In the temple of Ta Prohm, sandstone ruins lay in the grip of 400-year-old strangler figs and silk-cotton trees. The roots, in a kind of anaconda embrace, are slowly devouring the structures of the ancient Khmer civilization. As their removal would likely cause even more damage, the conservators have opted to leave them be, and I'm glad they did. Standing there contemplating the centuries it took to marry them together, it was hard to imagine one without the other. Who is to say whether the temple is holding up the tree, or the tree is buttressing the temple?

Near the entry gate a young woman with a mangled arm and leg limped toward me on crutches, her sad eyes and clumsy gestures replacing words. I dug into myself and gave her several dollars in passing, but my tour guide, who had taken the name Johnny, took no notice of the woman. He walked past her as if she didn't exist, seemingly desensitized by the commonplace of mutilated lives. He led me through the gopura, the entry gate, and eagerly shared the history of the temple and the ancient city that once surrounded it. Though only thirty, Johnny had an air about him that suggested he had seen much in life. His English was soft, but purposeful, and I was never sure if his constant smile was natural or just for my benefit.

I had asked Johnny about the land mine problem the prior day, the first of a three-day tour. We had just left the airport in an air-conditioned van and were following the freshly paved road to Siem Reap. In my naivety, I had expected to see a litter of detonated land mine casings and rusted-out troop carriers along the way, but instead the lane was littered only with construction sites of five-star hotels. Johnny looked at me reassuringly. "The mines have all been cleared from this area," he said, though I was uncertain if he meant the road or the region.

Just shy of Siem Reap we veered onto a hard-pack dirt trail lined with old houses, thatch-roof huts, and an occasional faceless concrete building. We turned between two seemingly misplaced entry gates and found my hotel, a new two-star that had just received its final coat of paint and glimmered white in the tropical sun. A young bellhop in a tight black suit let me out of the van and beat me to every door, always bowing and smiling as he went. As I worried about how much to tip, he bowed me into the lobby and I was suddenly transported to a Howard Johnson's on U.S. Route 1. Between the sterile interior, the not yet functioning elevators, and the circuit breaker that was mounted above the bathroom shower, I resolved to spend as little time there as possible.

The road from town to the temples of Angkor flowed like a busy ant hill; chaotic, but somehow efficient. Driving lanes were only suggestions. Our van wove among tour buses full of Europeans, bicycles teetering high with kindling, and orange-robed monks fluttering on the backs of motorcycles. A Mercedes jockeyed ahead of us as little beeps from its horn pushed the cycles aside. "They belong to the rich," Johnny said, his face still wearing a questionable grin, "and the high ranking members of the party." The Mercedes was as conspicuous as the few remaining French colonial mansions in downtrodden Siem Reap. Knowing that some of the Khmer Rouge regulars had been pardoned and integrated into party positions, I couldn't help but wonder if these were the same people who told Johnny there was no longer a land mine problem.

Taking some uneasy comfort that the mines were gone and I could step off the road to pee without losing a limb, my concern shifted to the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the ones that had not changed arm patches. They disintegrated as a formal entity with the coup in 1997, and I would presume, left without a government pension. But no matter how gently I probed, Johnny kept avoiding my inquiries. Though he was always eager to share ancient Khmer history, it was clear that some parts of his country's past were meant to stay there.

As we stopped at each temple, Johnny shepherded me on a predetermined path and coordinated each history lesson with an opening, a view, or a detail of bas relief. We passed numerous archeological teams from other countries that were scattered among the various temples, setting up scaffolding and bracing many of the more severely leaning walls and towers. Johnny was quick to point out and tell of the wartime damage, but it was not just the recent KR atrocities — all the wars of the last century had taken their toll. He spoke not out of defeat or any sense of sadness, but with pride that the stones had endured.

After touring several temples and being continually swarmed by sellers of jewelry, silk, tour books and drink, I realized that the tourists were the new chosen ones. Just a few years ago most of these people had never even seen a foreigner. They were mostly young women and children, and they smiled in spite of their desperation; the same timeless smiles as the bas relief temple carvings of their ancestors, though their idols had changed. Now the travelers replaced the Gods. We were the revered, we were the money, and we were the saviors, and as the day passed we grew ashamed and were less apt to look them in the eye. Instead, hiding behind our sunglasses, we walked by them as their small hands touched our sides.

Looking for the high water mark of adventure, we took the road to the remote ruin of Banteay Srei, some 20 kilometers into the jungle north of Angkor. The residue of the Khmer Rouge and their sporadic banditry was rumored to be commonplace, and recent tourist books warned to go at your own risk. The road north faded to dirt, but in several kilometers we came into a long stretch of road construction where crews of peasant women labored with heavy stone, laying the rough pavers by hand, which later were to be topped with tar and gravel. Though the dust of the dry season tried to veil it, the wars had not destroyed color. The women wore long flowing skirts in surprising colors and patterns, and their hems waved as they tossed rocks in the air in large screened trays and stared back through the rising dust at our cameras, as if saying "please don't forget us."

We approached Banteay Srei in an early morning traffic jam. The last five kilometers was a gridlock fury of tour buses, motorcycles and Toyotas. As recently as the temple had become safe to visit, it had also become fashionable. Any stray KRs looking for an easy fix would have a difficult time deciding which tour bus to attack.

Now, it seems, the tourists hold the jungle, or at least the temples. Johnny led me over the moat, between flocks of Germans and French, and into the chattering crowd pouring over the ruin. People were complaining about the heat, some cursed quietly to themselves at spoiled photo ops, and others ignored signs saying, "please do not climb." At the ruin of the north library, a loud German woman under a wide brim hat was fingering the finely carved red sandstone relief, wearing it away by the grain.

I asked Johnny if there was a quiet place where I could enjoy the temple, and he led me through a small opening into the mandapa, the entry vestibule to the central shrine. The coolness of the stone made an oasis from the sweltering heat outside, and incense sticks burned and smoked from the alter chamber. The place felt holy and was blanketed with silence.

"This monk is a very special monk," Johnny whispered. I turned and saw an ancient man wrapped in chiffon lying on the stone floor. "He is very old and he has been here at Banteay Srei since it was discovered. He has spent his whole life caring for the temple." The old man rolled onto his knees like a frail child and nodded to us, let us know we were not disturbing him — he even seemed honored to have us there. Then he rearranged his robe and rolled back to where he had been, and for a moment we were all silent together until a young backpacker poked his head through an opening and saw the monk. "Cool!" he exclaimed, and the moment dissolved. For the first time I saw sadness in Johnny's eyes. He looked longingly at the old Monk before I followed him out of the chamber, back into the throng.

Like all the major temples, Banteay Srei is guarded day and night by an inadequately armed, but stylishly dressed police force. They wore a pressed tan uniform over a bright yellow T-shirt exposed at the collar — new colors for new times. As we left through the remains of the east gate, a grim police officer approached me in a rush. "Sir!" he shouted, as more a command than an inquiry. My fear quicky subsided as he gave me a toothy smile. "You like to buy badge? Souvenir?" He held out his shield engraved in Cambodian letters that could have said anything from "police" to "dog catcher." I declined.

Everything, it seemed, was under construction or reconstruction, from temples to hotels to highways, all promising a path to prosperity, but I was also seeing old dangers pass and new ones appear. Lives ruined, not as much by land mines, but by the get-rich-quick mentality. KR guerillas brushed aside by KR robber barons. Rabid consumerism and movie stars making the place fashionable, but cheap. MacDonald's and MTV couldn't be far behind. The great hell that had descended on Cambodia was transforming into a lesser hell, and I found myself looking for a sign, hoping for some moderating force to intervene, but all I could feel around me were the ruins.

On our last day near sunset, having two hours to kill before our plane departed, we motored back to the west gate of Angkor Wat to watch the temple turn orange. The west causeway over the moat was half-covered under a deep blue tarp, its stones placed in rows beyond the moat and numbered for reconstruction. I walked the esplanade and entered the first portal, passing statues of ancient Buddhas with shattered heads and limbs. As I paused at the base of the central towers for a final glance, I turned at a sound. With one hand on the wall guiding her, the other missing, a pint of a woman stepped through the portal and touched my arm. Expecting a beggar or a seller of trinkets, I instinctively recoiled and said "No," but she bowed her head and held her palm down, and I felt as though I were smaller than she. The woman carried nothing for sale and passed where I stood, climbing the vertical steps on knobs of ankles where her feet were once attached. Below her ankles the ancient stones of Angkor reveled in their permanence. Her ashen robe fluttered in the changing breeze as she rose, step by step, into the temple.

[Originally published in L'Intrigue]
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