The forest depends on the tiger
By Toh Hsien Min
When I return from travelling, often there is a form of enforced reflection from the chore of labelling photographs. I do this so that, looking over them a decade later, I can still know where exactly and what exactly I saw. But post-trip always carries a different sensation from in-trip, which is why people who pack that brilliant white wine from Santorini for home find upon reaching Kembangan that it doesn't taste quite as good. Earlier this month, as I looked over my photographs of Cambodia, I had a realisation: those hundreds of photographs of the Angkor complex, not just Angkor Wat but through to Preah Khan and even as far out as Banteay Srei, seemed back home to be somehow flat. All those ornate if eroded temples had seemed to me to be grand while I was there last December; but my photographs didn't convey any of that. It felt like a reverse Machu Picchu, which is distinctly recognisable to loads of people from photographs but somehow exponentiates in grandeur when you are there in person, or perhaps more appositely it was a reverse Malta, which carried some sense of the drab while I was there but afterwards hooked itself into my imagination and hasn't let go. Rather, my clearest impression of Cambodia was not just a country on a runway about to take off, like Vietnam perhaps a decade and a half ago, but how much this could have been the case sooner had it not been for the trauma of the Khmer Rouge. Even at this distance of time, the ravages of the seventies exert a drag on the country so palpable that it made me wish I had pursued a career in developmental economics. There is little so emblematic of humility as speaking with an older Cambodian who is constantly conscious of the fact that his survival owes to having been sent to Paris to study in the early 1970s.
In its heyday the nation that we now know as Cambodia was in fact the pre-eminent power of present-day Southeast Asia. Angkor at its peak covered an area the size of Los Angeles, and was the cosmopolitan metropolis of the region well before Bangkok and Singapore. What were the reasons for its decline? Invasion for one: there is some evidence of an intervention by the neighbouring kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431 at Angkor, and it is popularly held that this was just another geopolitical event of a nation-state subjugating another. More recent archaeological studies involving drill cores into the earth beneath Angkor seem to suggest that climate change had its part to play in making the area less habitable, forcing the residents to move towards the Mekong Delta, but whatever the cause was, what followed was half a millennium of middling period where Cambodia was a vassal state until, post the French colonial era, independence engendered its own self-defeating scars.
All this is, I suppose, the scenic route around to the fear that a good run of increased globalisation, relative prosperity and relative peace - evidenced by data, by the way - could be about to end as intolerance grows, nation-states start cleaving apart again, distrusting one another and reverting to the old methods of diplomacy by other means, for which Russia may only be the vanguard. History tells us that recovery can take a far longer time than the time we take to shoot ourselves in our feet.
I hadn't meant to fall into a morose reflection on how the future looks bleaker than it has for awhile (and by the way, it's not just me - the Doomsday clock agrees), but this was somewhat nudged by a number of the contributions that we received for this issue. By chance, Theophilus Kwek sent a poem about Funan - a precursor to the Angkor empire - while we had a first contribution from a Ukrainian poet, Mykyta Ryzhykh, who laments the Russian invasion of his country in ellipsis. Meanwhile, Kai Chai's insightful full-length interview with Clara Chow on her flavourful travelogues perhaps didn't dissuade me from a far meeker reflection on my own recent trip. Otherwise, this issue is also brimming with substantial short stories, Shu Hoong's magnificent trawl of reviews, and a couple of engaging essays. It almost has a fin de siècle feel to it.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 1 Jan 2023