The banquet of the damned

Cambodia. A fleet of tuk-tuks have just ferried five hundred people into the jungle from the swankiest hotels in Siem Reap. I am jet lagged but high on the spectacle. The tuk-tuks drop the guests off at the entrance to an ancient Khmer temple which has been almost completely subsumed into the jungle. At the place of disembarkation, carefully choreographed members of the Royal Cambodian Ballet are placed on plinths and half ruined columns in full costume. The blue money God strikes a classical pose – he is strikingly magnificent. Ice sculptures of fierce jungle animals and swans grace every turn as the guests wind their way into the heart of the temple where scores of tables, laid in white linen and for a banquet are tended by liveried staff. Cocktails. Small talk. A speech of thanks from the CEO to the regional Governor, whose largesse has made this inaccessible historical site miraculously open for the night. It is a feast for the eyes and a triumph of spectacle as well as visible proof of what wealth can buy. It is the nearest thing I have ever seen to how I imagine the ancients might have lavished hospitality on their guests in Rome or Persia. In my imagination it is the setting of the banquet where, encouraged by wine and heady with power, Thais led Alexander to the burning of Persepolis. A banquet for the damned.

The occasion was my first gig as founder of my own company – I had been invited to speak at the Asia regional conference of a large multinational advertising agency. The venue was Siep Reap – all of it. They had taken over the town and the expected boost in local income made the unattainable ours for the taking. It was as if the circus had come to town and the bars all did good trade.

The banquet progressed through the night and was as lavish as it was heretical. I felt as if I was at the pomp of empire. Western excess on display in all its insensitive, arrogant, violating magnificence. When the eating was done and the ballet had been performed, the tuk-tuks ferried many to the Correspondents’ Club. Heaven knows what this place had seen in the days leading up to the Khmer Rouge take-over and their Killing Fields. Reporters from all over the world, many famous war photographers and journalists must have taken refuge here. It was a slice of the past heroics of journalism. Now it is an hotel. Not a correspondent in site.

There were few Cambodians over 40 anywhere to be seen – so many were wiped out in the genocide. The people are smiling and beautiful, but many have the scars and wounds of war and the missing limbs bore witness to the preponderance of land mines which litter the land and cause injuries every year. I fell in love with Cambodians. The temples at Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat show Ozymandian-scale accomplishment and power as they are reclaimed by nature, and I am lucky to see them both without the hordes of tourists that usually congregate at these sites.

It is said that the ancient Khmer people were ruthless in war, forcing prisoners to the front line to kneel and cut off their own heads as a warning to the enemy facing them across the battlefield. As in most civilisations, immense cruelty sits side by side with friendliness and hospitality. And I wondered, as I ate at the banquet, what the warlords of old would have made of the spectacle of soft handed advertising folk filling their faces at a sacred place in their jungle. Maybe the pen really is mightier than the sword: there are worse fates than hosting people who come up with fairly harmless slogans to sell soap and beer and don’t make other people cut their own heads off.

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