The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Sugar and Spice and Postcards Nice

Bit busy right now, so some older travel writing from 2002 and a picture of the amazing Angkor Wat to keep you entertained. Got to scan up more of my Cambodia images to illustrate this piece but will have to settle for the usual stock image of Angkor sunrises at the moment. If you like this writing and what to use it anywhere please contact me. I used to write a lot more travel pieces but never find the time these days. Do miss it.

More images of Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia at my archive here

Later

Damon

Sugar and Spice and Postcards Nice

(Cambodia 2002)

“Hello! You want post card.”

It is not, I soon realize, a question; roughly put and demandingly direct it could even be called a command. The smile that comes with it however does somewhat confuse the guard I should and would ordinarily have been putting up against such an assumption. It is a huge smile; a smile that would melt the hardest of hard hearts even if it was not attached to a beautiful little girl with big, brown eyes and long un-ravelling pig-tails.

“Hello! You want post card. Yes!” She beams again, spreading her smile wide across her face.

“No thanks.” I say anyway. Thailand may be the land of smiles but I was noticing more than a few here in Cambodia too.

“Yes, yes you want postcard.” She continues unconcerned. “Ten postcard – one Dollar.”

“No thanks.” I repeat, though I’m already becoming aware, even at this early stage, that this will probably not be enough to end her insistence. Her grin spreads wider at my second refusal; she knows she has more than enough little-girl charm to close this deal and so begins to use it:

“I think you want but you don’t buy;” she squirms flirtatiously. “You want post card. Yes…ten postcard.”

“No. I…”

“Yes! You want write friends.”

“But I don’t want…” And I do (as she planned) feel really terrible saying it. How could I be so rude to such a cute little girl? In truth I do want some postcards, just not ten and not just yet. But that is enough for her.

“I think you want but you don’t buy.”

“But I don’t want.”

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.”

“But…I…” Nothing.

What am I to do? She takes the postcards from her bag and begins to shuffle through them; showing them to me with enthused persistence; my lack of an answer enough to make the transaction a reality in her mind.

“But…I…”

Nothing.

She smiles as she holds up a picture of Angkor Wat. “I think you want…” she begins. She doesn’t need to finish.

At the moment I am unable to concentrate fully on the postcards because I am most urgently and pointedly hungry and all I really want to do is eat my breakfast unmolested. I have, it seems, already been up a ridiculously long time and feel starved. I turn my full attention to the plate of rice on the table in front of me and try to act as if she isn’t there. Yet as I take a few mouthfuls I can see her smiling away at me; this denial is not easy of course, as it is not meant to be.

She is waiting at my elbow, the post cards still in her hand; looking hard at me as I also take a dogged sip of my drink. Waiting, smiling. Her eyes are open wide and look so innocent as she watches the movements of my hands, but they are also much too old and calculating for her face and it is in them that I am reminded that life is hard here. They make me feel the need to be generous because I understand she too has been up a long time; she too is probably hungry and probably always will be. Maybe I think I will buy some postcards after all.

She watches me put the nearly empty bottle down and a wide grin again takes over her face again. “Okay then you want cold drink now. I have cold drink: Coke, Sprite, Fanta. Yes! Yes, you want cold drink.”

“I have a cold drink thank-you.”

“Oh! I think you want new one that one finished now and too hot.”

I look hard at her. She looks harder back at me and I see her working up to her response; it takes over her whole body.

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.” She whines.

“But…I…”

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.” She shouts and gives me another long, hard-done-by look. There is violence in that look however and it makes me feel suddenly thirstier. “I think you want…” She says but tails off. She doesn’t need to finish again. I have lost; I don’t know it yet obviously but she does and is waiting patiently for my capitulation.

There is something about being hassled by an eight year old that is peculiarly inoffensive though. It is certainly different enough from the hissed, mocked commerce of Siem Riep to be even enjoyable. In that busy town (the closest to The Angkor Archaeological Park) everyone seems to have something or some service to offer you and a walk around the market can make you feel uncomfortably popular. This little girl, waiting with stubborn politeness while I take another sip from my drink, has her charm to take the sting from her equally truce-less pursuit. Though the sip I’d taken was designed as much to prove the drinks existence as quench my thirst, she knows I’ll probably buy another one because she knows I will feel bad if I don’t. And, most importantly, she knows how to make me feel bad. Her smile, closer even than the touts in Siem Riep would dare to blatant sycophancy is what makes it all seems so much less unpleasant somehow: her wit, skill and yearning are just too disarming and appealing to leave you in anything other than a good mood.

“OK.” she says after what she considers a long enough pause.” You want T-shirt now.” Again there was no question asked, it was my thoughts read and given back to me. She smiles at the interpretation. It’s a wonderful smile; she knows she is good at this. “Very good T-shirt: Angkor Beer, Mines, Angkor Wat, Bayon. What you like?”

“Sorry I don’t need a T-shirt right now; I have enough T-shirts thank-you.”

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.” She wails.

“But…I…”

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy!”

And we start again. She lists the designs or the flavours and my still unfinished breakfast cools on the table in front of me as rapidly as my new drink, in turn, warms up.

Thee, who is sat next to me eating his breakfast, is lost in his own thoughts as this is all happening; he is quite happy and relaxed; looking around at the other tables for friends and expertly ignoring my pointed attempts to include him in the debate. I had surprised him by buying him that plate of rice this morning and as I look hopefully in his direction I can see him listening yet trying to appear as if he isn’t. I need a little help here and need him to explain a few things to this little girl but he knows the hawker rules and won’t stop her doing her job, he is too polite for that. That was one of the reasons I’d hired him. Like countless other guides he’d found me walking the streets of Siem Riep and named his price; unlike them though he’d taken my offer to think about it so calmly that I already knew I was going to hire him. Whilst the others had continued stalking me on their motorbikes refusing to accept the answer “no” and demanding a commitment there and then, Thee had just wished me a good trip and had hoped to see me tomorrow. With those words he’d made sure he would.

He had met me that morning outside my guest house at five O’clock as arranged. It was still dark at that hour and no amount of forced enthusiasm, on either of our parts, could disguise the fact that it was really way too early to be awake. Still, as my guide, Thee felt it his duty to raise the excitement level and had energetically set forward his plans for the day as we climbed aboard his motorbike.

The usually route taken around the hundred or so temples of the 400 square kilometre Angkor Archaeological Park follows a well-worn path that takes in the some of the best sights the park has to offer and it was this route that he recommended as we rode towards the entrance gate. The day normally starts at Angkor Wat itself; this is the most intact and arguably the most amazing monument in the park and is its symbol and spiritual centre. Photographs of it were everywhere and I was looking forward to seeing it for real. Standing under its leaf-like towers watching them grow into silhouettes against a rash-red jungle sunrise must indeed be one of the World’s most memorable sights. Yet as we headed towards the entrance buildings it was one I told Thee I didn’t want to see just yet, much to his surprise.

After showing my pass at the gate Thee pulled over to the side of the road and asked me where I wanted to go.

“Head to The Bayon first Thee please.”

“But the sunrise is much better at Angkor Wat.”

“Yes, I know but The Bayon is good too isn’t it?”

He agreed it was, but reiterated the point that it was considered to be much better at Angkor Wat. But I was clear, it was to The Bayon I want to go so when he realized I was not going to change my mind he started-up the motorbike’s engine and headed into the park shaking his head.

In a short while we turned left onto a broad road that traversed the banks of a large square moat. Above the trees, in the distance, the stark, knobbled shapes of Angkor Wat`s towers were beginning to show themselves. The sky was not yet light enough to see them very clearly and as we passed the bridge that crosses the moat the views were still devoid of the colours the other sleepy tourists were climbing off their motorbikes and rushing across to capture on film. Even at that early hour though there was an unmistakable magic about the place that made it a difficult decision to carry-on. I could see why Thee didn’t want me to miss it.

The road beyond Angkor Wat seemed an altogether more lonely and empty place. Most of the other motorbikes and their tourists had stopped at the bridge over the moat and we found ourselves suddenly alone as we rode on. I felt the buzz of being somewhere new growing of course but as we got deeper into the jungle I must admit I did feel as if I was missing something by following this road. That was certainly Thee`s opinion anyway and I almost turned back as I talked to him about the other temples; but the idea of watching The Bayon come to life had been a dream for sometime now; a dream I didn’t really want to share with a horde of other people. But no amount of poetic explanation on the fantasy of exploration that can only be found in solitude could convince Thee that I hadn’t just ruined my day by missing the best part of it and as we rattled-on, deeper and deeper into the park I had to admit he may have had a point.

It was a strange morning; the pre-dawn silence of the forest only adding to the unreality of this curious commute. Nothing felt quite the way I expected it to, even those things that should have been familiar. All the new places I have ever visited are clear in my mind compared to this forest. That first morning in a foreign city is a memory that seems larger somehow than all subsequent mornings, as if there was more to see that day: each building, taste or smell is completely new; each view countable and the edges of every new neighbour are hard against their surroundings so that they seem separate and more demanding of observation. Even those things that are known and understood or ordinarily forgettable in the everyday world, such as the weather, seem more substantial and legitimate at their first acquaintance in a foreign land: fresher, hotter, colder or just different enough that it is as if you have never experienced them before. Yet it wasn’t like that here, I just didn’t feel part of the world I was watching streak passed; though I can remember it all. It may have been the early hour (I was still technically asleep) that caused this distance or the enveloping atmosphere of the motorbike’s noise that wound around us like a blanket and cocooned us in a warmth I found surprisingly lacking for the tropics. Whatever it was I felt lost as we rode on, folding the world behind us; warm in our cut air with the trees scratching passed.

Ten minutes or so later, out of the gloom I woke out of a doze to see one of the giant-headed gates of the Bayon looming over the road. Large and pointed, it was a massive piece of architecture; intricately carved and unmistakably old.

“The Entrance to the Bayon.” Said Thee as he stopped the bike and let me off to take a photograph. No film could really capture the feeling of being there under those weed-choked chins though and it was still too dark to use a camera so after making some suitably impressed sounds, that got no-where near to expressing my true awe, I climbed back aboard and once again waved Thee on.

The temple itself waited in the nearby night, filling a clearing a little further along the road. Thee parked the bike and pointed me towards the entrance gates telling me he’d be waiting for me at the cafe “over there” when I’d finished. He waved at the shadows behind him as he said this where a few people were moving around getting their kitchens ready for the tourists who would come here later; after the sunrise at Angkor Wat.

“I’ll see you in an hour or so then?” I said.

“Yes, over there.” He nodded and waved at the shadows again as I turned and looked at the temple.

More stunted than I had imagined, The Bayon filled the view in front of me with a facade as wrinkled and rough as old bark. It was even more fungal looking than the gate and so derelict and ancient that you felt it must have grown, organically, from the jungle rather than been built there. The peaks that crowned it seemed to erupt like dwarf volcanoes all over the place and at this early hour the famous carvings that hang from them were invisible. All was still dark: the forest that pressed in on the ruin, the reliefs that attract the serious tourists and the complicated passages, eroded like crags, scarred with time and gently decaying, that wound in a rotten and confusing labyrinth to the top. After the guards had checked my ticket and somnambulantly waved me through the gate I went to explore it more closely.

The whole thing was eerily dim and I have to admit it was a little scary wandering around it. I spent a few minutes finding my way through rooms I couldn’t properly see whilst searching for carvings I probably couldn’t read before deciding enough was enough and ran quickly to the summit to wait on the sunrise; not wanting to spend longer than I needed to in the mould-shot corridors that I used to get there. There is still something of that litchenous dereliction about The Bayon that makes it feel as if it has only recently been dug out of the trees; it is perhaps the perfect jungle temple and as I walked around trying to find the best views among its towers I was still actually quite frightened. Though I had been determined to come here to watch the sunrise away from the crowds of Angkor Wat as I waited I found myself wishing for some company; any company in fact, to share this experience with and take away some of the fear. The enigmatic audience that hung in the air all around me made me feel both uncomfortably watched and, at the same time, very alone and it wasn’t until daylight began brushing massive smiles onto their faces that I relaxed and felt less haunted.

I met Thee back at the cafe an hour later, just as the faint, clockwork sounds of morning wildlife were beginning to wind their way, unseen, across the tree tops. He looked hungry and a little disappointed that I’d not seen the Angkor Wat sunrise as that was something he liked to talk about. The sun’s rise this morning had been a little yellow and tired looking to be honest and I doubted most of the other tourists had gotten the photographs they wanted. But an Angkor Wat sunrise was an essential part of his day’s work and whilst he had been waiting for me he’d worked hard to adapt the usual itinerary to my more idiosyncratic designs.

To make amends I had bought him the breakfast he was now busily spooning into his mouth as the little girl continued her guerrilla commerce. I looked hard at him. As I saw it he owed me some kind of help for that breakfast and I was waiting expectantly for him to empty the plate and provide it when she asked the next (sort of) question.

“You want violin.” She says sawing a couple of rough notes from a small two string, violin like instrument she has taken from her bag and is now holding-up in front of my face with yet another winning smile. I am very sure this is one thing I don’t want and can’t be convinced to buy and I try to transmit that thought to her the best way I can.

“No thank you.” Is the best I can come up with, yet so rude do I feel again that for a moment I begin to wonder how I could pack it. But I snap out of it, I am sure I don’t need a violin. Very, very sure.

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.”

But…I…”

“Oh! You want! But you don’t buy!” She interrupts.

“Wait! I’m sure, very, very sure I don’t want one of those. Really. I’m sorry.” I say. She looks hard at me again and nods with the dejected look of those who have given up on life. No such thought has obviously occurred to her though, because…

“OK! Then you want postcard.”

I sigh; aware at last I am beaten. And she smiles. She knows and she smiles all the wider when I get the Dollar bill from my pocket.

“Oh! I think you want but you don’t buy.” She wails.

“I will buy.” I say. “You win.”

“I think you want but you don’t buy!”

“Here. Ten postcards. Right?”

“Thank-you.” She says. And that’s it. She takes the money without ceremony, waves a can of Sprite at me as a half-joke and is gone instantly. She doesn’t go far however only walking to the next table where she smiles that smile of hers and begins the whole thing again in fluent Japanese.

But that is not the end of it. Oh no. Her place is immediately taken by another smiling little girl who is also unable to understand the word “no” in several otherwise fluently spoken languages.

“Hello! You want post-card.” She says, breaking into the silence left by the first little girl and filling it with another huge, noisy grin. She is smaller but no less charming than the first one, and knows it. I wave the recently purchased postcards at her.

“I have postcards.”

“Oh! But my postcards different. You want more postcards.”

“I haven’t got that many friends.” I say and smile desperately at Thee hoping he’ll share in the joke. He doesn’t of course and is instead sitting back sucking noisily on the straw of the coconut drink I also bought him.

She looks hard at me, looking harder at him.

“You want cold drink.”

“No.”

“Oh I think you want but you don’t buy.” She smiles. “I think you want but you don’t buy.”

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3 responses

  1. Only just got round to reading this.
    Glad I did.
    Memories of being there myself come flooding back.
    You should write more man, really loved this and the feelings in conjures. Great work.

    (oh and by the way this new comment system that makes me log in via wordpress,twatbook, or twatter is a total pain in the arse….drop it soon please!)

    May 31, 2012 at 10:08 pm

  2. Adrian have not changed any comment settings must be WP, will look into it. Thanks for the kind words though. Used to write more, indeed that was my thing to start when I first began travelling, but never seem to get the time now

    June 2, 2012 at 7:43 am

  3. Pingback: Rumble in the Jungle « sungypsy blog

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