I have always wondered what Henri Mouhot, the French explorer and naturalist who wandered for years in Southeast Asia, might have felt when, breaking his back to make his way through branches and vines in the Cambodian jungles, one fine day, as in fairy tales, he was faced with the monumental complex of Angkor Wat.
Mouhot the explorer
I deliberately started the article with plenty of inaccuracies: in the first place I would exclude that Monsieur Mouhot made his way alone in the intrigue of branches and roots of a forest that tends with a certain speed to regain the spaces that man insists on stealing from it.
Mind you, if I look at his face in the photos that have been handed down to us, it all makes sense. Mouhot had that wilful look of someone who would not have stopped in front of a few tufts of grass. I believe, however, that it was much more likely that he had a certain number of people, natives, who by shedding tears, sweat and blood, opened those gaps in that tropical vegetation that would have led him to what was undoubtedly his most important achievement.
I wrote achievement and not discovery, and here we come to the second inaccuracy of my initial paragraph: in all truth, Monsieur Mouhot did not discover anything, or almost anything, at all. The only thing he is credited for is the discovery of a shell found on the banks of a Cambodian river, which will be named after him.
Before our French naturalist, others had already written about the city of Angkor and its groups of temples, pools and ‘smiling faces’, including the inevitable priest, a French missionary who had visited the archaeological site a few years earlier.
The diffusion of Angkor historical discovery
If Monsieur Mouhot has a merit in this story, it is definitely not for the discovery but, at the most, for the diffusion. His travel diaries “Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge, de Laos” have in fact been able to instill an interest around Angkor, both thanks to the charm created by his descriptions, and to his detailed illustrations. He did not even have the well-deserved success for these contributions, as his diaries were published after his death.
The latest inaccuracy is however the result of that sort of all-Italian provincialism that always leads us to see reality in a distorted way, tailor-made on the basis of our imagination. In fact, how could one think that while the French naturalist was collecting larvae or chasing some butterfly with his net, moving a branch he would have found himself facing, for instance, the Bayon temple with one of his faces observing him sternly.
I am perhaps talking too lightly about a topic which feels quite close to my heart, and I would like to clear it of any misunderstanding: Henri Mouhot deserves respect. He lost his life at the age of 35 struck by malaria, a disease that regularly killed a huge number of travellers, and he also helped expose the Angkor archaeological site, one of the most beautiful and evocative places I have seen in Asia. I have been to Siem Reap – the location where Angkor Wat temples are located – four times, one of these times negotiating a series of dirt and rather bad roads on my old orange Vespa 150cc!
The Angkor complex is nothing short of breathtaking: the gigantic smiling stone faces of the Bayon temple; the pyramidal constructions with irregular steps on which to climb to the limits of the climbing; the low reliefs of the dancing Apsara; all sights that convinced (and I don’t think it took long) UNESCO officials to give Angkor Wat the title of World Heritage Site. Beautiful, enchanting images which contrasted, at least during my first two trips there, with the images of poverty hidden behind the smile-less faces of begging children, of disabled war-veterans’ improvised orchestras along the avenues or, even worse, by survivors of that collective drama represented by the infamous genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge against their own people, justifying the climate of terror behind the intention of wanting to create the new, pure peasant society. These scars are difficult to heal when you see a third of your fellow citizens die without a real reason and, without a doubt, in that third of the population you have a relative, a friend, an acquaintance.
It is for this reason that when I first visited Siem Reap, after having crossed a good portion of Cambodia and after having stopped in Phnom Penh, the epicentre of Khmer horror and madness, I could not help but feel a deep affection for these people who until then had had nothing but suffering.
In the long term, time is known to soothe the wounds, and so it was for Cambodians, who also thanks to tourism started to rebuild their lives. However, a place like Angkor can only attract masses of curious, sometimes ignorant, often disrespectful people. This is perhaps the price that Cambodia will have to pay to forget its unhappy past. Start over by selling a piece of its soul and culture in exchange.
Photos by Guglielmo Zanchi (Pluto)