Angkor 8

At ten o’clock that night, therefore, the hotel bus stopped at the end of the causeway leading to Angkor Vat. News of the performance had spread, and to my surprise what must have been most of the population of Siem- Reap, and probably of the neighbouring villages as well, had put in an appearance. A fiesta atmosphere prevailed with stalls selling hot sausages clamped between two slabs of bread, sugar-cane juice – crushed out while you waited – mounds of pale green jelly, and mineral waters. In addition to the hundred small shaven-headed torch-bearers, in the old style, who awaited our coming along the causeway, waving bundles of resin-soaked rags, at least five hundred of the hurrying crowd flashed electric torches as they walked, to the natural detriment of the archaic effect.
The passengers, mostly women, who had dressed with painstaking informality for the occasion, stepped down gingerly into this carnival scene. With their charming, defeated smiles, the sellers of crossbows pounced upon them and in the background a group of Dap Chhuon’s men, lean from their peacetime rations and physical jerks, eyed the occidental display with the wistful sincerity of tethered peregrines.
Along the causeway the torch-bearers, descrying a European among (he padding Cambodians, would gesticulate and wave their flaming rags. A small group had deserted their post and clambered down into the water where, torches aloft, they were looking for something – a living fountain-group in bronze. Shutting out half the horizon was the long, low mass of Angkor Vat, moonlight glinting feebly in its towers. There was a certain poetry in the scene, and the ridiculous march of the tourists, flinching from its wan escort of bow-sellers, was part of it.
By the time we arrived at the forecourt the Cambodians were already installed on the best vantage points, riding the mute lions and perched on the necks of beheaded serpents. The torch-bearers now broke away and stormed raggedly forward; the rearguard of a triumph. Four acetylene lamps lit up a white amphitheatre of expectant faces and a player seated himself at a semi-circular xylophone and began a discursive tinkling.
Although I had no standards by which to judge, the dancing seemed lifeless – a mime of embalmed postures. Only four dancers had appeared, and two – as we had been fairly warned – were indeed past their prime. Although no doubt perfectly correct in their rendering of such episodes as the fight between Hanuman and the Demon King, the two fifty-year- old ladies could hardly be expected to galvanise us with the impetuosity of a combat which, according to the Epic, was conducted chiefly with thunderbolts, aerial javelins and arrows of wind. But if the old ladies were lacking in vigour, their youthful pupils showed no signs of having been schooled in such elementary feats as going through fairly long interpreta¬tive passages while balancing on one leg, the other being bent backwards from the knee, and held at right angles. There were some perilous wobbles, causing on one occasion an elderly lady to animate the powdered mask in which her features were set by the most unclassical of grimaces.
But the girls came into their own soon after, deposing the heavy, multi-tiered crowns, and exchanging the stiff, hired finery for sarongs and blouses. Joined by several more girls and partners from the audience they gave a sparkling demonstration of the lap ton. It was a dance with a sense of humour – an extraordinary thing in these countries – particu¬larly the version which mimicked a husband and wife quarrelling, and there was as much of Eastern grace as could be combined with the vigour of the West. There was no dead symbolism here, nor were there traces of ritual intended to assist the growth of the crops. But the performers were thoroughly enjoying themselves, skipping about and twirling their hands, evidently relieved at the release from the puppet-antics of a prehistoric tradition. These were the low-class caperings on the junk in bas-relief… and it was soon clear that this was what the audience had come to see.

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