Lisa Arensen is riding out the coronavirus in Siem Reap, and stays sane and open to wonder by walking in Angkor Park.
Angkor Coronavirus Diaries, Part I
The descendants of Angkor
They keep saying, in the papers,
that Angkor is empty; but
it is only empty of tourists.
It is inhabited by Cambodians, as it
has always been. In fact, without
the lumbering buses, the rows of
tuk tuks, the crowds of visitors,
Angkor feels reclaimed. There
are families and lovers picnicking
by the 12thcentury moats in the hot
afternoons, wading in Sras Srang
reservoir with their trousers rolled
up, fishing off the sandstone steps.
City folk cycle on every road and forest
path, obsess over the troops of long-tailed
macaques, and go up on their toes to pick
fruit like the Javan plum. Brave young men
play football, gleaming with sweat.
It’s quieter, yes, and we who visit now are not
quite like the foreign tourists or the ancient ones.
Our modes of conveyance and our technologies
of communication have changed, but
the descendants of Angkor are still here—
walking, feasting and worshipping
underneath their sacred trees.
I was on the south wall of Angkor Thom early
one morning when I heard the singing. He
was in the moat below me, a trap over one bare
shoulder, a cast net slung over the other, and he
called out to me and I answered back, and he
said there were no guests for the boats, so he was fishing.
I said I lived in the city and walked on, leaving
behind a boatman wading in still clear water up to
his chest, singing an ancient love song.
Angkor Coronavirus Diaries, Part II
When death brushes closely by
We were coming back from the temples at dusk,
a wet sandy dog lying at our feet, and our tuk tuk
swung around a corner and there was a woman
lying on the side of the road with two men
standing over her.
We pulled over by a roadside fruit stand,
I found my latex gloves and went to see
if I could offer assistance. She was conscious
when I arrived, the others lifting her to
her feet. They helped her limp across the
road to the fruit stand as I quizzed her
about the nature of her injuries. Nothing
was broken, she insisted, and she longed for
Tiger Balm. So I got her some, and rubbed it
gently onto her swelling upper arm. There was
red dirt ground into the side and back of her pretty
gauze blouse, which she refused to let me rip
open to inspect her arm. There was dirt in her dark
hair, and she was talking in that
scattered startled way
one does when death has brushed closely by.
The car’s tire struck her motorbike. She toppled off
to the side of the road rather than rolling under the
wheels. The car, as is customary in Cambodia, was
long gone. The other men were strangers like me,
stopping to lift a fallen woman out of the way of more
danger. She hadn’t worn a helmet, she said, because
she wasn’t going far from home. She had five children,
she owed $10,000 to a microfinance institution, what
would have happened to all of them,
had she died that afternoon?There was no lump forming on her head, only the injured leg and arm from where the motorbike
landed on top of her body after the collision.
She was lucky. So I left her there with my red
Chinese balm, the vendors talking her back to
calmness, and I remembered that death can wait
anywhere—not just in the spiked proteins of
this new coronavirus, but just there, in the shadow
of the evening trees, around the corner, around the
bend, just down the road between the market and
your small wooden home.
Last Saturday, we stepped through the ruined sandstone
pillars of an Angkorian bridge to see the river and stopped short.
Far below us, two young women lay side by side in the water,
fully clothed, their bodies arranged upon small boulders.
It was an eerie tableau. Their purses and shoes lay on the
far bank, the clear water flowed shallowly over their feet
and jean-clad legs, their faces were pillowed on stones, limbs
tucked beneath them. They were still as death.
My companion thought she saw one’s chest rise and fall, but
I saw nothing, nothing but the gentle tug of the river on
their clothes, the odd curve of one bare foot propped against
a stone, and we could not leave them there, unsure of their fate,
so I climbed down the bank towards them, and still they remained
unmoving, until I was only a meter away and could no longer bear
the silence and called out, Sister! And one girl’s eyes fluttered
open, startled, surprised, and she declared them both alive and
well, simply two young women asleep in a shaded bend
of the river three hours before noon. We left them there,