From Siam to Suez ~ Angkor

by Harley Voogd

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Photo caption: THE MAD PRIEST OF ANGKOR AND THE AUTHOR – N.B. The author is on the right.

From Siam to Suez is a rare old book written by James Saxon Childers (1899-1965) detailing his journey from China to Egypt in the early 20th century. Childers was an American writer and traveller who wrote several fiction books as well as travel books. His fiction did not do too well, but his travel books were popular.

Here I’m sharing chapter two of the book where Childers visits Angkor. I have been to Angkor several times and it never ceases to amaze me. I agree with Childers though: Angkor is a foreign mystery to the westerner — cut off from our history, culture, and religion.

Chapter II, From Siam to Suez by James Saxon Childers (Public Domain Book)

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The towers of Angkor Wat temple

DEAR OCTAVUS ROY COHEN: You asked me to write to you about the ruins of Angkor. I’m sorry you did; for I’ve been in Angkor a week, yet can find out nothing about it. At night I prowl through the temple and in the day I ride elephants through the town, but the stones are only stones and I hear nothing.

In Athens I can see Socrates in his ragged old coat, forever talking, forever making his soul as good as possible. In Rome I hear the tramp of the legions and Cato shout, “Delenda est.” In Paris I see Villon staggering, staggering just a little as he searches for the snows of yesteryear. In the streets of London, Doctor Johnson shambles along with Boswell at his side. I hear him say: “Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But Angkor is silent. The lips of the four-faced god are mute; even the spirit of his devotees has gone into the awful jungle.

I would not have you feel that Angkor prompted me to ask Cleopatra’s famous question: “Is this the mighty ocean? Is this all?” In a way, I have not been disappointed in Angkor, but the place has not set me on fire; I have not felt as I did when looking at the Great Wall of China, or at the Parthenon, or at the Forum: Genghis Khan never stormed these gates, Phidias never worshipped in this temple, Cæsar never walked these streets…

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I arrived at Angkor after a week’s visit to Saigon, the real capital of Indo-China, a French city set in a jungle. The French own Saigon: they dominate it; one sees the native only as a servant, or as a soldier in the troupes coloniales. The architecture of Saigon is French. The paved boulevards are French. The big shops are French. There is a Hôtel de Ville, a Théâtre Municipal, a Musée, a Jardin Botanique. Saigon in its buildings, parks, and streets is definitely a counterpart of Paris, but the buildings are merely masquerade; even a transient detects a noxious decadence in the lives of the haggard officers of the Foreign Legion, of the white-faced government employees, of the red-faced rubber planters–Frenchmen forced to live in daily contact with the jungle and its diseases, the heat and its diseases, the sullen hatred of the natives, opium, the nostalgic realization of exile, and the insidious enervation of the Orient.

After a week’s visit in Saigon–seven days of ghastly heat and of torment from mosquitoes, seven nights of tennis and absinthe frappés, of late dinners and champagnes and brandies, of visits to opium houses and to other houses where depravity in its most vicious form is commonplace–I was glad to hire an automobile for the two-hundred-mile ride over the jungle road to the ruins of Angkor.

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Three times he spoke his name and three times I tried to repeat it. He laughed as I stumbled through the confusion of syllables, and when at last I called him Rollo, he didn’t seem to object. He was a white-haired old man of eighty-four years, and his entire international vocabulary was this: “Angkor Thom,” “Angkor Vat” (pronounced Angkor Wot), “Buddha,” “Vishnu,” “soldat,” “le roi,” “madame le roi,” “Naga,” and “all right.” For a week we talked with each other daily, and we used no other words than these. A stranger might have been puzzled had he seen us in conversation, for he might not have comprehended the gestures of our arms, the contortions of our bodies, and the significant grimaces by which we discussed history, art, and curious practices.

I found Rollo late one afternoon squatting on his haunches, chewing betel nut, and spitting the blood-red juice upon the stone causeway that leads to the temple of Angkor.

“You speak English?” I asked.

Rollo stood, bowed to me, raised his arm and swept it before him, encompassing by his gesture the entire façade of the mighty temple.

“Angkor Vat,” he said.

“Yes, I know, but do you speak English, and could you tell me where I could find a guide?”

Again the inclusive gesture and again: “Angkor Vat?”

“Good, but you speak French peut-être? Oui? Vous parlez français?

But the habit was on him: once more I learned that at the distant limit of the great arc described by his hand stood the temple of Angkor.

“Righto, old chap.” I nodded and smiled to him. “Merci bien.

I started along the causeway. Rollo trotted beside me, his little wooden clogs tap tapping upon the stones.

“Where are you going?” I demanded.

“Angk–”

“So I gather, but why are you following me?”

He looked at me and smiled. Absurdly enough I thought of wrinkled copper.

“All right,” he said, and startled me by his linguistic versatility. He struck his chest, touched my arm, and, clasping his hands, showed that we were friends.
Afterward he pointed ahead at the temple. Crouching low, peering all about him, he stood on tiptoe, gazing with keenest interest. Finally, with two forefingers ever moving one before the other, he signalled our advance.

“But, see here, you don’t speak any language I understand. How can you–”

Already he was tap-tapping toward the temple. I could only follow. And so, led by this venerable Cambodian, this graybearded ancient of infinite gentleness, of wisdom to leap the barrier of language, I began a tour of architectural wonders wrought more than a thousand years ago.

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Cambodia is a kingdom in French Indo-China, and in the center of Cambodia are the famous ruins of Angkor, once capital of the most powerful nation of Asia. Angkor was built by a people called the Khmers–whence they came nobody knows, where they went nobody knows, but at one time more than a million men lived in Angkor; and its grandeur shamed the Rome of Augustus, the Athens of Pericles, and the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar. To-day there is nothing except the shell of the mighty city and a silent temple of infinite majesty–a city and a temple, gray stone ghosts in a jungle of green.

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Ta Prohm temple

Some writers have declared that the Khmers were driven from their capital after a war in which their enemies combined against them. Others believe the Khmers were blotted out by a swift plague. French scholars who have spent years studying the ruins and their inscriptions contend that in the fourteenth century the slaves of Angkor suddenly fell upon their masters and destroyed them. Chaos followed. Gradually the slaves reverted to savagery, and gradually the savages degenerated into the decayed peoples who live their shabby lives near the ruins to-day.

“Angkor Vat,” said Rollo, pausing at the entrance of the famous temple, then leading me into the outer corridor. “Vishnu,” he said, pointing at a giant figure with hundreds of arms. Upon the wall was an unbroken bas-relief depicting wars, battles, and fearful exploits of wondrous men. “Soldats,” Rollo explained.

“And a bloodthirsty lot–eh, Rollo?”

“Soldats,” he answered, solemnly.

We turned a corner and the subject of the bas-relief changed to tortures used by the Khmers. One man’s eyes were being plucked out by vultures. Another writhed between two stones that were slowly pushed together. A third was hacked in pieces with great axes. One miserable wretch was surrounded by a number of ladies who cut tidbits from his body.

Whenever we arrived opposite a particularly gruesome carving, Rollo demonstrated. I shall always remember his graphic depiction of a disemboweled man whose entrails were used as a skipping rope–Rollo danced about with the happy abandon of a child whirling a daisy chain. In the middle of his danse macabre I caught his little white jacket and pulled at it, stopping him. He bowed, and, hurrying past the other torture scenes, led me around the great square, more than a mile in length.

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Angkor was built with gray sandstone that takes a polish almost like marble. In the middle of the twelfth century when the temple was built by the architect Visvakarman, thousands of tons of this stone were brought in huge blocks from quarries nineteen miles away. The outer gallery and inner gallery are connected by a stone causeway thirty-six feet wide. In the center of the temple are five huge domes, the middle one thrusting its rude splendour six hundred feet into the air. The walls, columns, entablatures, and pilasters are all marvelously decorated with carvings of the heavenly dancers, the monkey gods, and the divine tevadas with lotus flowers in their hands. When the moon touches them with silver, the carvings look like lace lying lightly upon stone.

The temple now is deserted save for Buddhist priests and sightseers, and millions of bats that defile the floor and pollute the air with the gagging smell of their bodies–besides these, there is nothing alive in a temple where once a million men bowed before their gods.

“Angkor Thom,” said Rollo on the second morning of my visit, as he made signs for me to mount one of the two elephants he had hired to take us to “The Great Capital,” the deserted city that lies one mile from the temple. We could have gone in automobiles, but Rollo insisted I ride as rulers had ridden, and because of his insistence I climbed to the howdah where I watched the mahout kick the elephant and strike it with an iron hook until at last the great beast heaved itself toward Angkor Thom.

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Elephant ride from the entrance gate of Angkor Thom to the Bayon Temple

The boundaries of the old city are marked by a wall, its massive stone gates arching high in primitive splendor above the roadway. Within the boundaries are the remains of a dozen buildings with enormous square towers still standing, each side of each tower cut as a huge Brahmanic face. In all parts of the city are terraces adorned with figures of startling beauty, treasures of sculpture.

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My son at the Bayon Temple (the temple of the Brahmanic faces)

The time may come when I forget the towers and the terraces and the carvings, but I shall never forget the dreadful silence of that dead city. In Angkor Thom, “The Great Capital,” one hears only the occasional call of a bird; the awful stillness sings the saga of departed pomp and power.

A thousand years ago the jungle was cut away and Angkor Thom was built. To-day the jungle is taking back its own, crumbling and swallowing proud buildings erected by proud men. Seeds dropped by birds have grown into trees and their roots have split the heads of the ancient gods. Other trees send their roots above ground and over all barriers more than a hundred feet to wrap about blocks of stone and tear them from their moorings. Myriads of small plants, the jungle’s infantry, advance in almost solid formation. A thousand years the jungle has waited, watching the aspiration of man. Then man died. The living jungle crawled in to blot out the scar of civilization.

I am writing you this letter, Roy, in the modern hotel built by the French at Angkor. I have just returned from wandering through the temple alone. Far back in the inner sanctum, I heard the liquid notes of the bamboo xylophone, played in the native village, join with the low chant of the Buddhist priests and come softly over the lake. The great temple stretched away from me, its stones silver in the moonlight, its shadows hiding the brooding souls of millions of men dead for centuries. . . . Long I sat listening to the xylophone and to the chanting. Long I peered at the ancient stones. And yet when I left the temple at midnight, the souls of the builders were still hidden in shadows.

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A wedding at the Angkor Wat courtyard

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*Photos are my own.

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