The following is a transcript from a speech I gave recently at the Angkor International Festival of the Arts in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It looks at the writing of Ginsberg’s poem, “Ankor Wat” but the first half is a more general introduction to the importance of travel in Ginsberg’s life and art. It was composed for an audience relatively unfamiliar with the poet. For those looking specifically for information about Ginsberg’s time in Cambodia, you can skip ahead to the halfway point. The event was organised by the aptly named Howl Cambodia.
On June 10th, 1963, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg sat in a hotel room, only about 800 metres from here, and, in more or less a single sitting, wrote a book called “Ankor Wat.” This raises a few questions: 1) What was a Beat poet doing in Cambodia as the Vietnam War rapidly escalated? 2) Why haven’t more people heard of this book? And 3) Why did he spell “Ankor Wat” incorrectly? Today, I will try to unpack this for you, hopefully giving you a better insight into the life and work of the most important poet of his era.
To understand why Allen Ginsberg was in Siem Reap in 1963, we have to go back a little. In fact, we could probably go back almost forty years. Ginsberg was born in New Jersey just prior to the Great Depression and by the time he graduated from high school in 1943, he had not travelled more than 100 miles from his place of birth. Whether in spite of this or because of this, most of his adult life was spent, to use that Beat cliché, “on the road.” In fact, whilst researching my own book, World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, I counted a minimum of 66 countries that he had visited, making him surely one of the best-travelled poets of the 20th century.
He was a phenomenally well-read young man, self-educated in politics and history and geography, with a particular affinity for world literature. He could speak French from an early age and soon learned Spanish. At Columbia University, he met a group of young men who would transform his life – Lucian Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. To the young Ginsberg, these men seemed incredibly knowledgeable about the world. Burroughs in particular had studied and travelled in Europe during the late thirties and had been in Vienna as the Nazis took over the city. Kerouac had some experience of travel from his time in the Merchant Marine, shipping out to freezing Atlantic outposts in what seemed, to young Allen, as a rather daring and romantic experience.
All of this made him quite jealous and, in the mid-forties, Ginsberg’s dreams, journals, poems, and other writings were filled with fantasies of travel. He yearned to get out into the wider world but, coming from a poor family and engaged in his studies, it was just not a realistic option. This changed when, in March 1945, he was expelled from Columbia and just a few months later signed up for the Merchant Marine. Thus followed a series of journeys around the coast of the United States, punctuated by cross-country trips with friends like Neal Cassady.
Whilst Cassady’s road trips with Jack Kerouac resulted in the latter’s masterpiece, On the Road, Ginsberg ended up with little more than heartache. He, of course, was gay and Cassady was mostly straight. Still, Ginsberg fell in love with him and Cassady, being a world-class charmer and manipulator, led Ginsberg on for months. In a fit of depression, Ginsberg signed up for a job on the SS John Blair, a coal ship headed for Western Africa. He spent some time in Dakar, which was then French West Africa but is now Senegal. It was a 5,000-mile roundtrip and he used the latter half for smuggling marijuana back to the US. There’s a wonderful photo a very young Allen smoking a spliff as he passes by the Statue of Liberty on his return to the US.
Why am I telling you all this when just a moment ago we were talking about Siem Reap? From the very beginning, travel was immensely important to Ginsberg, in terms of both his life and his art. As I mentioned, he had been terribly depressed prior to this African voyage and had even attempted suicide on the outward journey, yet when he returned he was invigorated. The experience of a totally different world had ignited in him a curiosity and begun a revolution in perception. He began to view differently the country of his birth. The trip also yielded a series of poems called the Dakar Doldrums, one of which earned him his first poetry prize. It was just the first of many instances when travel would ignite poetic inspiration.
Ginsberg’s next trip abroad was to Mexico – a favourite destination for Beat writers. Ginsberg drove there from New York with Lucian Carr, intending to visit their good friend William Burroughs, but when they arrived they found that Burroughs had taken off on his own adventures, pursuing a mysterious drug called yagé in South America. Today, ayahuasca, as it is better known, is common enough that it is almost a hipster cliché, yet at this point it was barely known outside of the jungles of South America, and Burroughs, fancying himself as an amateur botanist, had gone to research it. When I say research, of course, I mean “imbibe massive amounts and hope for the best.”
Ginsberg arrived in Mexico City, then explored the country with Carr and Burroughs’ wife Joan Vollmer. He was terrified as they drove along mountain roads at top speed and Ginsberg remarked that Joan seemed to have a death wish. This proved tragically prophetic, for as Carr and Ginsberg drove back to New York, they picked up a newspaper in Texas to learn that Joan was dead. In a game of William Tell, she had placed a glass on her head and asked her husband, now back from South America, to shoot it off. The bullet went right through her forehead.
To this day, it is not entirely clear what happened then, but Burroughs got away with killing his wife at least in part due to the corrupt Mexican judicial system. His lawyer, a notorious conman, was able to grease enough palms so that Burroughs avoided prison time and the killing went down as a terrible accident. When the lawyer then killed a young boy, however, Burroughs fled the country and ultimately ended up in Tangier, where he would spend roughly a decade working through the trauma of Joan’s death by utterly revolutionising literature with a bizarre new form of writing.
For Burroughs, travel was often an escape. As a gay man with a near life-long addiction to heroin and an intense distrust of authority, he was continually in search of what he perceived as frontiers – places beyond the limits of rigid Western morality. For Ginsberg, however, it was rather different. Burroughs flitted from place to place, escaping the law and maintaining his unusual worldview, but for Ginsberg each trip changed him and the longer ones transformed him entirely.
As Burroughs fled to North Africa, Ginsberg set out on an unusually long trip from New York to California. Rather than cross the country by road as he had done in the past, he hitchhiked south through Florida and across Cuba, before spending six months in Mexico. It was the first major journey of his life, travelling by the seat of his pants. He was penniless for most of the trip, and here he learned to get by without money. He picked up the language as he went, meeting local people and exploring far beyond those tourist destinations that existed at the time. He even posed as an archaeologist so that he could get free lodgings and explore ancient ruins whilst high as a kite on marijuana and codeine. He lived for a long time in the dense jungles of southern Mexico, so cut off from the outside world that friends and family believed he had died. Here, he wrote and wrote, lying in a hammock and experimenting with poetic styles, finally finding a voice that was his own. Prior to this, he had mostly written conventional poetry, with a few stylistic innovations shaped by the language of the streets, but here he began to write in a style that one might call Ginsbergian.
It was this style that he used upon returning to the United States in 1954 to pen his most famous work, “Howl,” as well as the other poems included in that first collection, Howl and Other Poems, published by City Lights. For of you who are unfamiliar, “Howl” begins:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
This poem changed everything – for Ginsberg, for his friends, and even for his country. It coalesced a generation, made its author a celebrity, and forever changed American culture and indeed English-language poetry. Almost overnight, a revolution was born, and this of course accelerated in 1957 with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, an account of his journeys back and forth across the United States and then down into Mexico, inspired by and in pursuit of Neal Cassady.
The sudden explosion of interest in Beat literature was unpleasant not just for Kerouac, who descended into the alcoholism that killed him just a decade later, but for Ginsberg as well. Even though he adapted to become a rather successful spokesperson and cultural figurehead, his landmark publication brought unwanted attention and he quickly fled the country once again, this time headed for Europe.
In March 1957, Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, set off for Europe but they travelled via Tangier and Casablanca in Northern Africa. Here, they found William Burroughs in the midst of a drug-fuelled writing binge. He was churning out page after page of brilliant yet shocking and often incoherent scenes that Ginsberg and others would ultimately help shape into Naked Lunch. Despite having planned on a week or two in Tangier, Ginsberg and Orlovsky stayed for several months as they had no money, but in June they finally managed to take a boat across to southern Spain, whereupon they slowly hitchhiked north through France and into Italy. They explored Italy for a few months before taking off once again, seeing Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, before settling in at the infamous Beat Hotel in Paris.
Of course, the Beat Hotel was not called the Beat Hotel prior to the arrival of the Beats. It earned that moniker after Ginsberg and co made it their Parisian base of operations. It was a dingy, awful little place with squat toilets and intermittent power, but the Beat writers were not exactly what we would call flashpackers. Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and the poet Gregory Corso stayed in one tiny bed in a disgusting little room, but made the most of what was at the time a cheap city with a vibrant café culture and plenty of art. All across Europe, in fact, Ginsberg sought out art galleries and museums, eager to admire the work of the world’s great masters, and Paris had no shortage.
Once again, travel inspired him not just to grow as a person but as a poet, and in his favourite café, Le Select, he began work on a poem that some would call his finest: “Kaddish.” Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, had passed away a year before after struggling badly with mental illness for many years and she had not been given the traditional Jewish funeral rites, so Allen decided to write her his own version. This would take many years, but as with all his great poems it was a product of his time on the road.
This was also the beginning of Ginsberg’s politicisation. Although he had been well-informed on political matters as a teen, he had switched to an interest in literature that had distracted him from such ideas. However, in Europe, he began to see America through the eyes of Europeans. He gained a new perspective and, whilst not anti-American, he began to see his own culture and country as the rest of the world did. He began work on various important poems, including one called “Death to van Gogh’s Ear,” which he described as a “monstrous and golden political or historical poem about the fall of America.” This suggested that the American government would soon collapse – something Ginsberg looked forward to.
Ginsberg’s interest in the collapse of the US and of other Western powers was partly rooted in a desire to see the ascendance of Asia. Though he had not yet visited this continent, he had been obsessed by Asian art since at least the early 50s and believed that the Decline of the West would lead to the Rise of Asia. From this point on, in spite of his adoration of Europe, Mexico, and North Africa, he began to look forward to a voyage into an even more foreign and exhilarating destination.
Before he made it to Asia, however, there was yet another long journey. After a brief stint back in the US, Ginsberg headed to South America in 1960, where he travelled around much of the continent, meeting poets and experimenting with various drugs, including cocaine, ether, and of course yagé, which we mentioned earlier. His drug experiences were terrifying, as he hallucinated snakes and vaginas, but they helped him to complete several works that would appear in his next collection, Kaddish and Other Poems. His politicisation increased further and his journals from this period are crammed full of his developing views on politics, though his famously liberal ideals were challenged by the irritating communists and socialists he encountered. When he returned to the US after six months of wandering, Allen had a big black beard, radical political views, and a litany of experiences with hallucinogens. It was the dawn of the 1960s and he was about to become the world’s most famous hippie.
As I have hinted at, Ginsberg’s travels radically shaped how he viewed his own country, and so returning to the US was often an unpleasant experience for him. Whilst he enjoyed his time with friends and family, he found America’s conservative politics oppressive and it never took him long to begin planning the next voyage. Indeed, on March 23rd 1961, he and Orlovsky took off for what was to be the longest and most significant journey of their lives – a two-year circumnavigation that brought Ginsberg through many of the world’s most significant historical and cultural sites, including Angkor Wat.
It began with another turn at the Beat Hotel in Paris, then an exploration of southern France, before visiting Burroughs again in Tangier. Unfortunately, Burroughs was now deeply under the influence not just of heroin, but of Scientology, the Cut-Up Method, and Brion Gysin, a misogynistic painter friend. Burroughs was even more paranoid than usual and acted rudely towards both Ginsberg and Orlovsky, prompting Ginsberg, the progenitor of Flower Power, to attack him with a hunting knife. Still, they somehow managed to tolerate two months of Burroughs’ coldness before splitting and heading off on further travels. Ginsberg visited Greece, which he loved, and Israel, which he despised. Because of Israel’s acrimonious relationship with its neighbours, they became trapped there for months until finally escaping via ship down the horn of Africa, then across the Indian Ocean to Pakistan and finally India.
It was by now early 1962 and Ginsberg had been dreaming of India for more than a decade. He had read countless novels and poems about it, but these were mostly written by Western writers and he could barely wait to get there and explore the real India, meeting wise men and immersing himself in the culture. Indeed, that is precisely what he did for a year and a half, becoming so ingratiated in Indian life that he was investigated by the government as a potential spy or saboteur. Sometimes alone and sometimes with Orlovsky or the poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, Ginsberg travelled all over the country, seeking out every person who professed to have some wisdom. He even managed to meet with the Dalai Lama, to whom he extolled the virtues of LSD. In the various temples and monasteries of India, as well as in its innumerable slums, he learned about Hinduism and memorised mantras, overcame his fear of death, moved away from an obsession with drug-inspired visions, tried yoga, and adopted breathing techniques that would thereafter shape his poetry. He began wearing the sort of Indian clothing that would later become synonymous with American hippies, and forged the peace and love Flower Power notions that he would spread across university campuses and political protests in the years to come.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Allen Ginsberg’s time in India. It can be seen, in fact, as the dividing line in his life, and coincidentally it was exactly the halfway point in his life, as he turned 35 on this trip and died at 70. Everything that came before India was a process of frantic learning, of pursuing knowledge through experience and chasing visions. India, however, gave him peace and acceptance. He learned to accept himself and his flaws. He learned to accept that he would one day die. He had for decades existed in a state of uncertainty, unhappiness, and often self-loathing. In 1945, he had told Jack Kerouac, “I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself,” but after India, he said “I seem finally to have returned back into my body after many years absence – I think the Indian Gurus did it.”
Ginsberg left India on May 26th 1963. In those simpler times, an airplane ticket functioned rather like a bus ticket might today. You booked a flight from Calcutta to Vancouver, for example, and you could get off in Bangkok and Saigon along the way. Ginsberg was horrified by the war going on in Vietnam and wanted to see it with his own eyes, so he planned an excursion around Southeast Asia. First of all, he stopped off in Thailand, where he broke two years of celibacy and about a year and a half of vegetarianism, and also tried a little morphine. It was, however, an uncharacteristically short stay and he flew to Saigon just a couple of days later. For four days, he witnessed the horrors of life in South Vietnam, which at that point was undergoing the so-called “Buddhist Crisis.” A month later, a monk would self-immolate in protest at the brutal government repression of his people. This was all too much for the peacenik poet and he declined offers by American journalists to bring him to the frontlines to witness actual fighting. “Am I a coward?” he wrote in his journal, stating that he did not want to be flown over battlefields where young men were being blown apart. It was bad enough in the relative peace of the city.
Whilst Ginsberg was in Saigon, The New York Times ran a story entitled “Buddhists Find a Beatnik Spy” on June 6th. According to the report, a spokesman for the Buddhist faction accused the American government of sending a spy into their ranks, but this turned out to have been the Beat poet yet again seeking out holy men for their wisdom. It caused a stir back home and Ginsberg vociferously denied the allegations, but it was more than likely just a prank by some bored journalists.
On this note, we finally return to Cambodia. Though Americans were meddling in Vietnamese politics at this point and actively escalating the conflict, it would be six years before they launched their indefensible bombing campaign against the Kingdom, and so the country was somewhat removed from the conflict. Of this change in scenery, Ginsberg wrote in his journal:
Traveling by jetplane kind of a gas, you do get in and out of centuries from airport hangars & glassy modern downtowns to jungle floating markets & 900 year old stone cities in a matter of minutes & hours instead of weeks & months. Like space cut-ups or collages, one minute paranoiac spyridden Vietnam streets, the same afternoon quiet Cambodian riversides.
In case you were wondering, “900 year old stone cities” does not refer to Sihanoukville. Ginsberg was of course talking about Angkor Wat.
He flew directly from Saigon to Siem Reap, where he stayed at the New Siem Reap Hotel, which was demolished about 25 years ago and is now the Park Hyatt. It’s temporarily closed, but I’m pretty sure they now charge a little more than the $2 Allen Ginsberg paid for his room back in 1963. For years, Ginsberg had dreamed of Angkor Wat, having seen various iconic photographs in books, and so he rented a bicycle and spent several days cycling around the area, admiring the ancient stone structures. He had pockets full of marijuana, which he smoked atop Phnom Bakheng and wandered in a stoned haze through the Ta Phrom and Bayon temples, transfixed by the countless faces and the trees growing through the stonework. He scribbled observations in his notebooks and these became the genesis of a poem he wrote on the night of June 10th, just prior to leaving Cambodia.
The poem was of course called “Ankor Wat,” and yes that is A-N-K-O-R, with the G conspicuously absent. Why this was misspelled is a mystery, but there are at least two possibilities. Firstly, it should be remembered that the Khmer script is of course different from the Roman alphabet and thus any words rendered in Roman letters are merely a transliteration, with some transliterations more popular or common than others, and this changes over time, with globalisation and technological advancement generally bringing consensus. I live in Kampot, where it is still common to see the town name spelled both K-A-M and K-O-M-P-O-T, so perhaps Ginsberg encountered signage or documentation here that dropped the G. Indeed, some travel guides from that era used ANKOR, but I managed to find the travel guide Ginsberg actually had with him as he cycled around, printed by the National Tourist Office of Cambodia, and it spelled Angkor with a G. It is also worth noting that his journals from that period refer to Bangkok similarly, dropping the G so it says “B-A-N-K-O-K,” hinting that perhaps he had a tourist guide to the wider region that used this peculiar spelling.
The other possibility is just the fact that he was terrible at spelling and that his publishers, lacking the historical or geographical knowledge required to make that change, left the unusual placenames as he rendered them. A hint at the latter comes from the fact that he also misspelled Siem Reap and even Cambodia, and that in his complete collected poems, published a few decades later, the title was changed to Angkor with a G, with references to Bangkok similarly corrected.
In any case, although it was named for the ancient temple city, the poem was primarily written here in Siem Reap, “in one night half-sleeping and waking, as transcription of passages of consciousness in the author’s mind made somnolent by the injection of morphine-atropine.” Ginsberg was attempting to write under the influence of morphine as a means of eliminating self-censorship in order to record a truer version of his consciousness. The only part of the poem not written here in Siem Reap was a section composed of “notes taken earlier that day high on ganja on the roof of the temple of Angkor Thom.”
Most fans of Beat poetry or scholars of mid-20th century literature are unaware of “Ankor Wat” because it was never really considered a major work by this poet. Indeed, at a reading in 1969, Ginsberg told his audience that he had only ever read it aloud once before, something that is notable given how frequently he did public readings. Still, it was published in the first issue of Barry Miles’ Long Hair magazine in 1965, then in book form in 1968, before being included in his Collected Poems. This does indicate it held some importance, and Tony Trigilio, a leading authority on Ginsberg’s poetry, argues that it is equal in significance to both “Howl” and “Kaddish” as it marks the point at which Ginsberg began to fuse his William Carlos Williams-inspired poetics with his later Buddhist ones.
Indeed, the poem begins with Buddhist imagery and a clear statement of the poet’s interest in the religion:
Ankor – on top of the terrace
In a stone nook in the rain
Avalokiteshvara faces everywhere
High in their stoniness
In white rainmist
Slithering hitherward paranoia
High muscled tree crawled
Over the root its big
Long snakey toes spread
Down the lintel’s red
Buddha I take my refuge
Bowing in the black bower
Before the openhanded lotus-man
Within just a few stanzas, however, Ginsberg makes reference to Hinduism, which has led to some criticism of the poem as yet another inauthentic Western surface reading of Eastern culture. In the sixties, of course, having some affinity for Eastern spiritualism was quite trendy among Western hipsters, and so it was hardly unusual for people to take bits and pieces of Eastern mythology as it suited them. Yet those critics probably failed to note what Ginsberg had learned, which is that Angkor Wat was originally a Hindu temple and only later converted into a Buddhist one, and that the various construction efforts left behind both decidedly Hindu and Buddhist sections of the Angkor complex. It also seems obvious that he was attempting to fuse these ideas deliberately rather than accidentally, in lines like “I’m taking refuge in the Buddha Dharma Sangha / Hare Krishna Hare Krishna.”
Ginsberg had been introduced to Buddhism a decade earlier by Jack Kerouac, but there was not a wealth of authentic material available at that point and Western interpretations of this religion were often flawed, with the aforementioned hipster insincerity being a particular problem, but the Beats were serious in their studies. The likes of Gary Snyder actually lived in Japan for many years, becoming fluent in both Japanese and Chinese, in order to gain an authentic understanding of the religion, whereas Ginsberg was accused of merely dipping his toes for the sake of poetic posturing or cultural clout. Yet certainly moving forward, he would become much more serious about his Buddhist studies and it would dominate much of the latter half of his life.
So let’s look now at the poem itself. What was it about? What did Ginsberg say about Angkor Wat and Cambodia? First of all, although this is sometimes referred to as a “long poem,” and indeed it was published as a book in 1968, Ginsberg himself called it “middle length” and when he recited it, it only took him 10 minutes, so it is not particularly long, especially compared to some of his work. It is a confusing collage of Buddhist and Hindu mythology, alongside autobiographical detail, with observations taken at Angkor Wat juxtaposed against politics, with an emphasis on American imperialism in the region and the looming spectre of brutal war. In his final months in India, Ginsberg had begun to incorporate some of William Burroughs’ cut-up method into his work and had indeed begun to re-think what a poem should look or sound like, and this is evident here. It is not as accessible as the more coherent and transparent “Howl” and “Kaddish,” nor is it quite as obvious in terms of importance as “The Change,” a poem he wrote just one month later, which some consider a companion piece to this one.
To me, this poem is significant in terms of Ginsberg’s development as a poet and serves as sort of a missing link between earlier and later efforts. It highlights the poet’s fractured mind and his paranoia. Although I said earlier that his time in India completely changed him, these changes were percolating in his mind, “catalysing” in his words. In a sense, then, Angkor Wat is the setting for a poem about the poet’s uncertainty and his shifting worldviews in light of the expanded consciousness he had gained through travel. Though it feels like a Burroughsian cut-up, it is in fact a stream-of-consciousness record of a poet’s metamorphosis. We can see in him glimpses of the Allen Ginsberg who would only months later become the face of anti-war protest in the United States; who would espouse Flower Power and free love, and fight for gay rights and the decriminalisation of marijuana.
The poem is also in part an attempt to fuse the lessons learned in Asia with his knowledge of the West, and in particular that abstracted view of the United States gained through years spent abroad. It is an examination of how Eastern and Western thought could be fused, particularly in light of the war in Vietnam and in a period where colonialism had just ended but globalisation was beginning. It asked whether his homosexuality was compatible with Asian religious practices, and indeed it mentions many of his obsessions or ideas central to his character and asks how these could interact with Eastern spiritualism. We also see his racial and national guilt in lines like “Leroi I been done you wrong/ I’m just an old Uncle Tom in disguise all along.” Here, he is referring to LeRoi Jones, who became Amiri Baraka – a black nationalist once part of the Beat movement. Ginsberg seems to imply that his silence as a white American man at the suffering of others is essentially complicity in the crimes committed against them, and he subtly invites comparisons to Nazis who merely followed orders. Echoing comments in his journals from this period, he asks whether he is a coward in this and other regards.
We can see then that “Ankor Wat” was not a traditional poem describing the majesty of the temples – not that you’d expect such a thing from a Beat poet. So, then, to what extent is it even about Angkor Wat or Siem Reap or Cambodia? My descriptions thus far perhaps make it sound as though the poem could have been written anywhere, but it is perhaps in those moments where he discusses Cambodia and its ancient architecture that he is at his poetic best, and this is the locus or intersection point around which the swirling vortex of contemplations take place. It begins with a sketch of his surroundings and from there follows a stream-of-consciousness discussion that sees him making religious vows, lamenting his human frailties, and then discussing geopolitics, frequently returning back to his surroundings, with the peace of Angkor juxtaposed against the backdrop of war; the reassuringly ancient temple and jungle against the turmoil of internal uncertainty. Angkor Wat thus functions almost as a point of focus as in meditation where, after his mind wanders off on a tangent, he can return.
Let’s look for a moment at those instances where he describes the Angkor complex itself as these are indeed the most attractive parts of the poem. After a digression on regional politics, he says (and please excuse my pronunciation of the Khmer names):
Monsoon riding thru the forest gate faces
Creepers silence on Ta-Phrom temple halls
narrow stone walk under sleeping trees—
rain on Ta-Keo pyramid—perfect faces
smiling ladies’ fiery headdresses in Thommanom
till passing the soda stand in forest arbor
ganja cigarette rolled in Terrasse Supérieur
rooftower by Ikon
of Buddha touching Earth
the burnt out incense sticks in the tipped can
I straightened and shoes off bowed
Of course, as most of us do when describing or otherwise documenting Angkor Wat, he frequently makes reference to the faces carved of stone and the iconic blend of trees and rock where it appears the jungle is claiming back the buildings. He refers often to physical features in terminology he would have been familiar with from other travels and readings – of Angkor Wat as like pyramids and sphinxes, and resembling the great stone cities of Latin America he had explored in the 50s. He jumps back and forth between Hindu and Buddhist iconography, between nature and that which is man-made. He notes of course the unforgettable image of trees overwhelming stone when he writes “Even that permanence warped cleaned in the Alice in Wonderland giant garden of Ta-Phrom.”
This idea of impermanence was important, for Ginsberg was in the process of overcoming a fear of death and decay that had consumed him for decades. My favourite line of his on this subject comes not from the poem “Ankor Wat,” but from a sentence he scribbled in a little notebook whilst leaving Siem Reap. On his way back to Saigon, he wrote, “Even if men were built of stone, they couldn’t live forever.”
Ginsberg stayed only four days in Cambodia before flying to Japan, where he spent a month in Kyoto with poets Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. The tranquillity that Kyoto afforded him and the clarity he gained from Japanese forms of meditation helped him finally gain that understanding of himself that was so obviously in process whilst he stayed in Cambodia, and it allowed him to write a poem that better captured the essence of his transformation. On a train journey to Tokyo, he wrote “The Change,” a much more famous poem than “Ankor Wat” perhaps because it was a little more succinct and declarative. It explained just how much he had changed as a person and indeed, when he arrived back in the US, he was very different to the man who had left two years earlier.
There would be a few more major travels for Allen Ginsberg as well as dozens of minor ones. Throughout the remaining decades of his life, he continued to visit places of cultural significance and meet people from different countries, determined to learn everything he could about the world. His time in Cambodia was short and yielded just one poem, but that poem could be seen as the start of the second half of his life – a departure from everything before it; a revolution in thought and form. Biographer Bill Morgan said that it “sounded the beginning of a new fertile period of poetry for him” and that is likely the truth. Though he was just one of millions of tourists who passed through the Angkor Wat temples and it was just one stop on a two-year trip around the world’s great heritage sites, the meeting of Beat poet and Khmer history sparked a moment of cultural significance that is not yet fully understood.