Monthly Archives: October 2012

Signs of Cambodia, vol. 1



Food and drink

For your own safety

And my favorite, for your Cambodian-Jewish grandma  


The king is dead. Long live the king!

When I teach fiction writing workshops, I use this example for the difference between story and plot:

Example 1—
The king died, and then the queen died.
(Story—a series of events told in sequential order.)

Example 2—
The king died, and then the queen died of heartbreak.
(Plot—a series of events told with cause and effect so one event brings about the next.)

This isn’t an original lesson—it came from one of my writing teachers, the wonderful Joshua Henkin. (If you haven’t read Josh’s novels, including The World Without You and Matrimony, you should go do so immediately.)

Some story happened in Cambodia this week. King Norodom Sihanouk, who led Cambodia for great swaths of the 20th century, died. He was 89 and mostly living in Beijing for medical care; he’d stepped down from the throne in 2004. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Sihamoni, now wears the crown, but Sihanouk, the king father, is still very popular, and his portrait hangs next to the one of the king in many businesses and homes.

The news was announced on Monday morning, October 15, and by Monday afternoon a crowd had gathered outside the Royal Palace. National days of mourning were proclaimed, and the Water Festival, a holiday at the end of November, was cancelled in Phnom Penh, on account of being too festive for a sad time. I was prepared for a combination of the funerals for Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson.

Sihanouk’s body returned to Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Even though the plane wasn’t supposed to land until 3 pm, people started lining up in the streets in early afternoon for the processional from the airport to the Royal Palace. It was hot, 90-something degrees and humid, but only the westerners were sweating.

Traditional mourning clothes are a white shirt and black pants or skirt, and just about every person in the street was wearing this combination. I wore my white shirt and black pants too, and for the first time in six weeks, I felt like I was able to blend in with the crowd. People pinned a black ribbon to their shirts, which reminded me of Jewish shiva badges, ripped to show the tear in your soul. Monks gathered together at a turn in the street.

Some carried Cambodian flags, flowers and portraits of Sihanouk.


The mood was festive. Maybe it’s not so odd—why not be cheerful for a parade and a moment to feel national pride? The motorcade finally arrived, and when it did it passed quickly; there was no lingering, waving, or taking in the crowds. (Which explains why these photos are at odd angles.) The king father’s golden coffin was in a vehicle that looked like a mythic bird; it was followed by a group of monks in a dragon boat. Older women around me cried genuine tears. Were they mouning the king, the end of an era, or did this death remind them of every other person they’ve mourned? I can’t know.

After the cars passed, the crowds dispersed into what felt like one big block party: children played in the still-barricaded streets, adults hung around chatting with family and friends, and vendors sold cotton candy, kettle corn and sweet drinks.

Small, makeshift shrines, with incense sticks, candles and Cambodian flags, popped up at the base of trees. In front of the Royal Palace were larger urns of flowers and incense, and men and women circled around these praying. People were also weeping openly here, and it felt exploitative to take photos, so I didn’t. Sihanouk’s body will lie in state at the palace for three months before being cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony.

Angkor what?

Angkor Wat

For my 21st birthday, my mom took me to Las Vegas. It was March 2001, and the city was flush with cash and new buildings. The Paris and the Venetian and New York-New York, with its compressed skyline and roller coaster flying above the Statue of Liberty, were only a couple of years old, and the Bellagio was just opening—Brad Pitt and George Clooney were romping around the not-quite-finished lobby filming Ocean’s Eleven. Vegas’s mission is to recreate every great world city and historical landmark in a couple of square miles, right? The model for these hotels was the Luxor, which has that beam on top of the pyramid that you can supposedly see from outer space. Hey, if one building is visible from outer space, why shouldn’t they all be?

Of course none of us knew that it would soon be, as R.E.M. says, the end of the world as we knew it. We all felt fine. That summer I lived in New York, where I was an art museum intern and ran around with a pack of boys who were interning as investment bankers and girls who were interning at magazines and museums and other fashionable institutions. One girl was a model wrangler: that was her actual title. The biggest news that summer in New York was Lizzie Grubman backing her SUV into a pack of party-goers at a night club in the Hamptons. The only things injured were some egos and Lizzie Grubman’s fender.

Inside the lobby of one of these Vegas hotel-universes was an architect’s model of one of the next big properties in development for the strip. I loved looking at this tiny version of the building, with its dollhouse details, and peering over everything as if I was god or Steve Wynn himself.

According to my memory’s file cabinet, that building was a Vegas reproduction of Angkor Wat, the twelfth-century temple in Cambodia. It fits a Vegas theme: Angkor Wat is exotic, full of its own mythology, and had a tourist boom in the 1960s. The temples, mysterious and gorgeous, were built by ancient god-kings with lavish lives. Dealer and cocktail waitress costumes could be based on soldiers and traditional Apsara dancers. The bars would serve drinks with tiny plastic elephants perched on the rim, or fishbowls of martinis floating lotus flowers. Casino chips would picture King Suryavarman II’s face. A replica of King Jayavarman VII could welcome you, with its animatronic mouth, to the hotel.

That building never happened, and I’m sure after September 11 the plans became cage liner for some recently out-of-work birds. But after visiting Angkor Wat and the temples in Siem Reap, I can see why a casino developer thought it would be the next Vegas icon.

Angkor Wat gets all the talk, but it’s only one temple among many in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is the best preserved because it has been in constant use from the time it was built. As the story goes, other temples were swallowed by the jungle, or abandoned when Cambodia’s capital moved to Phnom Penh in the 1400s, or taken over by Thailand when territory borders shifted. A French explorer is credited with discovering the Siem Reap temples in the 1800s, but Cambodians say, Nah, it was never forgotten or abandoned, we just kept a good secret.

At Angkor Wat, there’s a section on the back of the building called the Elephant Gate. It earned this title because the terrace is exactly the right height for the king to climb on and off his elephant. The Elephant Gate at Angkor Wat is inaccessible from the building (no steps for the people not on elephant, you see), but there’s also an Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom, decorated with trunks just in case you forgot you were supposed to park your elephant there.

Elephant trunks at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, a walled city built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 1100s, has these gates on all four sides. Plus, there are monkeys.

Angkor Thom gate


The first site in Angkor Thom is the Bayon, which has 216 enormous carved stone faces. Some say they are the face of King Jayavarman VII, who wanted to keep an eye on his kingdom and found this to be the best way. Others say the faces are the bodhisattva of compassion. From a distance, the towers look like rubble, and then when you get up close you see that the rubble is ears, noses, and lips.


Also in Angkor Thom is Bauphon. Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones building pyramids.


Ta Prohm is competing with the jungle—the trees have moved in and started to reclaim the building. Trees like this, that look like wax dripping, are everywhere, but the Ta Prohm trees are the most striking. This temple is also featured in Tomb Raider. I’ve never had a thing for Angelina Jolie or movies based on video games, but now I’m interested. Anyone up for a Tomb Raider watching party back in the states in a few months?

Ta Prohm

You can climb, explore, stand on the precipice, and pretend you’re the ruler of your kingdom—or a peasant walking the causeway to worship. The only things closed off are areas that looked like they could dislodge and kill you.

Pre Rup

There’s a lot of conservation and preservation work happening at many of the sites, but it doesn’t disrupt the experience. Nearly every building is supported by a different country; the whole world is pitching in to restore the temples, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What else can I say about the temples? They are glorious, gorgeous, a feat of humanity and ingenuity and technology and artistry, they make you think about your place in the world and history and everybody else’s too, but also—they’re really, really, really cool. If you’re in the neighborhood, go. And if you’re not in the neighborhood, this is the reason to get yourself here.

Angkor Wat’s upper gallery

More temple photos are on my Flickr stream in Siem Reap

On the road again

It’s amazing how good a shower, air conditioning, and cold drinking water can make you feel. After a quick stop by the NGO office to use the facilities and drop off bags, we boarded a 12-seat van—with only one person assigned to each seat—and hit the road. The a/c worked and the road to Siem Reap was paved. Nothing broke on the way, and no oxen were involved in travel.

In the morning, I joined a youth workshop on reproductive health. It brought together three NGOs and a group of university students from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang. They’d been learning about sexual health and birth control and were being trained as peer educators. For the final day, we were going to visit a university for a Q&A with students and stop by the Marie Stopes International clinic, which is sort of like Planned Parenthood but with men’s healthcare, too.

One of my NGO’s youth leaders, Heng, was assigned to be my translator. He’s only studied English for a few years but did a great job keeping me in the loop during this discussion, which couched birth control in the practice of family planning. The workshop leaders said: “You make a plan for your education and for your career, so you can make a plan for your family, too.” I liked this soft sell for a culture that’s not accustomed to talking openly about sex, bodies and what they do, and it was refreshing to hear a conversation about reproductive health that wasn’t tethered to a political position.

During the Q&A Heng and I got tangled in technical terms, and I drew him a picture of a uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and taught him the corresponding English words. Think about it: how many conversational English books have you seen that a include a page on sexual health and reproductive vocabulary? It took a lot of restraint to keep from teaching him sex-ed slang along with the correct words.


Youth with UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador Dr. Chea Samnang