Angkor, Cambodia

Thursday, August 1, 1929

This predicament put me in a devil of a fix—only one European Hotel, the Bungalow, and it charging $6.50 a day or $3.50 sans répas—which I could not go; and the best Chinese hotel a revelation for a biologist. Mosquitoes on the outside and worse in. Heaven help Mort and Frank. [Hall doesn’t ever explain the boys’ travel plans, but apparently they were following his route. They would not meet up again until they were all back in the USA.] I rented a bum bike after some difficulty, for I couldn’t jabber in Chinese, and with a guide book and camera started out at 6AM on a hot 20-mile circuit embracing the outlying ruins of Angkor, Pré Rup, Mébôn, Tà-Sorn, Prah Kahn, and others. Both large and tall told the same tale—of a one-time glory and grandeur in their zenith of power—then abandonment and slow crushing by the forces of nature. But even in their downfall they are worthy monuments. The terraces may be overgrown with bushes and grass, the steps may be broken and moss-covered, the towers may be crumbling, falling, walls may be uprooted by snaky-twisting tree-roots, shrines may be dark, foul, even filled with debris, but everywhere are traces of the noble past—a life-size stone lion or elephant, an exquisitely sculptured doorway, a tower, remains of a gate built of huge slabs of sandstone, images of Buddha, fine grilled-barred windows, a lake, extensive cloisters, wide moats, a massive pyramidal temple. Great must have been the kingdom of the Khmèrs in the XII and XIII centuries when at its zenith. The only comparison I can make is that of ancient Thebes, already in decay a score of centuries.

The most interesting of the ruins I found to be Prah Khan, hopelessly torn and uprooted by the jungle. A tall, masterful gate in the outer wall, unsafe to walk under, a big outer wall broken and covered with bushes, etc. Winding along a narrow path through the jungle, we soon come upon evidence of a raised causeway. Two hundred yards and you emerge suddenly upon a half-ruined outer building or entrance to the inner and upper terraces. The somber giant slabs, tumbled, leaning, broken, seem to blend in with the dark green verdure. Progressing farther, climbing over debris, wading through weeds and bushes, crawling through windows, you are soon lost in a desolation of wilderness and quiet. Here the monkeys do not throw crab apples down upon you nor do you hear anything except the particularly sweet singing of birds and a constant hum of insects. It is truly a tomb of a lost race of conquerors. Beautiful little buildings are debris-filled, crushed—the dancers pose grotesquely to giants who have taken root upon the walls and roofs, who have forced their long roots deep between the stone slabs, heaving them aside as nothing, smothering them. Here you see all sorts of interesting plants and insects, etc. but very few flowers. A fern-like plant that is so sensitive that even blowing on it will cause the leaves to quickly fold together; worms nearly a foot long; snails as large as your fist; a crawfish-like land animal, jet black, with curved-up tail, pincers, and rather large [scorpion?]; monkeys, a great variety of birds. The deadly cobra that once infested the Angkor ruins and I suppose still does to some extent kept well out of my sight though I had my eyes peeled for his flat head to pop up from among the ruins.

Had a late déjeuner and then messed around a while before packing. The natives take great delight in seeing me sit on my favorite bridge, usually picking tons of stickers from my socks. I inquired about the bus leaving on the morrow and also about the Chinese buses, which I found were 4 pluncks cheaper than the courier camion to Phnom Penh. I decided to spend the night in a little veranda on the river bank and so checked it out—but seeing a Chinese bus just weighing angkor, I hopped on and was soon tearing along in the gathering darkness.

It was pretty crowded, but they insisted I ride in the front seat with the “elite” 3, the driver and two Cambodians, one a very nice old man off for a visit. He is a guide to the Angkor Ruins and told me who lived where in the French sections of Seim Reap as we passed. Thus I had a tough workout in French. His young daughter and her friend got the biggest kick out of everything I did—always giggling at me and sometimes venturing a few words. One time they knocked me flat by asking for a match with which to light their cigarette. Smoking is universal here—tiny children, men, and women.

The idea was to spend the night at Kg. Thom, half-way stop. We were held up a bit by a fierce cloudburst and arrived about ten. Everybody became very concerned and intensely interested when I couldn’t see putting out 7 piastres or so on the Bungalow. They hatched up a lot of places where I was to sleep, but I decided on a seat of the bus and stuck to it. Got all settled, but soon nearly roasted to death and was more than bitten by mosquitoes, from a huge egg-sized lump on my scalp, 2 on my arms, to scores of minor bites all over. These larger bumps took two days for the swelling to go down. Finally hauled out and again took to walking till 6 AM when we left. Not a bad town at all. On the river traveled by boats going to the Great Lake and Angkor. The long bridge seemed the freest of mosquitoes, so I paraded back and forth, 5 minutes each way. Often I stretched out on the concrete-covered girders for a snooze, but cut it when I came out of a doze once and rolled the wrong way, nearly going down into the river.

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