When they say Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious building there is no exaggeration. When they say it is crowded in the dry season there is no exaggeration. We drove past on our way to another part of the Angkor Archaeological Park where the WMF visitor center is located.
Preah Khan is smaller but still very impressive. It was interesting seeing in its full context a building I had read about repeatedly in the last few months. I was unsure of how much I would remember of the material I was given to read so it was a relief to me when I found that I did remember a good deal of it. I was able to recognize the iconography but the most pleasing to me was that I was able to tell the difference between the two types of stone that are used in the construction. I do not feel as confident in my technical knowledge as I am in my skill at visitor services and my understanding of public history. A large part of my interest in coming here this month was the opportunity to test my capacities both professionally and personally to see if I really am capable of taking on what I am so keen to do.
I was taken to breakfast by my supervisor to get a brief introduction to Siem Reap. It was what I was prepared to see: crowded, dusty, chaotic, and full of tourists. I have little interest in visiting what my supervisor referred to as “the infamous Pub Street” but we walked through it in the early morning as we made our way through the old colonial city center. There was a familiarity to so much of what I was seeing paired with elements utterly alien to my experience. The small shops, the slapdash signs, the people working and making their way through the streets: all of this seemed familiar to me. In all honesty, it felt like Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights or Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. What was different was the languages, the customs, the people. The other difference is immigrants come to a new country and have to hustle. What I saw in Siem Reap was a lot of people hustling in their own home country.
Too tired to take advantage of my extended layover I spent the afternoon in the airport at Phnom Penh. The drivers quickly stopped asking me if I needed a ride to the city when I politely resisted enough times. There was plenty of real business to be had from the other tourists getting off their planes. I was left to read my book and watch the people make their way.
Periodically large groups of Khmer would gather near the arrival gates. They stood quietly talking and looking anxiously towards the sunny walkway that led to the street. There were parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, and small children. All neatly dressed. Their expressions would quickly turn to excitement when they saw their family member or good friend. They did not hug but the group would gather around smiling at their prodigal.
When I switched locations to the departure gates similar groups could be seen standing a vantage point where their loved ones could see them wave goodbye as the escalator took travelers to the planes. It was very touching to see the care that went into the departures and arrivals. It made me terribly homesick. Coming on this trip means I do not know when I will welcomed back by people of my own.
Of course, they won’t come to the airport to greet me. It is not our way. One person will take on that task and everyone else will be at home. There will be hugs and possibly some tears.
Here is beige and brown where there should be numerous shades of green. Here are stagnant pools of water where there should be a low, flowing summertime creek. Here is dust and mosquitoes and heat. Everyone keeps saying that it feels as if it all must break soon. A storm. A downpour. Something dramatic. Rain is not inevitable even if you desperately want it.