Entering the courtyards one comes into a new kind of vegetable world; not the one of branches and leaves with which one is familiar, but that of roots. Ta Prohm is an exhibition of the mysterious subterranean life of plants, of which it offers an infinite variety of cross-sections. Huge trees have seeded themselves on the roofs of the squat towers and their soaring trunks are obscured from sight; but here one can study in comfort the drama of those secret and conspiratorial activities that labour to support their titanic growth.
Down, then, come the roots, pale, swelling and muscular. There is a grossness in the sight; a recollection of sagging ropes of lava, a parody of the bulging limbs of circus-freaks, shamefully revealed. The approach is exploratory. The roots follow the outlines of the masonry; duplicating pilasters and pillars; never seeking to bridge a gap and always preserving a smooth living contact with the stone surfaces; burlesquing in their ropy bulk the architectural motives which they cover. It is only long after the hold has been secured that the deadly wrestling bout begins. As the roots swell their grip contracts. Whole blocks of masonry are torn out, and brandished in midair. A section of wall is cracked, disjointed and held in suspension like a gibbeted corpse; prevented by the roots’ embrace from disintegration. There are roots which appear suddenly, bursting through the flagstones to wander twenty yards like huge boa constrictors, before plunging through the up-ended stones to earth again. An isolated tower bears on its summit a complete sample of the virgin jungle, with ferns and underbrush and a giant fig tree which screens the faces of the statuary with its liana-curtains, and discards a halo of parakeets at the approach of footsteps.
The temple is incompletely cleared. One wanders on down identical passages or through identical courtyards – it is as repetitive in plan as a sectional bookcase – and then suddenly there is a thirty-foot wall, a tidal wave of vegetation, in which the heavenly dancers drown with decorous gestures.
But there are still some signs of life in the temples and mausolea of Angkor, besides the sinister and stinking presence of myriads of bats. The people now come to these once exclusive places and burn incense-sticks before the Buddhas, which probably started their existence as idealised representations of various members of the Khmer aristocracy. Parties of bonzes stroll through the ruins. They carry the inevitable yellow parasols and sometimes box cameras with which they photograph each other, for the benefit of their friends back at the monastery, against some particularly sacrosanct background, such as the corpulent shape of a man who had once made a corner in fish.
My last daylight hours at Angkor were spent by the lake of Sram Srang. The Khmers were always digging out huge artificial lakes, which, if the preliminary surveying had been correctly carried out, and temples and statues were erected according to accepted precedents round their mar¬gins or on a centre island, could always be declared to possess purificatory qualities. For this reason Sram Srang was supposed to have been a favourite royal bathing place, with its grand approach, its majestic flight of steps, flanked with mythical animals, and its golden barges.
Now the lions were faceless, and the nagas had lost most of their heads. The severe rectangularity of old had been softened by subsidences of the banks, which had solidified into little peninsulas on which trees were growing. Buffaloes stood motionless in the virtuous water with only their heads showing. Sometimes even their heads were withdrawn for a few moments below the surface. Giant kingfishers flashed past, linked to their reflections; twin shooting stars in a grey-green firmament. Until forty years ago the Cambodians exported these birds’ skins to China where they were made into mandarins’ jackets, taking in exchange pottery and silk. And then the vogue for European goods grew up, and the industry languished.
As if from nowhere a group of boys materialised. They were selling crossbows. They were better looking and their physique was better than either the nobles or the commons on the Angkor Vat bas-reliefs, but six hundred years ago they would have worked twelve hours a day, and now they probably worked an hour a week, if at all. Three or four of them always lurked forlornly in the vicinity of the various ruins in the outrageous hope of one day selling a crossbow to a tourist.
One of them surprised me by speaking understandable French, and this was such a rarity that I asked him if he would act as a guide to one or two of the oudying monuments I wanted to see. At the same time I thought that I would be able to question him as to the existence of legends, and particularly about the legend of the leper king which was supposed to be the only memory of the Khmer rulers that had survived. The boy said he would be delighted, but when? I said that night, as it was practically full-moon, and I believed that I could get a rickshaw in Siem- Reap to bring me out to Angkor. His face fell. He was sorry, it couldn’t be managed. I asked why not? Were the ex-bandits unreliable at night? Oh, no it was not that. On the contrary they were very disciplined, and with Dap Chhuon in command you were in fact safer at Angkor than at Phom Penh. Well, then, what was it?… the tigers, perhaps? No, it wasn’t the tigers, either … but the fact was that after dark Angkor was a very bad place for the neak ta eysaur and the neak ta en – in other words, the spirits Siva and Indra.