Dance of the apsaras

Angkor, Cambodia

The Apsara Dance

Dancing like apsaras at Preah Khan

Angkor, Cambodia

We arrived at the north gate of Preah Khan just as the rain let up. For a few moments, the ruined walls were bathed in a rich golden light and coils of mist arose from the wet ground. We locked our bicycles and admired the damaged balustrade with its rows of headless gods (to the left) and demons (to the right) doing their part in the churning of the sea of milk by tugging vigorously on a rope made out of a naga (naga expressions are difficult to read, but I can only assume that the luckless serpents were feeling some discomfort).

The five minutes of bright sun at the northern gate were to be the only sun we saw that day. By the time we had made our way through the cruciform temple, past the central stupa and the hall of the apsaras to the doorway facing the east gate, it had begun to drizzle again in a manner that suggested it was working up to another deluge.

We put on our ponchos and peered out into the growing gloom. The guardian in his blue-gray uniform had already settled himself into the precise spot where he knew from long experience that the ruined roof and walls afforded some protection from the rain. He scowled at the stocky teenage boy who came limping out of the rain to look for shelter. One of the boy’s feet was deformed, a club-like lump of flesh with toes bent backwards and upwards. He ignored the guard and let out a happy peal of laughter at the sight of the foreigners in their bright ponchos. Each time our gazes met, he would smile broadly and laugh again, as if we were the best joke he’d heard that day.

As the rain grew steadily heavier, the guardian retreated further into the temple and we decided to venture out to see if the small chapel to the north of the path offered any more shelter than the porch. The thin rivulets of yellow water winding down the muddy path entwined, became a respectable stream heading our way. We picked our way cautiously along the patches of drier – or at least higher ground – at the sides.

As we reached the start of the paved platform leading towards the east gate, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by four small children who had materialized out of the downpour like water sprites. “Come with us”, they said. “We are dancing like apsaras.” They began to make graceful pirouettes on the rain-slick stones of the platform, flexing and bending their knees in a good imitation of the carved figures of dancers on the walls of the temple. The rain was now torrential, but the children, absorbed in their game, paid it no attention.

“Will he dance like an apsara as well?” one of the children asked M. She paused in mid-curtsey, arms spread elegantly to either side. “You can ask him,” she said, “but I don’t think he will.” I fiddled with my digital camera in the rain, trying to clear enough space on the memory card to capture the apsaras in mid-dance. The smallest of the little boys approached me and pulled urgently at my elbow. “Nong nong nong,” he said, or something that sounded very much like it. “In Cambodia, you have to sing this song.” I looked at him in bewilderment.

M. pointed in the direction of the gate, now invisible behind a curtain of falling water. “Food?” she asked hopefully. The children nodded emphatically, and threw themselves into the new game of leading the foreigners to the east gate. The downpour had filled the inner causeway like a basin, and we found ourselves wading through eight inches of turbid yellow water. The flagstones beneath the water were smooth and slippery underfoot, and we skidded and splashed as we felt our way slowly across. The children looked on with mingled interest and alarm, clearly excited by the idea that the male foreigner, hat, camera bag and all, might be about to measure his length in the muddy water. One of the boys generously took my elbow and tried to steer me through the shallows. I politely disengaged myself, worrying that not only was I about to drop my borrowed camera in what was starting to look like a major tributary of the Tonle Sap, but that when I eventually did go down that I’d crush one or more of the children as well.

We reached the east gate and splashed our way across the outer causeway. “Food?” asked M. again. “Yes, yes,” they assured us, urging us on towards the road.

The semi-circle of mud adjoining the road offered a perspective that can only be described as howling wilderness. On the far side, a wall of trees tossed their crowns in the mist, a couple of small lean-tos clinging to their roots, their flimsy roofs lashed by the driving rain. No human beings, nothing that could remotely be construed as offering food or shelter could be seen. It was as desolate a scene as I have ever seen.

As we looked on in horror at the maelstrom of rain and mud, an older girl in a rain-drenched T-shirt coalesced out of the murk. “Cold drink,” she announced. “You buy my cold drink.” The smaller children looked on with the satisfied air of tour guides contemplating a job well done.

“Fried rice?” said M. plaintively. “You buy my cold drink,” repeated the girl with the tone of authority of someone who is not used to being denied. I resisted the temptation to point out that if the rain kept up at its present volume for about five minutes more we’d all be up to our armpits in all the cold water we could use. “Fried rice? Noodle?” M. asked weakly. “Cold drink,” the girl said sternly. We looked at our guides, who now appeared dismayed that we had proven to be such picky eaters.

We turned sadly away and began to splash back towards the temple. At the end of the stone platform, we said goodbye to the children, and they apsara’d gracefully away across the flagstones. The porch we had sheltered under earlier was deserted, the guardian, the deaf-mute boy and the trinket seller having apparently all gone further into the body of the temple in search of shelter. The narrow passages were awash, each section filled with water of varying depth. We paddled slowly down the long axis of the ruin, sliding and splashing with every step.

A little way beyond the west entrance we found a kind woman who delayed her packing up long enough to serve us each a bowl of noodles with mixed vegetables, seasoned with enough Cambodian bacteria to keep us both in considerable discomfort until we finally chased them out with massive doses of ciproflaxin more than a week later.