Angkor, My Foot, by Alle C. Hall
In Alan Booth’s 1977 memoir, The Roads to Sata, our man walks from the tip-top of Japan to its southernmost protrusion. When I moved to Tokyo in 1988, a beat-up copy of Roads passed, hand to hand, through the city’s gaijin houses—old Japanese homes that the owners turned into needfully cheap housing for us: gaijin; foreigners. While I knew I would never foot it through Japan, the image was rhapsodic: me, lean from walking, fluent in Japanese, the whole bit.
I lived in Tokyo for three years. I took some hikes. When I returned to Japan in 2001 with my now-husband, Cliff, our plan was: three weeks in Japan, two in Thailand, and then—the pearl!— four days at Angkor Wat, the magnificent temple ruins in Cambodia.
First stop, Tokyo. Within nine hours, I’d hurt my right foot.
“Injured While Traveling” was nothing new to me. New York City: tweaked elbow, left arm. Mexico: gash, left foot. Vietnam: strained tendon, right foot. Arriving in Tokyo, my new backpack held eight pounds of clothing, three pounds of hiking boots, and twenty-one pounds of non-allopathic first aid: electric heating pad and re-freezable gel packs (hot and cold contrast); instant ice (no refrigeration); Arnica (joint pain); and Chinese herbs (diarrhea, UTI, or allergies). Every time I moved, I rattled.
The Foot Incident likely occurred in Tsukiji, Tokyo’s most famous fish market. Now closed to the public, in 2001, you could amble chilly lanes lined by 900 booths selling $21 million of 480 types of seafood per day. Toward the back, men threw frozen tuna over our heads—each at least five feet long—from the truck to the area designed to dismember them by table saw. On the wet cement, a fish head the size of a microwave. No corroborative torso in sight.
Did my foot go gammy from the laze-inspired leap I took to avoid the short stairs between tanks of fluid octopuses? The truth we shall never know. Regardless, by the following morning, my foot had become My Foot, to wrap in ice, contrast with heat, slather with arnica, and angst over: Angkor Wat!
Japan? Lived there, three years. Thailand? Been there twice, extended stays. With a month and hopes to heal My Foot before reaching Angkor, we skipped whole sections of our Japan and Thailand itineraries. Cliff carried my backpack as well as his, continuously looking over each shoulder. “What is that noise?”
I could hardly say: twenty-one pounds of ineffectual potions in individual glass containers.
Our first afternoon in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I forgot My Foot as our car approached five towers of gray sandstone shimmering in the afternoon heat, the tallest almost seven hundred feet from the ground. Cliff and I softly pinched the tender insides of each other’s forearms; we do so, in times of excitement.
Behind a moat that, in the heyday of Khmer power, was filled with territorial crocodiles, was Angkor. For an instant, it felt as though a thousand years had not passed, as if Khmer culture still dominated Asia from Burma to as far south as Indonesia. As if the archaeologist Louis Delaporte had not removed the finest statues in 1873 for “the cultural enrichment of France,” the United States hadn’t bombed, and the Khmer Rouge hadn’t used temples for target practice. Angkor stood. I half-expected to see the god-king Suryavarman II, surrounded by the several thousand bare-breasted apsara who purportedly attended him. Instead, there were thousands of tourists. They walked and I hobbled across the five-hundred-meter causeway taking us over the moat.
That was one loooong causeway.
Once inside the main gate, a second causeway of similar length took us to steep stairs leading to Angkor’s first level, a courtyard a kilometer square enclosed by high-walled, open-aired galleries. In the 12th century, Suryavarman II had the breezy sandstone walkways carved with bas-relief depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, his military victories and, of course, many, many apsara and their fabulously bare breasts.
I managed the first of the four galleries before my foot would have no more of it. Dispatching Cliff to see the rest, I perched on a stone bench under a carved arch and tried to convince myself that once you’ve seen one 12th-century Hindu epic carved into a quarter kilometer square of wall, you’ve seen ’em all. I’d stopped crying by the time Cliff returned. I made my painful way across two levels and their respective flight of stairs, finally to reach the courtyard with the five towers. Metal handrails lined stone stairs. Screwing dignity, I dropped to my knees and used my arms to haul myself up.
That must have been when Cliff conjured his plan.
The next morning, my dexterous sweetheart rigged kneepads out of a pair of sweat socks, an ace bandage, and duct tape. We headed for the complex known as Angkor Thom, famous for huge faces of Jayavarman VII. The next ruin, the Bayon, had no extended causeways. It was all stairs.
I went up on my hands and knees and slid down on my ass.
One tourist saw me crawling and asked if I was making a pilgrimage. Most of them merely gawked. I crawled and slid all that day and the next. At Ta Prohm, where a few months prior, Angelina Jolie had filmed Tomb Raider, 150-foot-tall trees grew out of the dilapidation. I got to see that. At Banteay Srei, among the many buxom apsara carved into pink sandstone, a few super-studly male figures, gandharva, were similarly objectified. I saw that, too. Our last afternoon, I returned to the main temple and crawled to the top of the towers I hadn’t been able to climb the first afternoon. Stretched below, the temple’s design represented a scale model of the Hindu cosmos. Beyond, the flat, sometimes forest-y terrain of Cambodia writhed in the heat. I wept for the umpteenth time that trip, but for the first time, wept with joy.
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Alle C. Hall’s first novel, As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back, swept the 2022 International Firebird Awards, winning First Place in two categories—Literary and Coming of Age—and Second in Women’s Issues. Excerpts from As Far as You Can Go Before You Have to Come Back won the 2022 National League of American Pen Women’s Mary Kennedy Eastham Flash Fiction Prize and placed as the first finalist in the 2020 Lascaux Prize. Hall’s short fiction appears in journals including Dale Peck’s Evergreen Review, Tupelo Quarterly, New World Writing, and Litro; and her essays in Creative Nonfiction and Another Chicago. She has written for The Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, and was a contributing editor at The Stranger. She is the former senior nonfiction editor at jmww journal, the former associate editor of Vestal Review. Hall lived in Asia and traveled there extensively, speaks what she calls “clunky” Japanese, and has a Tai chi practice of 35 years running.
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