A FEW OF US HAD HITCHED A RIDE in a Doctors without Borders plane headed for Battambang, with the hope of going on by car to Angkor Wat. Although the roads were iffy and certain temples were said to still be mined, we had been told that the political situation was momentarily stable enough for tourism. It turned out that this was an overly optimistic view. Khmer Rouge forces were still active in the northwestern provinces, staging rogue raids on villages and blowing up bridges, including, as it happened, the one linking Battambang province with Siem Reap.
Although we did not make it far on that journey, the drive was beautiful. Low clouds hung above the horizon and a thin line of pale light bisected earth and sky. The entire landscape was phosphorescent with intensely varied, liquid greens. If we hadn't known better, it would have been easy to be lulled into thinking of the unaltered vistas of rice paddies, water lilies, kapok trees, and sugar palms as serene.
You could look out the car window and forget that shallowly buried in the paddies, the ditches, the cart paths were millions of explosives. There were Russian Mon-50's, Bulgarian POMZ-2's, American-made Claymores, Vietnamese 82-B antipersonnel mines, trip-wire fragmentation mines, and all manner of pineapple mines. The disk-shaped mines just beneath the surface were in some cases so small that they resembled toys. Between 1975 and the years when the late Princess Diana became a global poster girl for mine abatement, anywhere from 4 million to 10 million explosives were planted throughout Cambodia. This accounted, Madame Sarouen explained, for the many maimed people one saw, and still sees, along the roads.
"The detonating pin is often small," we were told by our driver on that journey. "It can trigger the blast and the booster and then, bang, have one leg lost."
Although I cannot recall what kept her amused, I remember keenly that Madame Sarouen giggled often, the sound pitched girlishly high. And I remember my surprise that, given her history, she could summon laughter at all. When the journalists in the car found themselves discussing the genocidal period that people in Cambodia call "Pol Pot time," Madame Sarouen remarked unemphatically that the Khmer Rouge decimated her family. Of five children, she said, "I have one son left." He was her youngest. The two had survived the years of starvation and forced labor by eating "water greens, a little fish" and what she referred to as rice dust. By that she meant chaff shared with the communal pigs.
My conversation with Madame Sarouen came to mind one morning on the way to Angkor Wat. After breakfast, my traveling companion and I headed by car for the delicately carved temple of Banteay Srei. We passed a boy on a beautiful white pony, trotting past the collossal 12th-century demon heads on the causeway to Angkor Thom. We passed handlers at the gate strapping bells onto caparisoned tourist elephants. We passed international archaeological work crews framing crumbling temples with spidery bamboo scaffolds and small villages of tidy stilt houses built with foreign subsidies. We crossed a newly constructed plank bridge paid for with Australian dollars and watched a female construction crew laying by hand a new road underwritten by the Japanese.
"I FINALLY FIGURED OUT THE THING with the flowers," my companion remarked of a mystery involving the lotus flower arrangements throughout the Hotel Grand D'Angkor. The flower petals seemed so unnaturally stylized as to be a kind of origami. And they were. "They have three full-time workers on staff," my friend said, "folding lotus flower petals all day."
As we drove along, I searched for ways to accomodate the bewildering essence of a place where the devastating proof of recent holocaust coexists with a heartbreaking and nearly ineffable cultural delicacy. There is always a sense in Cambodia of truth as unstable commodity, a fact you can feel in conversations with, say, a guide whom logic suggests could only have survived the Khmer Rouge by way of collaboration, and equally in the stories the famous old temples seem to tell.
Except in outline, so little is known about the ancient Khmer that a traveler is always left in a state of imaginative suspense. It is true that inscriptions tell stories of kingly lineages; that reliefs speak with hectic elegance of war and trade and daily life; that such statuary as hasn't been carted off by looters relates a complex syncretic history of Buddhism and Hinduism compressed and overlaid as densely as geological strata. It's also true that it's the fundamental business of temples to invoke the greater mysteries.