A Dragon Apparent (Travels in Indo-China)

by Norman Lewis

With rumors of Indochina war as a backdrop, a highly personal and highly enjoyable travelogue through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in 1950-1.

Lewis dragon 1951 cover

Type: e-book

Publisher: Jonathan Cape, London.

Edition: Internet Archive Digital Version

Published: 1951

Author: Norman Lewis

Pages: 344

Language : English

ADB Library Catalog ID: eHISLEW

This travelogue around Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia is now a reference book for researchers of modern Southeast Asia, and yet we open its review with the author's personal take on the history of the Khmer Empire. Although not a specialist in ancient history, this part gives an interesting point of view -- not devoid of Marxist-inspired biases --, in particular on the role of Tonle Sap lake, the social organization of the Empire, and the decline of Angkor as capital city:

Angkor

"The existence of Angkor was reported by sixteenth-century missionaries, although the ruins were not fully described until Mouhot’s visit in 1859. They are probably the most spectacular man-made remains in the world, and as no European could ever be expected to rest content with the comfortable attitude taken by the Cambodians who assured Mouhot that ‘they made themselves’, the details of their origins have provoked endless speculation and many learned volumes.
At its maximum extension at the end of the twelfth century, the Khmer Empire included, in addition to the present kingdom of Cambodia, parts of the Malay Peninsula, Burma, Siam and Cochin China, but for practical and metaphysical reasons the capital has always been in the vicinity ofAngkor. There are important Khmer ruins scattered through the forests over a hundred miles radius. The principal monuments are the colossal mausoleum of Angkor Vat, the shell of the city of Angkor Thom, with its fantastic centre piece, the Bayon, and a few scattered temples and foundations; some pyramidical, hut all built on a strictly rectangular plan and carefully oriented with doors facing the cardinal points. Between these are clear open spaces, since permanence was only desired for religious edifices and only those could be built of brick and stone. All these buildings were erected between the ninth and twelfth centuries.
Savants ofthe late nineteenth centuryhave argued with compelling logic that Angkor Vat took three hundred years to build, although the figure generally accepted at the present time is nearer thirty. Divergences of opinion regarding the completion dates of other monuments ranged over several centuries, and there was a similarly fierce conflict of theory over the purposes of the buildings and the identity of the statuary. The arguments have been slowly resolved and many a dogma demolished by the periodical discovery ofsteles, on which the monarchs of those days have left a record not only of their achievements but of their motives. Thus Udayadityavarman II informs posterity diat he built the Baphuon, which was then the centre of a city which pre-dated Angkor Thom, ‘because he had remembered that the centre of the universe is marked by the mountain of Meru and it was appropriate that his capital should have a Meru in its centre’.
This statement presents one with a key to the whole situation. All Khmer building was governed by an extravagant symbolism. The first Khmer king, who, returning from Java, had thrown off the suzerainty of that kingdom and unified Cambodia under his rule, had promptly declared himself a god. Under the aspect of Siva he took the title of ‘Lord of the Universe’. He was obliged, therefore, to order his kingdom, or at least its capital, along the lines ofan established precedent —provided in this case by Buddhist mythology. The Buddhist universe included a central mountain of Meru, which supported the heavens and was surrounded by an ocean, and finally a high wall of rocks which formed the barrier and enclosure of space. There was a lot more in it than this, but these were the reasonable limits to which the king’s symbolism could be pushed. He built his artificial hill, the wide moat round Iris city, and the wall. This probably helped to convince him that he really was a god. It was wishful thinking on a cosmic scale.
Yet there was a curious sense of dependence shown by these self- created divinities upon the observance of their cult by their successors and their subjects. It was a grotesque magnification of the belief underlying so many Eastern religions that the fate of the dead is in some way linked to the living, who must provide them with regular offerings if they are to remain prosperous and contented in the land of souls. This idea, lodged in the ruthlessly energetic mind of a Khmer king, was translated into action on a huge scale. The king erected temples and consecrated statues to his divinized parents while leaving behind him inscriptions which positively implore his successors to follow his example. His immortality. King Yasovarman admits on one of his steles, depends upon the maintenance of the cult. Seen in this light these deities were not comparable to the unassailable gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. For a neglected and forgotten god-king passed into oblivion. He became no more than one of the great multitude ofnameless and forgotten spirits for which the pious erect those tiny shrines outside their homes.
So the king came in time to devote the whole of his efforts to the preservation of this shaky immortality. The royal megalomania reached its height with Jayavarman VII. Ta Prohm, built to house the image and the divine essence of the Queen mother and 260 attendants and lesser deities, required for its service 79,365 persons of whom about 5000 were priests. The gold plate used in this temple weighed five tons and the temple establishment lived upon the revenues of 3140 villages. The king’s obligations to his father gave rise five years later to the erection of Prah Khan. This time, according to the stele discovered in 1939, there were 430 minor divinities included with the old king —nobles who as a kind of promotion for meritorious services had been either granted apotheosis or raised posthumously to the divine status. The responsibility for the upkeep of this establishment fell upon 5324 villages, the total number of persons involved being 97,840. Among the dependencies of Prah Khan was the little sanctuary of Neak Pan, built upon one of those sharply rectangular artificial lakes the Khmers were so fond of digging out. This symbolized a lake situated, according to a Hindu legend, somewhere in the Himalayas, which was supposed to possess extraordinary purificatory powers. Its construction was no mere poetic conceit, but followed a formula by which it became, in essence, the original lake. In this way the Khmer king saved himself the kind of gigantic wild-goose chase sometimes undertaken by the Chinese Emperors in their searches for similar legendary sites.
These are the games of children, who by a slight imaginative effort can even transform inanimate objects into living ones; a broom into a horse. But the children’s games played by the Kings of Cambodia were hacked by monstrous and freakish power. Neak Pan, of course, was a tribe for those days, probably not occupying more than 10,000 men for a mere three or four years.
But the king was not, and never could be satisfied. Hounded on by furious compulsions he reconstructed his capital in such a way that the Baphuon— microcosm of Meru — was no longer in the town’s geometrical centre. This called for another sacred mountain, a great extension of the moat and entirely new walls. After only ten years of his reign there were already 13,500 villages comprising 30 (5,372 men at work on these projects. The new sacred mountain was the Bayon, the most singular of all the Angkor monuments. It wasjayavarman’s lastwork begun in about 1190, and it marked the height of the Khmer power and foreshadowed its end. From its towers sixty-four colossal faces of the king, now represented as one with the Buddha, smiled, with rather savage satisfaction, it seems, towards the four quarters of the kingdom. Even Pierre Loti, who knew nothing of the Bayon’s history, found it very sinister.
With inexorable will-power at the service of mania the Khmer kings called into being whole populations whose only ultimate function, whether directly or indirectly, was the furtherance oftheir insatiable cult. In the early period, the economic basis of this efflorescence was the inland sea of Tonle Sap, close to which all the successive capitals had been situated and which contained, and still contains, so many fish that when in the dry season the waters sink to their low level, the oars of boatmen are impeded by them. The Tonle Sap provided food for the whole populace through the exertions of a few fishermen, and the king saw to it that all the spare hours were occupied with profitable labour. An agricultural people, efficiently tilling fertile soil — and one is reminded of the pre-Columbian Mayans — can live fairly comfortably on an aggregate of forty or fifty days labour a year. Inevitably, however, some organizing genius comes along to make sure that the spare three hundred days are occupied in impressive but largely wasteful undertakings.
With the flying start provided by the Tonle Sap the kingdom was expanded in all directions, covered with rice-fields, nourished by a brilliant irrigational system and linked up by a network of roads, with elaborately equipped staging points providing shelter for the buffaloes and elephants used as beasts of transport, as well as their masters. The great building king, Jayavarman VII, in addition to his religious foundations and influenced perhaps by the fact that he was a leper, established 102 hospitals. He did not omit to furnish on the great stele of Prah Khan the most detailed catalogue of the medicaments with which they were stocked. It was a huge piece of organization, controlled finally by a vast machine of state, with its Domesday Books and its army of accountants, to keep track of the activities of every single man in the interests of the maximum production. One can be quite sure that there was a police force and that tire minds of the young were carefully moulded by the priesthood to fit them for the efficient fulfilment of their duties. The Khmer Empire was nothing if not totalitarian.
A great deal of unnecessary mystery has been made about the downfall of the Khmers, followed by the abandonment of Angkor. It has often been attributed to spectacular Acts of God. The facts, simple enough, are related by the Chinese traveller Chou Ta- Kouan, who visited Angkor when its decadence was already well advanced, and when, partly because the sand-stone quarries were exhausted, even the building mania had petered out. It seems that the Khmers, attacked in retaliation by die Siamese, had been obliged to apply the principles of total war. ‘They say,’ said Chou Ta- Kouan, ‘that in the war with the Siamese, all the people were forced to fight.’ One notes that Ta-Kouan speaks of compulsion, and suspects that if any were spared conscription it would have been those tens of thousands of temple servants who ministered to the royal cult. If the report is true that the Khmer army was several millions strong, it must have been by far the largest in the world of its day. But these peasants torn from their rice-fields and forced into uniform fought with little enthusiasm and the wars dragged on until final defeat.
In the meanwhile the irrigation systems were allowed to fall into ruin and the rice-fields on which the enormous, swollen population depended, quickly reverted to forests. The highly productive paddy- field system was progressively abandoned in favour of that present scourge of Indo-China, rice-cultivation in ‘rays’, which involves the annual burning of the forest. It was a method, since it occupies the minimum of labour, which must have been tempting to a nation at war, but results are poor and decrease rapidly, and ultimately it results in the sterilization and exhaustion of the soil. The process of decline, once under way, could not be baited, and defeat was made absolute by the victor’s introduction of the primitive apostolic Buddhism of the ‘Little Vehicle’, the religion of withdrawal, of renunciation, of tranquillity; which was so utterly destructive to the perverted power-cults of the divine kings. It was the subtlest of Carthaginian Peaces.
It is possible that the ruins of Angkor are in many ways more impressive than the city itselfwas in its heyday. Time has wrought wonders with the sandstone, which must have been garish enough when fresldy cut. And vandalism and the Sailings of sun and rain have done much to mute that excessive symmetry, that all-pervading symbolism, that repetitiousness which I find so irritating in far-Eastem art. There is evidence of an obsession with the magic of numbers and of the dignifying, under artistic forms, of primeval superstitions. One feels that the Khmer must have reasoned that if it was a good tiling to erect one statue to Vishnu or of a Devata, then it was fifty times better to have fifty of them. Adepts ofmagic never seem to be convinced that their magical practices are com¬ pletely and finally effective. The causeway which leads into Angkor Vat is, or was, flanked at exactly spaced intervals by pairs ofnagas — seven-headed serpents. I do not find seven-headed serpents particu¬ larly decorative, and much prefer the lions couchants ofwhich there are many hundreds. However, they represent the serpent beneath which Buddha sheltered. They are, therefore, in essence, protective; and it is necessary to have as many as can be fitted in. I think that it is an aesthetic advantage that the majority of them have been broken and are missing.
The causeway conducts one smack into the centre of the whole architectural composition. It could not be otherwise, since all considerations had to be subordinated to that of symbolism; and to have built the formal approach from any angle but this would have been to risk throwing the universe, or at least the kingdom, out of balance, by sympathetic magic. Angkor Vat, however, is best viewed from across the water from one of the corners of the moat. Immediately the tyranny of the matched-pair is broken. The towers, many-tiered like die head-dress of an Indian dancer, are re-grouped in majestic nonchalance. The Vat gathers itself from the lake, raised on a long, low-lying portico. Above that the unbroken lines of the roofs rise one above the odier, to be capped by the towers, which are somehow jaunty in spite of the sad harmony of the old, disintegrated colours. A lotus-broken reflection is carried on the mildewed waters of the lake. And all the monuments of ancient Greece could be enclosed in this one building.
Within the Vat miles of goddesses and heavenly dancing girls, de-humanized and amiable, posture in bas-relief round die gallery walls. They are all exaedy of the same height and physique, hands and arms frozen in one of the dozen or so correct gestures. Since Khmer art is never erotic — and one remembers de la Rochefoucauld’s ‘where ambition has entered love rarely returns’ — they do not exhibit the development of breast and hip which is so characteristic of similar figures in Indian art.
The triumphant existence is portrayed in a series of set poses. The king or god out hunting adopts the wooden pose of a dancer to shoot a deer — in itself depicted with admirable realism. Victorious princes and warriors parade for the ascent to heaven (success being identified with virtue), heads overlapping in three-quarters profile, left hands on breasts and right on hips. Nothing, however, could be more realistic than die treatment of the defeated and the damned, who are naturally consigned to hell. The postures of these bodies being trodden underfoot by horsemen and torn by wild beasts have been observed and carefully copied from the life. Only the devils are permitted a hieratic stance.
But it is when the artist is left to his own devices in his treatment of the ordinary citizen, and his everyday life, that he shows us what he can do. Gone is the processional dignity and the frigid smile of power. The peasants and fisher-folk are shown as thick-limbed and grotesque, with coarse, clownish faces. With gleeful licence the artist depicts their buffoonery as they haggle over tripes in the market, slaughter their pigs, smirkingly watch a cock-fight or visit a palmist. These are the trollish faces that medieval church-sculptors carved on almost invisible bosses as a relief from the insipidity of righteousness. The vulgar of Angkor are shown taking their pleasure on the Tonle Sap — capering on the deck of a becalmed junk like day-trippers on the river boat to Southend; or hunched over a game of chess. With lower-class respectability most of them have put on short jackets for the occasion. Meanwhile a boat-load of the better people passes, all seated with decorum, fashionable in their semi-nudity, facing one way, and smiling with the refined beatitude induced by the knowledge that sooner or later they will appear in the honours list as minor gods. Cormorants and herons are shown competing with the fishermen for their catches while crocodiles menace them from the water. The Khmers made much decorative use of flora and fauna. The anarchic quality of trees is subdued and subjected to a Byzantine stylization, but the animals that lurk among them are seen in a lively naturalism comparable to palaeolithic cave-art. And the intention that animated cave-art is roughly identical with that which produced these miles of bas-reliefs. Their object was magical and their decorative effect quite incidental. Angkor Vat was the funerary temple of Suryavaraman. II divinized under the aspect of Vishnu, and this world in sculpture replaced the great funeral holocausts of earlier days. That aesthetic pleasure had no bearing upon the question is proved by the fact that many scenes have been sculpted with scrupulous care in places where they are quite invisible, or even — as in the case of the Bayon — on the building’s subterranean foundations.
Ta Prohm, which Jayavarman VII built to bouse his mother’s cult, and which occupied the working lives of79,000 ofliis subjects, was scheduled to detain the thirty tourists from Siam for one hour. The temple was built on flat land and offers none of the spectacular vistas of Angkor Vat, nor the architectural surprises of Bayon. It has therefore been maintained as a kind ofreserve where the pro¬ digious conflict between the ruins and the jungle is permitted to continue under control. The spectacle of this monstrous vegetable aggression is a favourite with most visitors to the ruins.
Released from the hotel bus, the thirty tourists plunged forward at a semi trot into the caverns of tliis rectangular labyrinth. For a few moments their pattering footsteps echoed down the flagstoned passages and then they were absorbed in the silence of those dim, shattered vastnesses, and I saw none of them again until it was time to return.
Ta Prohm is an arrested cataclysm. In its invasion, the forest has not broken through it, but poured over the top, and the many courtyards have become cavities and holes in the forest’s false bottom. In places the cloisters are quite dark, where the windows have been covered with subsidences of earth, humus and trees. Otherwise they are illuminated with an aquarium light, filtered through screens of roots and green lianas.
Entering the courtyards one comes into a new kind of vegetable world; not the one ofbranches and leaves with which one is familiar, but that of roots. Ta Prohm is an exhibition of die mysterious subterranean fife of plants, of winch it offers an infinite variety of cross-sections. Huge trees have seeded themselves on the roofs of the squat towers and their soaring trunks are obscured from sight; but here one can study in comfort the drama of those secret and conspiratorial activities that labour to support their titanic growth.
Down, then, come the roots, pale, swelling and muscular. There is a grossness in the sight; a recollection of sagging ropes of lava, a parody of the bulging limbs of circus-freaks, shamefully revealed. The approach is exploratory. The roots follow the outlines of the masonry; duplicating pilasters and pillars; never seeking to bridge a gap and always preserving a smooth living contact with the stone surfaces; burlesqueing in their ropy bulk the architectural motives wliich they cover. It is only long after the hold has been secured that the deadly wrestling bout begins. As the roots swell their grip contracts. Whole blocks of masonry are tom out, and brandished in mid-air. A section of wall is cracked, disjointed and held in suspension like a gibbeted corpse; prevented by the roots’ embrace from disintegration. There are roots wliich appear suddenly, bursting through the flagstones to wander twenty yards like huge boa-constrictors, before plunging through the up-ended stones to earth again. An isolated tower bears on its summit a complete sample of the virgin jungle, with ferns and underbrush and a giant fig tree which screens the faces of the statuary with its liana-curtains, and discards a halo of parakeets at the approach of footsteps.
The temple is incomin plan as a sectional bookcase — and then suddenly there is a thirty- foot wall, a tidal wave ofvegetation, in which the heavenly dancers drown with decorous gestures.
But there are still some signs of life in the temples and mausolea of Angkor, besides the sinister and stinking presence of myriads of bats. The people now come to these once exclusive places and burn incense-sticks before the Buddhas, which probably started their existence as idealized representations of various members of the Khmer aristocracy. Parties of bonzes stroll through the ruins. They carry the inevitable yellow parasols and sometimes box cameras with which they photograph each other, for the benefit of their friends back at the monastery, against some particularly sacrosanct background, such as the corpulent shape of a man who had once made a corner in fish.
My last daylight hours at Angkor were spent by the lake of Sram Srang [Srah Srang]. The Khmers were always digging out huge artificial lakes, which, if the preliminary surveying had been correctly carried out, and temples and statues were erected according to accepted precedents round their margins or on a centre island, could always be declared to possess purificatory qualities. For this reason Sram Srang was supposed to have been a favourite royal bathing place, with its grand approach, its majestic flight of steps, flanked with mythical animals, and its golden barges.
Now the lions were faceless, and the nagas had lost most of their heads. The severe rectangularity of old had been softened by subsidences of the banks, which had solidified into little peninsulas on which trees were growing. Buffaloes stood motionless in the virtuous water with only their heads showing. Sometimes even their heads were withdrawn for a few moments below the surface. Giant kingfishers flashed past, linked to their reflections; twin shooting stars in a grey-green firmament. Until forty years ago the Cambodians exported these birds’ skins to China where they were made into mandarins’ jackets, taking in exchange pottery and silk. And then the vogue for European goods grew up, and the industry languished.
As if from nowhere a group of boys materialized. They were selling cross-bows. They were better looking and their physique was better than either the nobles or the commons on the Angkor Vat bas-reliefs, but six hundred years ago they would have worked twelve hours a day, and now they probably worked an hour a week, ifat all. Three or four ofthem always lurked forlornly in the vicinity ofthe various ruins in the outrageous hope of one day selling a crossbow to a tourist.
One of them surprised me by speaking understandable French, and this was such a rarity that I asked him if he would act as a guide to one or two of the outlying monuments I wanted to see. At the same time I thought that I would be able to question him as to the existence oflegends, and particularly about the legend of the leper- king which was supposed to be the only memory of the Khmer rulers that had survived. The boy said he would be delighted, but when! I said that night, as it was practically full-moon, and I be¬ lieved that I could get a rickshaw in Siem-Reap to bring me out to Angkor. His face fell. He was sorry, it couldn’t be managed. I asked why not? Were tire ex-bandits unreliable at night? Oh, no it was not that. On the contrary they were very disciplined, and with Dap Chhuon in command you were in fact safer at Angkor than at Phom Penh. Well, then, what was it?... the tigers, perhaps? No, it wasn’t the tigers, either . . . but the fact was that after dark Angkor was a very bad place for the neak ta eysaur and the neak ta en — in other words, the spirits Siva and Indra.
Thus had the powerful Brahmanical gods of the Khmer Empire shrunk and shrivelled along with the Empire itself. And now they were no more than neak ta — mere tree spirits to frighten babies with; of no more importance than the khmoo pray — the wicked dead, such as women who have died in childbed; the beisac — the famished souls of those who have died violently, who return from hell to implore food; the smer, who, losing their reason, have become werewolves, and the srei ap, beautiful girls, who through dabbling in black magic have inadvertently turned themselves into heads, accompanied only by alimentary canals, and live on excrement. The Khmer gods have accompanied their worshippers in their decline."  [p 222-234]

Renaissance of Khmer Art

"Perhaps the two most valuable and altruistic works the French have done in the Far East have been the creation in 1930 of the Institut Bouddhique at Pnom-Penh (after Catholic missionaries had succeeded in several years in making only one convert), and the establishment in the same city of the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens. The latter institution has made a desperate and successful attempt to save the situation, by encouraging die production of goods of high artistic value that can be sold in the ordinary way of com¬ merce. The utmost difficulty was experienced in reassembling the artists with whom the old traditions would have died. They had returned to their villages and taken up the cultivation of rice, or fishing. When they were tracked down, it was found that some of them, who were already ageing, had not touched a tool for a quarter of a century. However, the happy fact is that the effort was made just in time, and that the Khmer arts which were on the point of vanishing for ever were given a vigorous artificial respiration and are now in fairly good shape. Naturally enough, they are now directed to commercial ends, and are largely applied to the rather banal objects demanded by the tourist and export trades. It is a stimulating reflection that the imaginative verve and faultless technique of modem Cambodian art at its best is considered by experts to rival that employed in the ornamentation of Angkor, and that tins creative ability is now placed within the reach of a wide public in the form of such articles as cigarette cases and powder boxes. According to M. Marchal the present danger lies in the fact that the Cambodian is determined at all costs to be absolutely up to date, and is therefore inclined to turn his back on his own impressive artistic heritage, and allow himself to be too deeply influenced by movements in Europe, purely because they are fashionable and would-be audacious." [p 220]

King Norodom Sihanouk

During his stay in Phnom Penh, the author was given a tour of the Royal Palace, and a brief interview with the young king of Cambodia (the Independence still laid in the future, proclaimed on 9 November 1953):

"Salis led the way up the steps to the ante-room of the audience chamber and introduced me to the members of the royal staff. We had hardly shaken hands before the king skipped into view through an open doorway on the right. He was wearing the smile that one saw in the photographs, and it was considerably less complaisant than that of any of the Buddhas in the Silver Pagoda. The king shook hands vigorously and we went into the audience chamber together and sat down on a settee.
King Norodom of Cambodia is spiritual and temporal head of his people, the ultimate possessor of all Cambodian land — which, however, he bestows freely upon the petition of those who wish to cultivate it—and the inheritor ofall who die intestate. Heistheonly person in the kingdom entided to a six-tiered parasol and being semi-divine, and above die law, his privileges include the right to contract incestuous marriage with an aunt or a half-sister. In return for Iris prerogatives he performs the many ancient ceremonials in use since the days of Angkor, such as the ablutions of the Brahmanical idols, which assure the well-being and prosperity of the people. Being without debts, free of crime or bodily blemish, he was permitted to serve die customary year as a mendicant novice in a Buddhist monastery. My only previous interviews with royal personages had been with Arab princes, and the King of Cambodia in his informality was like somebody whose acquaintance one had just made in a bar, by comparison. The personal splendour of the past had been reduced to mere sartorial impeccability, in the form of a well-cut grey flannel suit.
Norodom, who is a man of thirty and looks twenty-one, is said by some of the French to be the most intelligent Cambodian. It was, in fact, quite astonishing how easily he brushed aside all the polite generalities accepted on such occasions, to embark without further ado on a competent half-hour’s lecture on Cambodian politics. It was much the same story as Yem Sambaur’s [the then Prime Minister], but couched in less forthright terms. Sambaur’s bloody massacres became ‘incidents of violence’. It was difficult to associate the king’s gentle manner with harsh, uncompromising words like murder. The king’s thesis, to which he returned continually, was that the French continually lagged behind the times. ‘Ils ne marchent pas a la tete des evenements; ils se laissent depasser par les temps.’ As King of Cambodia and a Buddhist gentleman he would engage his word that French commercial interests would remain untouched if only they would get out —just as the English had done in India. France had failed in its engagements as the protecting power when die Japanese had been allowed, without resistance, to overrun the country. The old treaties were therefore invalid, and in future Cambodia would prefer to protect herself. France, said the king, could not boast of having brought civilization to Cambodia. The phrase 'oeuvre civilisatrice de la France’ was an insult to their ancient culture, especially when the Cambodian countryfolk who made up nine-tenths of the population could only judge this civilizing task by what they saw of the Foreign Legion.
When it was clear that the interview had run its normal and reasonable course, there was an awkward moment. The conversation lagged and the king’s smile became a little fixed. The time had come to withdraw and I waited for the king to indicate, by rising, that the interview was at an end. But it was becoming evident that innate politeness was too strong for the conventions of royal deportment. Forming the conclusion that if I did not make the first move we should both be condemned to sit there indefinitely, exchanging painful smiles and trying to think of something to say, I got up. I am sure that Flis Majesty was grateful." [pp 213-4]

Tags: Modern Cambodia, Royal Palace, King Sihanouk, Indochina, Southeast Asia, American travelers, Tonle Sap Lake, Khmer arts

About the Author

Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis

John Frederick Norman Lewis (28 June 1908, Forty Hill, UK – 22 July 2003, Saffron Walden, UK ) was a British novelist and travel writer who had served in the Intelligence Corps in Algeria, Tunisia and Italy during World War II, and whose travelogue in Indochina, A Dragon Apparent (1951) gives his personal take on the history and significance of Angkor.

In addition to 12 novels and several autobiographical essays, Lewis wrote extensively about Sicily and the Mafia, the nefarious role of Christian missionaries in Latin America and elsewhere, the tribal peoples of India and Brazil. Aside his account of French colonial Indochina, he wrote books on his visits to Burma (1952) and Indonesia (1993).

In 1969, his article titled "Genocide in Brazil" -- Lewis was a roving correspondent for several newspapers -- prompted the launch of Survival International, a NGO dedicated to the protection of indigenous peoples around the world. His writing style has been praised by Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett.

Non-fiction books:

  • Spanish Adventure (1935, later disowned)
  • Sand and Sea in Arabia (Routledge 1938)
  • A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Indo-China (Cape 1951, Scribner 1951 (US), Eland 1982, Hippocrene Books 1984, Eland 2003)
  • Golden Earth: Travels in Burma (Cape 1952; US: Scribner's 1952)
  • The Changing Sky: The Travels of a Novelist (Cape 1959; US: Pantheon 1959)
  • The Honoured Society: The Mafia Conspiracy Observed (Collins 1964, Eland 2003; US: Putnam's 1964)
  • Naples '44: An Intelligence Officer in the Italian Labyrinth (Collins 1978, Eland 1983; US: Pantheon 1978)
  • Voices of the Old Sea (Hamilton 1984; US: Viking 1985)
  • Jackdaw Cake (Hamilton 1985; new edition by Eland 2013) – an autobiography
  • A View of the World (Eland 1986)
  • The Missionaries (Secker 1988; US: McGraw 1988)
  • To Run Across the Sea (Cape 1989)
  • A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India (Cape 1991; US: Holt 1992) (Thomas Cook Travel Book Award)
  • An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia (Cape 1993; US: Holt 1993)
  • I Came I Saw (Picador 1994) – extended issue of 'Jackdaw Cake'
  • The World, The World: Memoirs of a Legendary Traveler (Cape 1996; US: Holt 1997)
  • The Happy Ant-Heap (Cape 1998)
  • In Sicily (Cape 2000)
  • A Voyage by Dhow (and other pieces) (Cape 2001)
  • The Tomb in Seville (Cape 2003)