I GOT A LIFT on a French military lorry that was going to Siem-Reap, the nearest town to the ruins of Angkor Vat; arriving there without incident – by courtesy of Dap Chhuon – on the evening of the same day.
Siem-Reap was another slumbering Shangri-La, perfumed slightly with putrid fish-sauce. In a palm-shaded river meandering through it both the sexes bathed all day long, lifting up their garments with extreme modesty as they allowed their bodies to sink below the level of the milk- chocolate-coloured water. When they had had enough of bathing they sat on the bank and caught occasional fish with lengths of cotton and bent pins.
With the ingeniousness of clever, lazy people, the Cambodians had worked out an irrigation system that looked as if a comic artist had had a hand in its construction. There were hundreds of great, rickety water¬wheels turning slowly all day and splashing tumblers-full of water into conduits, that in their turn ran into a crazy network of bamboo tubes and finally reached the pocket-handkerchief-sized gardens that people both¬ered to cultivate. It was all very inefficient and wasteful and probably only a quarter of the water taken out of the river eventually got to the gardens. Some of the scoops only scooped up a thimbleful of water and others were set in the wheels at such an angle that they missed the collecting chute and the water went back into the river again. But all the open bamboo channels leading to the gardens had a trickle running through them and, until that dried up no one would be disposed to worry.
There were many baleful-looking dogs, like miniature hyenas, with wrinkled snouts and foreheads; almost hairless and sometimes tail-less. Each house possessed one of these small, ugly creatures, which seemed to lay claim to a certain area round the house and therefore advanced with a hideous snarling and yapping when one entered it. One was then escorted with furious menaces to the boundary of the next cur’s territory and so passed on down the road. The dogs never barked at Cambodians.
Everywhere the air was filled with the sweet creaking sound of the irrigation wheels mingled with the song of some bulbul that sang like a blackbird. The houses were the normal Cambodian shacks, standing on piles above their refuse. Beside each was the usual receptacle raised on a post with the offerings for wandering and neglected spirits – those who had no descendants on earth left to provide for them. But in this custom the Cambodians had bettered the Vietnamese, furnishing as a tempor¬ary sanctuary for these ghostly paupers most elegant little multi-tiered pagodas.
I found that the girls of a Cambodian country town were liable to smile at and even address strangers, especially if their courage was forti¬fied by numbers. Dressed in sarong-like skirts of plain colours, with a blouse hardly reaching the midriff or perhaps just a scarf concealing the breasts, they would come sauntering out of the most squalid hovels, clean, bright and pretty, and with a ready smile of welcome, ft was strange to see one of these gliding shapes suddenly galvanised into efficient action at the sight of a cow in her vegetable garden, which she chased out, throwing sticks at it with an accuracy and force that no Western woman could ever hope to emulate.
Valas had told me that when in Siem-Reap it was more important to see the Cambodian theatre than Angkor itself, because the ruins would wait. But once again it was too late. The Chinese had been granted a month’s licence to run a gambling casino and they had taken over the theatre for this purpose. Anyway, I was told, it was doubtful if the theatre would open again. They were arranging for weekly cinema shows and who would be bothered with going to watch people they had known all their lives dressed up as gods and devils, when they could see a pa-we for the same money.
But I was at least lucky in one small thing. I had noticed in the king’s audience room a curious decoration consisting of a delicately ffetted-out scene from some well-known episode of the Ramayana. The intricate lacing of motives looked, until the rear-illumination was switched on, as if it had been punched out of brass; but when lit-up it proved to be semi¬transparent and was actually made from treated hide. The king mentioned – and it surprised me that an oriental sovereign should have any appreciation for the arts of his country – that this was a typical pattern used in the old shadow plays, and that they could still be found in Siem- Reap. And in Siem-Reap despite the fact that I was assured that the workshop had long since gone out of business, I tracked it down. There were the artists, squatting on the ground dressing the leather, marking the surface out with chalk, and punching out the traditional patterns. No more orders would be forthcoming for the shadow-theatre of course, but a few private persons still bought their work for decorative purposes. They sold me their showpiece, a delightful Lokesvara, for about fifteen shillings. I learned later from a visit to the Musee de L’homme at Paris that this art is still practised, though in a less finished way, in Siam and in Java.
Although the basis of Cambodian art is Indonesian and there are many recognisable affinities between the decorational motives of Cam¬bodia and of all those countries where the Indian artistic influence has at some time been paramount, the Cambodians have undoubtedly added a flourish of their own, a recognisable style, generated in their aboriginal past, that asserts itself above the general pattern. Unfortunately, as M. Henri Marchal, Conservator of Angkor has said, the Cambodian aristoc¬racy, who were the only patrons of Cambodian art, have abandoned it in the last half-century in favour of European importations. After the loss of their independence rich Cambodians developed an inferiority complex about everything their country produced. European cannons were more effective than the sacred and invincible sword of Cambodia; therefore nothing Cambodian was worth having. The mandarins dismissed the goldsmiths and the sculptors who formed part of their normal house¬holds, and bought themselves gilt mirrors and Victorian tasselled furniture.