I can tell you exactly when I first visited the country: mid April 1998. My memory is buttressed by the fact that Pol Pot died while I was there, on the 15th, although I only learned of this after I had returned to my home in Hong Kong.
Siem Reap, out where the ruins of Angkor lie, remained Khmer Rouge territory when the dregs of that murderous cult were pushed out by the Vietnamese in the 1980s. They retreated to the west of the country where they maintained a private army and control over local resources, such as timber and gemstone mines. But their most effective defense against the Vietnamese-backed regime (led by a former Khmer Rouge lieutenant, Hun Sen) was a thick carpet of landmines laid by Pol Pot and his decrepit retinue.
Angkor reemerged as a tourist destination in the early 1990s, as UN-backed elections brought a measure of stability and foreign cash to the land. By the time of my first visit, the main temple areas were already being administered by the central government, and the road that connected town to the airport boasted the first gaudy hotels for mass tourism.
But visitors had yet to arrive en masse in the late 1990s. The monuments were fairly busy but not overcrowded and I stayed in the home of a local family that rented a room to me for about US$5 a night. I remember that teak-scented room, with a simple mattress and a thunderingly powerful ceiling fan that rendered air conditioning unnecessary, despite it being the hottest month of the year.
It was also the Cambodian new year, and I got to participate in the local celebrations. The family crowded its ancestral spirit house with plenty of offerings: oranges, cans of Coca-Cola and cigarettes. In the evening, a moving crowd came by the house. These were farmers from the villages outside of town, come to receive gifts of money in return for playing music, singing songs and playfully spraying water. This was nothing like the aggressive water fights you get in Thailand. Instead, the night felt like what it actually was: a marking of the harvest among farmers and townspeople, a little street festival in which the handful of foreign backpackers were welcome to participate.
I paid a man $7 a day to take me around the monuments on the back of his motorbike. Angkor Wat and its bas-reliefs seemed too big and imposing to digest. I rather liked Ta Prohm – the temple overrun by the jungle – and the quiet, rambling Preah Khan, which was built at the same time, by Angkor’s first Buddhist king.
The highlight, however, was an early morning trip to Banteay Srei, which involved a 45 minute ride on the back of my man’s motorbike. I had to catch a late-morning flight that day so time was short, and my driver had agreed to a final, and very early, excursion.
We set out on a clear morning. Close to the destination we were stopped at a military checkpoint, which consisted of a couple of armed soldiers hanging out by a cluster of farmhouses raised on stilts.
Pol Pot lay 125 kilometres to the north, by the Thai border, gasping his last. Banteay Srei had only recently been opened to tourists. Even within the parkland covering the main set of Angkor temples, it was dangerous to stray off the paths lest you cross a landmine; out here, apparently, the threat was even more real. These soldiers were federales, not Khmer Rouge, and they told my driver that Banteay Srei would not open until 8am.
This was a problem. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting. My driver disappeared into a thatched building with the soldier in charge, leaving me to sit on a bench by the roadside. Soldiers sat beside me on either side. One of them touched my hiking shoes. Another touched my wristwatch.
I was relieved to see my guide return. He explained with an apologetic air that it would be advisable to contribute a little something to the squad. I asked how much. I think it was the equivalent of another $7. That seemed like a better alternative to the ideas the other soldiers appeared to be entertaining.
The upside to bribing my way into Banteay Srei was that it really was closed to visitors until 8am. I approached the sunlit entrance with increasing giddiness. It was about 7.40am. For the next 20 minutes, this place was all mine.
Banteay Srei, also known as the “Citadel of Women”, is one of Angkor’s greatest delights. After a few days of scaling great and imposing monuments, this delicate, human-sized treasure was a welcome change. The stone sculpture here is probably the best among all of the Angkor temples, and it is decorated with wonderful statuary and bas-reliefs hewn from pinkish rock.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this is also the temple that André Malraux raided in 1923: this French adventurer, the future Minister of Culture under De Gaulle, was arrested for trying to smuggle out bas-reliefs and the heads of statues. His novel La Voie royale, “The Way of the Kings”, which is sort of a “Heart of Darkness” for the French, is loosely based on that experience.
Although in the 1990s Angkor wasn’t as crowded as it is today, it had still felt full, so having 20 minutes of absolute loneliness at this gem of a site was an amazing privilege. I knew it at the time, and that knowledge made my time there bittersweet, as I was both aware of my luck and conscious that I could not bottle or preserve that moment. When 8am rolled around and the second tourist arrived, it was time for me to go.
The elixir of this experience has worked its magic on me for a long time. Cambodia is a sad, broken country, burdened by one of the worst histories in the world, and yet it weaves spells on the people who visit. I am not that familiar with the place. I’ve only been back two times, as a tourist doing nothing out of the ordinary. But I had wanted to capture a little of that mix of charm, danger and drama in my writing.
My first project was a non-fiction history, “The Story of Angkor”, which was published in 2013 by Silkworm Books. But I wasn’t quite done. My research had delivered plenty of intriguing nuggets that, with a little imagination, deserved to be exploited in fiction. In particular I had long wanted to make an adventure story out of the idea of these swords used by early kings to supernatural effect, which are mentioned in stone inscriptions.
Meanwhile it was time to write another novel. I wanted to bring back Val Benson, the ex-Tokyo bar hostess at the center of “Gaijin Cowgirl”. One strain of the sequel would involve a Japanese porn starlet who had gone missing in Los Angeles, a story that tied back, rather circuitously, to the original book. But I wanted to do something with Angkor too, so I interwove it into this emerging narrative. The opening chapter of “Cowgirl X” ends with Val receiving a mysterious, anonymous gift: the hilt of a decrepit, antique sword. The novel builds to a climax that takes her to Angkor Wat.