Angkor 7

Thus had the powerful Brahmanical gods of the Khmer Empire shrunk and shrivelled along with the Empire itself. And now they were no more than neak ta – mere tree spirits to frighten babies with; of no more importance than the khmoo pray – the wicked dead, such as women who have died in childbed; the beisac – the famished souls of those who have died violently, who return from hell to implore food; the smer, who, losing their reason, have become werewolves, and the srei ap, beautiful girls, who through dabbling in black magic have inadvertently turned themselves into heads, accompanied only by alimentary canals, and live on excrement. The Khmer gods have accompanied their worshippers in their decline. A rumour existed in Siem-Reap of the survival of a troupe of heavenly dancers. At the hotel there was a knowledgeable hanger-on who had learned enough English from American visitors to describe himself as an officer’s pimp. From him I made inquiries.
His first reaction was to produce the slow compassionate smile of the sensitive man who dislikes to disappoint. There were dancers, but they were very old – at least fifty – and quite ugly. On clarifying the nature of my inquiry, he said that they were not only old, but charged a lot for their services, that he did not know where they could be contacted, and that they had no proper clothes to dance in. These had to be hired from a Chinese, who ‘would not be there’. It was clear that my informant’s services as an intermediary would only cover the simplest arrangements and that he had now retired behind this squid-like effusion of negatives. But at this point, some of my fellow-guests became interested. Among them was an Anglo-American business executive from Bangkok, who had lived a number of years in Siam and said that he was used to tackling situations like this. The Chinese, he said, was the key to the problem. The thing was to find the Chinese … if possible the one who hired out the costumes. There was no doubt about it that this man could make arrangements for us to see a Cambodian dance.
Down to the town, therefore, went my friend, and in due course a suitable Chinese was discovered. He was one of those octopuses of commerce that plant themselves squarely in the centre of the business life of such towns; the kind of man – Tes Heak, I believe his name was – whom anyone could lead you to, and who was to be discovered sitting unassumingly, pencil behind ear, on a sack of dry fish, surrounded by his stocks of dried milk, his cobra skins, his coffins and his Algerian wine. Tes Heak also ran the bus services, conducted an undertaking establishment, with a hearse most lavishly equipped with miniature puppet theatres, and supplied an American car for weddings, to the wings and roof of which gilt dragons were attached. Taking in the situation with a saurian flicker of the eyelids, he produced a number of reasons overlooked by the officer’s pimp why it would be infeasible to persuade the heavenly dancers to perform. He even complained that they had artistic temperaments, hastily adding, however, when it looked as though he was being taken seriously, that a performance would cost 1500 piastres – about £27.
This seemed an enormous fee for a short demonstration by the five ladies, who, Tes Heak said, might be induced to go through a short repertoire. My hopes had been to arrange something that would be as spontaneous and unselfconscious as possible – perhaps in a back yard. But Tes Heak was revolted at so shoddy a proposal. Such a spectacle, he thought, should be staged in the forecourt of Angkor Vat itself, and by moonlight. It was clear that he knew his tourist, and that this negligently sown seed would probably fall on fertile soil. Just as there is a collective crowd-mentality which is a little more (or less) than the sum total of the mentalities of its individual members, so the single traveller multiplied by thirty becomes a tourist with a certain garish ness of taste that he did not possess before; a kind of temporary distemper provoked by gregarious indulgence, that commits him to extravagances. The idea of a spectacle in the grand manner was, therefore, enthusiastically acclaimed.
Having easily won the first round, Tes Heak now suggested drum¬mers, a local orchestra, and an escort of torchbearers – at a slight extra charge, of course. This too was agreed, and finally, at a cost of 3000 piastres, the thing was arranged.

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