I have a guidebook in my bag. Everyone does (though mine has been for a swim and people don’t ask to borrow it anymore). I can thank my dad for mine, though in almost teenage protestations I didn’t want to take one. I didn’t just want to avoid the overly enthusiastic hype that travel writing can’t help itself for, but my philosophy at the start was trust the way forward and it shall pro-vide. We all have a guidebook though, in our minds at the least, in the way we mainly travel. It leads us invariably to places of interest, gravitating our journeys around throbbing heritage sites. They prescribe the road and turn our day into an á la carte of cultural interest, relaxation, shopping, dining or, my least favourite, viewpoints. They’re not unique, but they cultivate a culture of more shallow, lobotomised touring. At their worst (try hide your surprise) they flood us with postcard photographs that don’t happen by accident or by holding an ipad over everyone else’s cameras. I’m being facetiously harsh of course, guidebooks are indispensable knowledge and life saving tools.
I got to see the travel mechanics in action all again in glorious technicolour at the epochal Angkor temples in Siem Reap. I saluted a thousand crestfallen tuk tuk drivers and skidded off in style on a creaking cycle with one working gear (a low one). Ancient and venerable it towers out of the trees on approach. Its silent turrets, the precipice of ancient oaths and solemn memorial are yes, also “unmissable”. Until you cross the gate, and you are in another sandbox of stones absolutely jointed with tourists. Against every great wall multicoloured vests jockey against patrols of silver haired shufflers for the angle to stare vacantly at a setpiece. In its ruination I found it most compelling. And being overrun with Geriatric League Now and doting couples cocking a leg for a mystifying photo, it felt a good fit to view the site as it is prodded and flashed into eventual extinction.
This compulsion to crane a wrist overhead on tip-toes or lie prone in the dust between strangers’ legs for a photograph, that someone else is already taking, is something hard not to raise an eyebrow to. Constant recording, unlimited footage. There are those who see it even as an investigation of our own mortality. Indeed. I think of it as a medication against the experience not amounting to the glossy solitude of the guidebook experience. Later that day, I’m stalking though more disintegrating sculpture, demolished blockwork and tree roots thinking that yes, it is exactly like Indiana Jones except for the rope guide, the 45 minute queue, the yawning tour guides and the guards, turning me around and sending me bewildered back into the labyrinth. Those interlacing tree roots are so photographed they could have their own red carpet. Through the heat and the repetition, the constant need to produce dollars and the agonising amount of peddling needed to move my bike ten yards, I lose the ability to care how old the stones are, or how many more acres they span, or how whimsical the chances are that their documentation has survived to this day, or how magnificent Japan are for their investment in restoring an outhouse. Instead I skulk around shady corners breathing in a delicious ancient dampness scoffing at the Koreans in their mismatched luminous sports garb, imagining everyone’s disappointment that at no point in the day a group of young monks have appeared beaming their saffron smiles out from some convenient window.
And I round a corner and come face to face with Ol, and while waiting for his pals we block a doorway and talk about temples, Cambodia, meditation, mobile phones and the good life as a monk. In a country of take; then give, it is about the first sincere conversation I’ve had with a local, and am very very glad of it. He laughs as I tell him how perplexed westerners are when they see Monks jamming on Candy Crush and racking up selfies. I tell him our own religions don’t face the subtle needs of change of the modern world as readily. That Buddhism offers a non-denominational perspective with which to re-see the world with compassion. I maybe go on a bit long, as he starts searching for help with a fixed smile on his face. But I detect a frustrated silence all around us as bearded men in fishing vests and couples in matching t-shirts shuffle and snort looking jealously for the opportunity to interrupt my now animated monologue.
And I’m more than happy to block their shot.