks and we settle in. There’s a woman there who is definitely a man, dressed provocatively like a hooker. Some friend groups are scattered, a few friendly bartenders. Anish challenges the trans person to a game of pool and flirts with her. She’s dressed like Marilyn Monroe and strikes very feminine poses but with masculine energy. Anish tells me she has nice legs. I think he’s kidding.
“Where are you guys from?” asks the ladyboy.
“New York,” says Anish.
“Oooh, New York!”
This is our answer now, even though neither of us live there, and were both born in California. Somehow ‘New York’ suits us better – we wear it more comfortably, identify more with it. It’s where we became adults and somehow feels like the best shorthand. We’re men from what really feels like the capital of the planet. We’re a bit arrogant. We carry with us an air of privilege and access. We’re so American. But I have nothing to prove, I remind myself. I’m not so special, not omnipotent.
Anish and Marilyn negotiate their bodies around the pool table while I sip whiskey. People on Foursquare and Yelp call this bar ‘Brooklyn-esque’. It’s funny how much cultural cache our old borough has around the planet. It’s as culturally exportable as St. Patrick’s Day, even more so. But what the hell does “Brooklyn” mean? What qualities does this bar share with it? Hipster? Artisan? Meticulously designed? Pretentious? Looking around at how none of that is specifically apparent, I think it just means alt trendy. I feel funny. Is this me? Commodifying subculture and sanitizing it has always been so repugnant – carefully refined tastes & preferences exploited so nonchalantly. But I do enjoy finding places to feel comfortable in, places that try for the right coolness. It’s certainly better than an Irish pub, isn’t it?
And 20 years ago, the United Nations recognized the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot as the rulers cof this exact spot I sit. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, even. Now Cambodia is this.
I end up at a table, talking to another traveler about this. He’s from Australia, been traveling the world for a year, was in Europe and now Asia before going back “home”. He uses quotes. His blonde hair is dreaded. He’s laid back, cool, talks slow. I like him. He asks if we’ve been to the temples yet and I say we’re going tomorrow.
“Yeah mate, you have to go. And through the whole Khmer Rouge thing, those temples remained, witnessing it all.”
“It’s a real trip, isn’t it?” I say.
“Do you like to trip?” he asks.
“Haha, yeah, sure.”
He takes out some chocolates and gives them to me.
“Take this, man,” he says. “I gotta get rid of it.”
“Oh snap. Mushroom chocolates? Really?”
“Yeah man. Good stuff. Have a great time.”
“Wow, cheers to that.”
TURN DOWN FOR WAT
I can’t believe I’m awake. 7am. Breakfast is good – juice, coffee, bacon, eggs: a large, hot buffet, a feast fit for the long day ahead. I take out the chocolate and we look at it.
“When did you last take mushrooms?”
“In the Catskills, I guess, with Laura & Danny and Claire and everyone. You?”
“Burning Man last year.”
“Ah, cool. How was that?”
“Good. Really good, actually.”
“Nice… Well, shall we?”
“Yeah, haha, why not.”
We split it. A half-dose is plenty in this situation, I guess.
A tuk-tuk meets us outside. The driver is amiable and eager, proposes a plan for the day: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and the Bayon – the big three places we’ve heard about. We drink water from the guy’s cooler on our way to the ticket office about 7km north – it could be more eventful, I think, this odd distance between the tourist town and the main attraction. It’s not very interesting. I feel my stomach rumble a bit, starting to feel something as we enter the park. The approach has a feeling to it, the road surrounded by thick forest. I think of the remake of King Kong, Peter Jackson’s best film, and the exotification of Skull Island. There’s something to it, and suddenly I feel like an adventurous colonialist, penetrating the wild. In reality, we’re on a cleared path of steady traffic, like a fixed course ride at Disneyland, the mechanics of tourism muting what would otherwise be an insane discovery, approaching a huge moat that surrounds tall, impressive walls. Oh, to be the French explorers who first uncovered this place in the 19th century! I’m telling myself both stories – the crazy forgotten civilization and the now-normalized security of current society. I’m taking pictures of the trees, the moat, the ruins as they grow in my sight.
We reach a parking lot. We keep our composure as our driver tells us he’ll wait for us right here. Got it. We take water, climb out into a tourist crowd. This is weird. I feel funny. I don’t want to see everyone around here. I want to be alone. If only everyone else disappeared. I wonder if it was a bad idea to take psilocybin, if this is something I’ll regret. No: I’m a functioning adult; I’m prepared for this. I put my hand on Anish’s shoulder. I breathe. Things are copacetic.
We cross the main bridge and I feel it. I sense the heaviness of what it means to cross over this divide, to be allowed into this shrine. We pause on the bridge and stare at the moat. It’s murky. We’re not saying anything. I manage a photograph but I can’t make it really pretty. I want it to be beautiful but it isn’t quite.
We walk through the main gate and the world opens up. I think of being born, of the birth canal, of entrances and I get a sense of myself as a creature in this world. I feel my navel, my belly, the bowels of humanity. It’s funny how these associations work. I hear the voices of so many others, the idle, inane chatter, the clamor, the cacophony of voices beginning to grate against me. I feel even more like a baby, sensitive, exposed. I breathe through the rumblings of auditory hallucinations.
Within the temple gates: dead space; open fields of faded grass surrounding the main building. The circle of life cycles through my thoughts. The brown and tan of the ground bothers me – I want to nourish this whole place, to make it flourish. I drink more water; my own saliva tastes funny and my stomach is a bit tense. Stone libraries are scattered across the lawn. The sun is already getting hot. We move ourselves away from everyone as best we can, approach the rocks of one of the ruins. I think of Athens, of Socrates, imagining some grand library where learned men studied the knowledge available to them and beyond and I wonder what is knowledge even… There are steps upward I want to climb but can’t; I maintain a sense of etiquette and order as I imagine things.
I can feel my mind working. I cannot move my mouth.
We walk past ramshackle tents hocking hippie dresses and shot glasses, horribly placed among the precious ruins. This hurts me. I don’t understand what these flimsy structures are doing here. They taint the ancient scene, their obvious, impoverished, makeshift crudeness within these walls, such careless constructions erected in a temple of such austerity. I can feel my thoughts verge toward globalization and poverty and I turn away, face instead the awesome temple towers and higher reaches of humanity. We head there, the spires calling out.
Religion is the most preserved and documented aspect of the Khmer empire, which controlled much of Southeast Asia from 800-1400 AD. It started with a guy called Jayavarman II who proclaimed himself the king of the world. He fused together prevailing Hinduism with ancient myths and a powerful cult of personality. He was worshipped like a god along with the other Hindu deities. Jayavarman II established Angkor on the belief system of Shaivism, which singled out Shiva from the other major gods. Shiva was seen not just as the destroyer, but the creator, preserver, revealer and concealer of everything. It was a sect of Hinduism that was almost monotheistic, giving in to the unified conceptualization of all that is.
There is a force in the universe and we try to name it, quantify it: is it one or is it many? The Abrahamic religions in the West – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – preach a monotheistic worldview, even if that one god is represented as a trinity, even as it is named something else by each new book, creating competing gods from the same essential thing. Much holy war has resulted from this concept of a one true god. It’s nice to be in the headspace of Asian polytheism, the gods more like Greek myth, each power representing a fundamental aspect of life. Calling it all one is cool too… Just semantics, really: the flow state of life, creation, death, rejuvenation like the seasons, the world spinning, life decaying and sowing the seeds for rebirth and newness. All religion tries to be about that, trying to articulate it. The spiritual world.
Angkor Wat – this particular temple itself – was built in the early 12th century by the god-king Suryavarman II. He defined this temple – also his personal mausoleum – more in line with Vaishnavism, a Hindu sect that prioritized Vishnu (the preserver) over Shiva (the destroyer). So Suryavarman II unified himself with that specific god – was one with it – and everyone worshipped them together, as “one”. Worship was centered around these raised temples, these spires, layered, built higher and higher, each featuring a thing called a lingam – a phallus, basically – that encapsulated all godliness in ascension – the architecture of male sex as spiritual truth: A bunch of hard dicks reaching higher into the air, fucking the sky. The usual.
It is deep, though. Fucking.
It’s funny. Because everything is everything, the most intensely mystical sentiment is, at the same time, a total joke.
There are marble engravings of women, large breasts, copulation. Sex is everywhere and everyone’s obsessed with it. Even ascetic monks in saffron robes – walking around dutifully now just like 1000 years ago – would have to acknowledge that. But as monks might point out, sex is so much more than the act itself. It’s cosmic. Penises and vaginas: the penis growing, pulsing, penetrating, destroying, creating, emerging from and through and of the hole, the gap, the void, the tip of it like the woman, legs spreading, the vagina opening, warming, welcoming, inviting, taking, consuming, creating, fully, seductively, repeating, infinitely. Forever. Always. Magnificent.
I am open. I am tumescent. My heart beats. I get it. I look at the bas-relief, the etchings in the walls, infused with such care and meaning. I can see. The depictions are of war fought between man and beast – irate faces and weaponry, fighting with monkeys, just a bunch of primates. In the middle of the tableau, in the center of this chaotic, overwhelming scene is the sacred woman, the bearer and receiver, at peace. Woman, woman, woman. As true today as it was when it was written.
This temple is divided into three levels: Heaven, Earth, Hell. Of course, right? We stand on the ground, on the ground floor; the war imagery makes it clear: This is hell. It’s also earth. Go figure.
I’m a bit queasy. I can’t ignore it. Nature calls, my root chakra uneasy. I signal to Anish that I need a break. We walk through the heat, our brows starting to sweat, and find a modern building, shabbily constructed. Inside is a toilet. I enter and feel nauseated by the stench, put off by the general dinginess. I sit down and relax my stomach, allow my bladder and rectum to loosen and expel whatever they wish, zone out on the pleasantness of the base experience. I stare at the door in front of me, barely closed. I stare at the walls. They begin to pulse. I see them moving as I breathe. I know these confines to be stationary, but that’s not what I see. I sense motion, the frantic molecular activity of electrons inside atoms, buzzing and orbiting and restless. I am one with it. I breathe again and again, accept the filth in the air, the yin yang of pleasant ideas and utter despair – the world in unison. This is my trip.
My penis feels small, contracted along with my balls and so I tug on it all, stretch out my package and connect with it, feel more comfortable. Thank god there’s a hose and I shoot it at my foreskin and glans and scrotum and asshole. The back of my neck feels sticky and my armpits a bit as well and I wipe everything down. Glorious water. Now I feel refreshed, composed. I gather myself and walk out.
I stand outside and ignore the other visitors who buy soda and water and pointless trinkets, ignore the crassness of this reality and instead stare at the trees, branches and leaves like the walls, vibrating. I know photosynthesis is an organic process but I see in it electricity. Maybe electricity is also organic.
Anish finds me. We traverse the grounds again, push our way through hell on earth, navigate through stone walls, through the crowd. I’m not freaking out. I’m fascinated. I’m a spaceship. At the final tower is a steep ladder leading up, ascending up to heaven. We queue, move slowly, reach the top. The jungle stretches out beyond the temple’s walls. We’re high. I don’t trip. I imagine jumping, soaring out into the trees, running through the thicket and into something vast and mysterious. And behind my head is so much noise, claustrophobia, tourists, annoyances. My mind is pulled in these two directions like Vertigo. I let myself feel the odd pull of jumping before pulling myself back into the halls.
The place photographs pretty well. The texture works, and it looks decent when edited into a rectangle, but it’s hard to summarize the whole thing visually, in a box; it’s too sprawling. It’s best seen from outside, from a distance, and I imagine myself flying above it, picturing this whole thing like a bird might see it. The views from up here are good, though – the forest all around, invading armies from the past easily spotted perhaps. Alone, this place would be quite something – a castle for meditating, just listening to the animals. None of that is audible now, but I hear it. For a second it’s all I hear, and when Anish suddenly says something to me I don’t even process it.
“This feels like India,” Anish mutters.
It’s the first words I feel like I’ve heard in a while. I hear the sounds coming from his mouth. They circle my ears and I wonder if I’ve really heard them or if I’m imagining them. I try to understand what the words mean.
“Oh yeah?” I say, feebly.
“So many people, pushing…” he manages to say. I sense he wants to say more. But it feels like a complete thought so he leaves it.
“People…” I manage.
Hell is other people. Sartre said that. We’re supposedly in heaven, or so the architects of this temple tell us. But this ain’t heaven. Others are such a nuisance, a threat even, when my mind is so plastic. The backpacks and t-shirts and confusion of everyone else is so apparent, it’s embarrassing. I have my own brain to deal with but I can feel the dumb psychology of so many others. Heaven doesn’t exist.
I try to focus on other things, like the material of the building, the ideas behind each rock, not the past in which it was built because that feels like too much right now, and not the future in which this will one day crumble, but the present – this moment in which each rock solidly holds its grip on reality. I put my hand on it. You rock, rock. I am this.
Angkor Wat – literally temple city in Khmer – was intended as a place of worship, a place to praise the gods, to feel the universe. Nowadays gods aren’t worshipped so much. Not like they were. Modern churches don’t address the grandeur of life and death and birth. Well, I guess they try – the nativity scene, the crucifixion. But the meaning is lost, isn’t it? Life isn’t cherished, celebrated by the world’s preachers. It’s stifled, sanitized, smothered. The seeds of lovely ideas aren’t watered; scripture is used to control minds, to spread dogma and hate and closed-mindedness. Churches are filled with obedient followers of sermons that so often preach nonsense, and profit immensely in the process.
American culture fails so greatly to properly revere real spirituality, somehow ignorant of the sanctity of living. Birth is treated as a business in buildings full of sickness, C-sections given to turn over beds, child care and early education underfunded. Life is hardly savored in public policy: wars are waged always, the prison population growing exponentially, the health of everyone disregarded in favor of industrialized obesity. Death is tolled in outstanding numbers, victims of senseless crime, elder care always suffering, final years prolonged by misguided advances in modern medicine. Death is given no reverence – a stuffy funeral mostly removes the primal feelings it connotes. From inception to burial, life’s journey is treated with such little sincerity. It’s all so fucking disgraceful!
For real connection we’re left to our own devises. But there are still places of worship – active spaces where people properly engage deeply as humans, give meaningful reverence to core universal conditions in a social context. Places of culture are our modern churches: museums, galleries, theaters of dance and stage and film. These are places where the human spirit’s aim toward transcendence is really celebrated, and where architecture lofts the arts toward something holy. In these buildings, behavior is conditioned to engage in a thing fully – not through tyrannical coercion or tired tradition, but through a certain posture built on the pure joy that accompanies deep understanding, of finding yourself and losing your ego simultaneously.
Dance clubs are also temples. In Berlin we say that we’re going to church sometimes when we go to Berghain, because it’s on that dance floor, moving our bodies in unison to a collective rhythm, probably high on substances, that we really connect to this thing that is bigger than any individual. There is no god in the sky, so to speak, but there is this thing that we can all identify as beyond our own human lives. You can call it god if you’d like, or energy or shared consciousness. It’s there, whatever you call it. And dance clubs and good parties honor it. We create modern bacchanalias. We honor the enduring importance of the Dionysian Mysteries. Burning Man is like that.
Dionysus was the Greek god of epiphany – of the cosmos appearing to you. Wine is perhaps the most socially accepted form of such intoxication, and surely Dionysus was the god of the grape, but also of religious ecstasy and ritual madness – losing your mind into the flow, personified. He was a dying god who had to be vivified, continually. The spiritual check-in. The god of vision quests. The liberator from fear and anxiousness. The subverter of powers of oppression. The intoxicating spirit. The life of the party. To give in is to become empowered, to partake fully is to become the god himself. In that feeling we are all god, indeed.
We are Dionysians. Our friends call us hedonists.
Dionysus is not currently present at Angkor Wat. Perhaps the ancient rulers would have welcomed the spirit, perhaps not. The Khmer don’t strike me as partiers, per se, but surely all the effort they’d put toward the higher realm signified a certain simpatico with altered consciousness. Instead, here in front of us now, there is just spectacle, gawkers, an Indiana Jones Hollywood set covered in Natural History Museum respectability. For shame – there is such potential.
“There should be a rave here,” I utter.
Anish laughs. My suggestion tickles him.
“These rocks need electricity,” I loudly think.
Angkor Wat’s awesomeness would be so much more apparent to people who were partying. Life should be celebrated, not enshrined, god damn it!
It’s hot as we walk away. We get water at the shanty hut of a kiosk. Thousands of people are here, millions each year – all of them want, surely as badly as us, pleasure, deep refreshment. It’s never below 30° here, and we’re surrounded by water – this huge moat, carved out of earth, filled with freshwater.
“I want to swim in this.”
“Really?” Anish asks.
“I guess not like it is.” The moat is big, opaque. I imagine creatures, something threatening. But ideally this water would be clean, inviting us in from the heat. A purification system could make it run clear. People could come with their swimsuits and jump in. I want things to be perfect, different like this.
We flock to this ancient city, this relic. 20 minutes away we stay, Siem Reap growing rapidly to meet tourist needs, in turn straining the environment, using up the water, unsettling the structure. A whole new city built to go admire the ruins of another. There are places in Europe older than Angkor that are still in use – the original, beautiful architecture of Italy and Holland kept alive and modernized. Why build new, worse buildings in Siem Reap when – with proper funding – this whole ancient city could be modernized?
The flimsy wooden merchant tents are a joke juxtaposed next to strong limestone and granite. Most of the land is unused, the dead grass like all of Angkor – a possible fertile bed of life and wonder, reduced somehow to dying. Oh, if only Angkor was rejuvenated! If only this temple were a great city square, the surrounding area revitalized with proper shops and houses. It could be so magnificent! German castles lie throughout cities and towns, cathedrals from the past surrounded by life of the present. What’s so different?
“There’s no infrastructure here, Ethan. There’s no power, no water, no sanitation,” I imagine someone saying.
“But why not? Is it so impossible to imagine?”
“It’d be difficult…”
“But impossible? NO. Surely pipes could be run into the ruins. And internet. I mean, the temples are okay but the cellular coverage sucks.”
I chuckle to myself. I should be writing this down.
I’m seeing things. A vibrant, beautiful city with all the modern amenities. I’m seeing this moat like a lovely lake, sparkling, children playing, everyone relaxing on fields of green. I’m dreaming. I’m such a sap I want it so bad.
“Who would pay for it, Ethan?” I ask myself. “This is a poor country.”
But there’s so much wealt in the world. Norway and the UAE could help out. The UN could spread the wealth. UNESCO has decided it’s worth it – it’s obviously a site of world heritage. We just lack sufficient leadership, organization, vision.
Can someone please organize the planet?