Siem Reap, June 23, 1866.
“Garnier is seriously ill. Caught the fevers again. Not doing too good myself. It has taken us longer than expected from Phnomh-Penh. The river, the jungle, the unbearable heat… are taking their toll on the expedition. Carné and Delaporte seem to be all right. They take this expedition as an excursion to the Bois de Boulogne. Thorel, one of the doctors has dysentery. Not a good sign. Joubert, the other Doctor, attends us all. Gsell is watching over his camera and glass plates as the apple of his eye. Tonight we will sleep in the town of Siem Reap. A village rather. A few stilt houses set high above the unexpected floods of the Tonlé Sap. Buffaloes roam the rice fields. The little Khmer I learnt has proven very useful. No-one here speaks anything but. Tomorrow, if Garnier is better, we will go to the ruins. No horses. All died of fevers. I guess we will take buffalo-carts. The ruins are only one or two leagues away.”
Siem Reap, January 2018
Flew in from Bangkok in the morning. Immigration at the airport was quite a show. All passports “confiscated”, passed on from one civil servant to the other, ending up in piles at the other end of the counter, while we stand in line to pay the 30 bucks and change per head for the visa. Don’t bring used bills to Cambodia. They will flat out refuse them. Our hotel is very nice and cozy, set on Avenue Charles de Gaulle. The main Avenue of Siem Reap. (Pronounce “Rayp”).
Half a century ago, I lived in Cambodia, as a child. My father worked for King Norodom. Better known as Sihanouk. I wonder whether my parents came to Siem Reap. Not sure.
We managed to hire a tuk-tuk for our entire stay. Who has never ridden a tuk-tuk is missing the scare of a lifetime. A modern version of the cycle rickshaw, it is driven at reckless speed (twenty miles an hour?), drivers clearly facing loss of face if they ever slow down or yield to another vehicle. The tuk-tuk cuts a nice breeze through the heat though.
Our driver took us to watch the sunset at Angkor-Wat. I am beginning to be impressed.
Siem Reap, June 24, 1866.
Garnier is much better. Amazing how those fevers come and go. Though they tend to come back at night. He was shivering last night, and now is fine. We walked through Angkor Wat today. I have never seen anything like that. When one sees the current state of affairs in Norodom’s Kingdom, one wonders how and when those magnificent temples were built. And by whom? Indian Rajahs? The guides don’t know. They say the temples are dedicated to Buddha. But some of the bas-reliefs I have seen… look more Indian. I wish we had taken a historian with us.
Siemp Reap, January 2018.
Rose at 4:00AM to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The sun rises behind the temple. All four sides of every temple face each cardinal point. We manage to grab a spot on the floor close to the small pond covered with lotus flowers, a symbol of purity and detachment. The night hides the crowds away a bit. Most visitors are quiet and… I might say… respectful. We are facing the temple, oriented to the East, and ever so slowly, light comes out behind the temples. (I am not a sunrise person. Too early!) Adjectives can be tricky. Shall I say a unique sight?
Siem Reap, June 24, 1866.
Gsell has taken a photograph of the whole expedition. We had to put on our last best uniforms and suits. Most clothes are attacked by mold. He took a long shot with us sitting on the stairs of what our guides call “The terrace of elephants”. One can see the remnants of elephant statues. Though the jungle has taken over many of the buildings. It would take a lifetime to clear all that. (Make a note to Society of Geography) To-morrow we will go to Another temple. Angkor Thom. I am a bit tired of eating rice three times a day, but our guides say it is good for the “tummy”.
Angkor-Thom, January 2018.
As we walk among the apsaras, the divine dancers, and the smiling Buddhas, I again wonder about my parents. There are no photographs of Angkor in the family archives. We lived in Phnomh Penh then. It is a 5 hours drive today and the roads then were probably not that good. I do know my mother flew over Angkor. In a commercial plane, no less. A DC3. She was in the cockpit filming, (perks of being the boss’s wife) when the pilot said: “Hang on tight, I’m going to do a dive over Angkor Wat. Co-pilot: warn the passengers to fasten their seat belts. Tight.” He was a former Free French Forces pilot. Most of them were. The War was only 12 years away. And he did take a dive to the temple. I still have the film footage as evidence. A unique perspective. Pilot would be fired today.
Angkor Thom is by far the most impressive sight so far. Hundreds of Buddhas placed four by four on turrets in the central courtyard of Le Bayon. (I need to copy my notes to another journal. As a safeguard. Even the paper is beginning to rot. Garnier has tried to count the Buddhas. Close to two hundred. All carved out in the same fashion. The peaceful Buddha. Eyes closed in meditation, the lips drawn in a wide smile. Garnier is shivering again. So am I. We will take a few days rest in Siem Reap while Gsell takes more photographs. The first ever taken of this beautiful place. I don’t know whether Garnier or I will make it alive from this expedition. But no matter what happens, we have seen Beauty.
(s) Capitaine de Corvette Doudart de la Grée, Siem Reap, June 25, 1866.
Doudart died in March 1868, in the mountains of Yunnan, of fevers and infection. Francis Garnier took over the command of the expedition, ending in Shanghai in June 1868. They had found the route to China. Garnier was eventually killed in Hanoï in 1873, by the Black Flag pirates. Obviously, the above is but a fictional account of Doudart’s expedition. More on this in two other posts:
The Bayon, Angkor Thom, March 2019.
Beauty comes in many a guise. I have been fortunate to see much across the world. Whether it be at Nature’s or at Man’s hand, nothing compares to the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. Those hundreds of faces of the smiling Buddha, rescued from the jungle, are Peace incarnate. I will go back one day. No sunrise or sunset. Direct to the Bayon. Just to sit there all day and watch the smile of the lost Buddha.
This is my first sketch, drawing, painting (with one exception) in the past 40 years. I’d been wanting to retake sketching and painting for a while. Lack of time as usual. Allow me to thank all of you who sketch and paint regularly in your blogs. You’ve given me the example and inspiration to try drawing again. I was quite amazed at how the hand retains a memory of its own. A memory of the angles, the shadows, a memory of the strokes. And as your hand draws, your mind is cleansed. Peace comes with each stroke. Thank you all for those moments of peace.