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In the Cambodian Jungle

I gaze into the wall of green to my left, squinting past thick, leafy boughs of the Cambodian jungle, bewildered. I look to my map; there nothing but the giant reservoir to my right and green uniformity to my left. I peer into the jungle, then back to the map. Back to the jungle.
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I gaze into the wall of green to my left, squinting past thick, leafy boughs of the Cambodian jungle, bewildered. I look to my map; there nothing but the giant reservoir to my right and green uniformity to my left. I peer into the jungle, then back to the map. Back to the jungle.

Inexplicably, unbelievably, there arise pounding techno beats and a thumping bass from where before, only animal noises had floated by.

I had laid in bed that morning as the clock struck 10am, then 10:30, gazing lazily at my visitors pass to Angkor Watt. Two of the three allowed entrance days had been punched out. I had wondered what to do.

A typical travel malaise had struck me. I had only myself to entertain, and the prior two days had been filled with hurrying up ancient temple steps, hurrying down ancient temple steps, squinting at the visitors map and re-routing, gasping at leafy rainforest vistas and at stone entrapments, grasping at that feeling of awe that was always half-genuine, half "this is what I should be feeling, right?" Each moment in that current horizontal state was a moment of enjoyment, as well as a renewal of a guilty shock that I could allow such laziness.

I had finally pulled myself into a clean outfit and onto a motorbike that my hosts, friends of Filippino expats I had couchsurfed with in Phnom Pen, had left me. As I had ridden away from the populated tourist section of Siem Reap, I looked smugly over at tourist families with their wide brimmed hats and chubby children, unconsciously sucking in my stomach.

Is it clear enough that I'm not like them? I had thought to myself, wondering if they felt the same feeling of respect towards me as I thought they should feel; although I looked roughly indistinguishable from many of the other tourists, I obviously (right?) was someone who had worked away from home for over a year at that point.

I am Lucas Spangher; an adventurer and explorer, I thought, passing a particularly flabby family, during the course of my past 22 years I had opened my eyes and seen the flaws of Western society and had removed myself from it; I was no mere tourist, my travels were not for lazy enjoyment but to state a quiet philosophical rebellion against imperialism!

The family appeared unfazed.

On the jungle highway, little more than a wide dirt path worn by tracks and hoof marks, I had stopped my bike to take a quick bathroom break. A couple of Cambodian men lounged on the edge of the cliff, some meters from the reservoir drop-off. They had a small picnic and some beers. I heard remarks exchanged in Khymer, and wondered if they are talking about me. A laugh floated by.

The big tourist sights are a little tough for me. It's difficult for me to escape a continual shudder at a manipulated environment meant to create an atmosphere of "authenticity", to avoid dipping into a work-like 9 to 5 schedule to maximize visitors passes, to feel comfortable around crowds of other tourists with different travel purposes and schedules than me. Part of me wants to dismiss these monuments for leading visitors to characterize nations based on ancient achievements rather than valuing them for their current potential. Yet another part of me finds it impossible to ignore the compelling, austere grandeur of these ancient marvels.

I continued along the dirt road, crunching and spitting rocks to the side as I buckle through. I had mapped out a distant temple that seemed far off the beaten path. But the dirt became sandier, making the wheels more slippery. The sun beat down, I sweated, and the reservoir seemed never ending.

An hour earlier, I thought I had fulfilled my "cultural experience" for the day by stopping at a local's hammock park. Right on the bank of the reservoir, a large bamboo flat appeared with hundreds of hammocks arranged in a grid like pattern. I parked the bike, walked down, and napped in a hammock for a bit. Though a couple of boats glimmer up from the expanse, nearly half the reservoir is dry - it's original purpose, to provide a store of water to the capital of the Khymer empire, has faded into history alongside those who made it. A crowd of local Cambodians played a card game to my right. I gazed towards them, hoping for an invite, but none came. I rode on shortly.

What was I doing, trying to escape the other tourists? I think. I really am just another white person to everyone here; is there any use in pretending otherwise?

And that's when I hear the music, and my curiosity overtakes me.

The bike is parked, and I forage my way through the jungle. What if my bike gets stolen? Where am I going? I think. The music gets louder.

A brief clearing, and I emerge. Before me is a small hamlet, four or five bamboo huts on stilts with small gardens in front of them and leafy trees on the sides. Kids run around, playing, and a group of women gathered near one hut turn and stare at me. Two are half naked, and one has what looks like red sucker marks all over her.

Shoulders raised, I walk resolutely between two huts, gulping. My heart beats out of wariness and excitement.

As the front of the encircled huts come into view, I see something surprising. More women, more children, and one white man in what looks like an Indiana Jones outfit. He turns and sees me.

"And who are you?" His accent sounds northern European.

I stare. "I am Lucas Spangher. I am working in the region."

He starts, with a happy look. "Ah, you are a doctor?"

I am not, and I see no obvious reason why he would think so. But taken aback by the strangeness of it all, I give a small half-nod.

It is enough for him, and he takes me around, chatting. He was Dmitri, from Denmark, but had visited Angor Watt and somehow found himself in this village. He had subsequently lived here for two years, taking a wife in this village and fathering a child. Indeed, he pointed out the lighter child in the tumble.

"Where is your hut?" I ask.

"My hut? Oh yes. Where is it again?" He calls something to one of the ladies.

She turns around and points lazily at a bamboo house no different than the rest. Two people are in it, one laying down and the other repeatedly placing a large suction cup on the skin and then pulling it off. I stare.

"Oh, see, that is just a form of massage here," says Dmitri, following my gaze. "It takes out some bad energy. You want that? I think one of the ladies can do it for something like $5."

I'm not really sure what to believe about Dmitri anymore.

"Now tell me," says Dmitri, stopping before a small teenage kid. "Is he ill?"

I look at the kid. He stares solemnly back at me, his bare chest skinny but not overly so.

"I don't know," I say, trying to hide my surprise.

"Ah, you don't have your toolkit, of course," says Dmitri helpfully. "We'll take him to the children's hospital later anyway."


We stop back where we started. Dmitri's wife calls something to him in Khymer. He turns to me.

"Listen, I need to go. I have my boy to look after. But stay around, OK?"

I nod. The jungle music thumps on. I continue towards it.

10 minutes more of jungle, and then a larger clearing, with many more villagers. Huge speakers boom. Children, fully dressed, play together, and women crowd a large elevated bamboo platform, kneading ingredients, boiling soups, and assembling rice balls. Men gather around the back, and upon seeing me, call me over raucously.

"He--llo!" One calls. He is missing some teeth and his face is weathered, but it is split with a huge smile. "Europe?" Another shouts, and they all laugh. I join them, and with our best communal sign languages, we communicate about our origins. They force an Ankgor beer onto me. It is a wedding, they say, and an important girl is getting married. A couple of men pantomime a dance to the throbbing beats.

I feel so relieved. After all my time in rural India, I felt that this was a group of people I could be comfortable around. They were rural villagers, who worked the land near the village, caught in a happy time of merriment and enjoyment.

A couple of men bring me to a large, hallow stump. An older grandfather is repeatedly raising a large decorated stick and bringing it down into the stump with loud thumps. He is grinding something.

With cheers and hoots, they entreat him to give me the stick. I raise it above my head - it's heavier than it looks - and bring it down. After a couple of times doing this, someone places a whole roasted duck on the edge of the stump, its body elongated and throat stretched. It tips over, and falls into the path of my stick.

A couple of sickeningly soft thumps and the duck is beyond recognition. Its entire body turns into the paste that I was previously grinding. The men applaud.

I give up the ceremonial stick and walk back, some of the men trailing off. Some teenagers, including a small girl, come up to me excitedly.

"My sister wedding!" says the girl. She has makeup, a modern haircut, and village clothes, looking like a strange cross between metropolitan and rural. "You come? We are preparing now."

The kids all smile.

They ply me with rice wrapped in bamboo, fried crickets, and Cambodian Red Bulls - smaller, syrupy carbonless drinks that take some getting used to. I give them some postcards I've brought with me from New York. The sun streams down from the canopy, and we laugh and enjoy the music and wedding food.

I spend the next few hours being led around introduced to everyone, chatting with them, playing a village game, and lying down while a women - her mother - repeatedly sticks a suction cup to my bare back and rips it off. Each time I feel like I loose a bit of skin in a rush of fiery heat. But, as the throbbing subsides, it begins to feel quite good.

Was it a strange artifact of my own cultural insecurity, my time away from home, that I was happier here? I think. I don't pretend my reasons are benevolent; surely some implicit advantage in my geopolitical otherness grants me confidence. I'll always be privileged in that I can always leave if I need, who knows how I'd feel if I were too poor to leave the village? But at some level, entertainment is entertainment, and I loved trying to good-naturedly entertain the villagers with my American-ness.

The sun begins to wane, and I realize that I'm at least two hours from my home.

"I'm sorry, Kamie, I need to go now," I say to the girl. Kamie pouts and flings her arms on my hand.

"But you cannot, the wedding begin at sundown!"

I pantomime a motorcycle. Kamie understands. At least, I think.

"The wedding party go tomorrow and next day too. You promise you come dance with me?" She says. I nod.

I wave to the men, to the kids, and to the cooking women.

I wade back into the jungle, away from the music now, and wave to Dmitri and his wife and son as I pass by. The potentially ill kid is playing alongside the rest of them.

I continue on.

My bike is alone and untouched. I rev onto the village highway, riding further and further until, finally, the road becomes paved and a sign heralds the way to Siem Reap. I have made one giant circle.

I am happy; I feel like I've experienced something very unique. Is this feeling is imperialist, i wonder briefly, how many of those villagers would prefer to be in the tourists' shoes? It's difficult to analyze this thought very far and not feel defeated, incapable of any moral action; I reason that at least the villagers seemed happier as a result of my being there.

I put my way back to the house as the sun sets. All around me, tourists are returning from their solitary bouts around the ancient temples.

The moon rises. Further, somewhere in the jungle, a wedding is starting.