Distant Relatives in Flesh and Stone
Customs in the airport involved a long counter with eight uniformed customs agents sitting elbow to elbow, each providing their unique service to our passports: stamping, marking, taking notes, signing, and finally handing them back to us. Labor is cheap. Computers are expensive. Lest you think that this procedure was woefully inefficient, consider that when we returned to LAX three weeks later we waited in line for forty minutes before we got to the one-man booth where we were photographed and digitally processed. In Phnom Penh, the human version took one quarter of the time.
We were picked up by a hotel shuttle van driven by a man whose English was as absent as my Khmer. It was the first of many trips travelled at 25-30 miles per hour. Speeding is rare. Traffic flows smoothly, but not because people pay strict attention to traffic controls. It may have more to do with the engine capacity and vulnerability of vehicles. More than half of them are small motorcycles.
Their engines are about 100 cc, which is between five to seven horsepower. The garbage disposal under your kitchen sink might be one half horsepower. Your car packs well over a hundred. With a single rider, the motorcycles might go 55 mph. With a female riding sidesaddle on the back, you probably want to top out at 45 mph. With a family of five on board, it’s not going much over 25. We saw that arrangement many times.
You can speed if you want, but it will be short burst and then you will be slowing down for the guy in front of you with ice blocks stacked four feet high on the back of his motorcycle.
We stayed at the small and modern Quay Hotel. It has four floors and stands across the street from the confluent Tonle Sap (“Sap River”) and Mekong River. In November this is a prime spot to observe the festivities of the country’s biggest holiday, the Water Festival. On foot we are five minutes from the National Museum and ten minutes from the Royal Palace. We chose the National Museum for our first afternoon.
The museum is a large, red pagoda built around rectangular courtyard with koi ponds. A Buddha statue sits on the center of the four ponds. The pagoda has two stories, but only the ground floor is used. Proceeding clockwise from the entrance, we go on a roughly chronological tour of Khmer statuary. The subjects are smiling or stoic gods, Buddhas and apsara (dancers). Custom requires that visitors to the museum wear clothing that covers shoulders and knees. We have no problem showing this modicum of respect. It is just odd because many of the statues depict topless adults.
Most of the sculptures are at least life size. Some are over 1,000 years old. These were being carved or molded when almost nothing of archaeological interest was happening in North America. Europe was changing from Holy Roman Empire to fiefdoms to Black Plague incubator.
The ancient Khmer statues and the temples they were taken from are virtually the only historical documentation to survive the centuries between then and now. Fortunately the stone temples feature thousands of square yards of bas relief that can be read like text if you know what you are looking at.
Visitors to the museum are separated from these irreplaceable statues by nothing at all. There are no velvet ropes, no glass cases, no nothing. You can walk right up and lick the stone if you want to. So far, common sense seems to be preserving the displays just fine.
An old woman is keeping incense burning before one of the Buddhas. She sells incense and short, bamboo sticks covered with fragrant jasmine flowers. Connor, Griffin and Mollie wander through the statuary, but spend more time around the koi ponds. There are only so many sculpted nuances that the jet-lagged teen mind can take in.
For the fully adult jet-lagged the mind, the statutes pose a question: why don’t they look like the people outside? I understand that the man on the street is not built like a god, but I would think that the gods in the museum would be built like people – like people the sculptor saw every day. In the US, images of Jesus make him look more like a white, middle class hippie than a middle-eastern Jew. In Cambodia I am not seeing the Buddha transformed into a local.
The faces on the statues are discernibly different from one another, but they are similar enough to be different as a group from the faces of the living. The statue faces look like they are from the pacific islands. Their features are full and fleshy and rounded. Start with Tiger Woods’ face. Give him a bigger, squarer jaw. Take off the golf cap. Get him to close his eyes and give a Mona Lisa smile. That is what you see a lot of in the museum statues for both men and women. The most dependable gender difference is chest versus breasts. It is not always a clear distinction.
Now walk out of the museum and look at the five tuk tuk drivers that ask you if you need a ride to the killing fields, the Russian Market, a restaurant, or a place where you can fire a real AK 47 or M16. These people do not have fleshy faces. They do not have the wide chin and muscular jaw that you would expect on a Samoan rugby player. I understand that tuk tuk drivers are poor and don't eat enough to pack on skin-smoothing subcutaneous fat. But even if you fed them extra large fries for the next month, they would not look like these statues. Most noticeably, the modern Khmer have wider cheekbones.
The statue bodies are compact, smooth, and strong. The arms are thick, but have no muscle bulges. The shoulders are as smooth, curved and unrealistic as those found in ancient Egyptian art. Go outside the museum again and have the tuk tuk drivers stand up so you can see their build. They are more fleshy than the Vietnamese, but less round than the typical Thai. They are nowhere near the muscular Pacific-Island physiognomies inside.
Part of the explanation may be that after the last grand temple was built in the 15th century, Cambodia entered its dark ages. Not much was written or built that we know about today. The Khmer civilization became much weaker than their neighbors, which meant that fighting forces from the east and west would tromp right through Cambodia on their way to fighting people with more loot. Armies leave mixed-race babies in their wake. Centuries of that could literally change the face of a nation.
Another possibility is that the sculptors were aiming more at an ideal than a real-life person. Perhaps the square jaw and full lips were something you might see in one out of every hundred people, or something you saw on a trip to another country. Now you chisel this striking appearance in stone and have it wear your country’s clothes. It is exotic, dramatic but still tantalizingly familiar. Consider today's five foot eleven inch supermodel and her magazine manifestations. She is intentionally not what everyone else looks like. If she was, she would not be exceptional and nobody would buy her brand of shoes in an attempt to make themselves more like her. So we may be looking at early examples of Photoshop.
It’s time to eat. The short walk from the museum to the hotel is another lesson in how far we are from home. We stop at a pizza restaurant: Happy Herbs. We take a picture of just the three kids in front of the sign. We sent it to friends with the caption “The second H is silent.” That got a reaction.
Indeed, marijuana pizza is on the menu. Happy Herbs is the most famous place to get it. You can also go to Ecstatic Pizza, where you either order your pizza “unhappy”, “happy”, or “ecstatic”. At Herbs we had some very good but completely unhappy pizza. On the fifty yard walk back to the hotel we are asked twice if we need a tuk tuk.
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Published on 12/13/10