Travel writer Paul Theroux described visiting the Crac des Chevaliers, the crusader fortress in central Syria, as like being in the castle of his childhood fantasies. I never fantasized about castles or knights as a child- I spent my time imagining mysterious temples in dark jungles, likely a product of repeated childhood viewings of Temple of the Forbidden Eye. I should be embarrassed to admit it, but it was partly this fascination with the mysterious exotic that initially lead me to pursue anthropology. Jungle hidden ruins like Angkor were the playground of my childhood imagination- so, like every other tourist in Cambodia, Angkor was at the top of my list.Amazingly for a place that I had wanted to visit since I was a child, the ruins of Angkor did not disappoint. Somehow, despite being a major tourist site, overrun with souvenir vendors and bickering families, Angkor has lost none of its allure. Some sites, like Angkor Wat and the Bayon, were astounding for their grandeur: they seemed more elegant and fantastic than any storybook castle. There were long causeways lined with stone elephants, and promenades with python balustrades.Many of the sites had impressive reliefs, still intact in vivid cartoonish detail. The walls of Angkor Wat told complex mythologies, of Rama's battle with Ravana. There were countless figures filling every inch of stone space: many-armed gods in chariots, and monkey-faced soldiers fighting among warring elephants. Far more interesting were the reliefs around the Bayon's outer walls. They showed a social history of Khmer life. There were fishermen rowing among giant fish and crocodiles; a circus scene, featuring a dog-like rhinoceros; and even women picking lice out of each other's hair.
Several of the more intriguing ruins were still entangled in forest growth, with uneven doorways leading into darkened chambers. Vines and roots spilled over doorways, with the muscular girth of a coiled python's body. Smiling stone faces were veiled in dust and cobwebs. With their mossy walls and crumbling causeways, they had exactly the jungle atmosphere I had craved.
One of the best parts of visiting Angkor was interacting with some strange locals. On our first day in Angkor, an entirely naked 4-year-old boy marched up to Bordeaux and I. He stopped right in front of us, put his hands on his hips, made a sassy pout, and did some strange dance move that he must have gotten from a music video or a fashion show he'd seen on tv.
On our second day, during the sunrise at the Bayon, we were approached by a slightly off monk. He first asked where we were from, and hearing that I am from the US, suddenly began repeating "ah, George Bush!" He climbed onto a stone step, and raised out his arms. I at first thought he was taking the form of a bomber jet (to represent the US), but he began pointing at himself saying "Jesus Christo! Jesus Christo!" He came back to me, grabbed my sketchbook, and wrote out an extensive thesis, which referenced both Cambodia and the US, and involved the phrase (in Khmer) "christian+mormon+catholic", and which he dated and signed rather officially. I'm unsure of whether this was a prayer or some sort of unofficial pact, but I accepted it from him as solemnly as I could. As Bordeaux and I were leaving the Bayon later, we saw him again: he was smoking two cigarettes, and the carved parrot handle of his umbrella was smoking a third.