A couple of weeks ago I went to Siem Reap and decided that instead of taking my camera to the temples, I would draw them.
Drawing for me has always been more of an aspirational pastime than a practiced hobby. When I flick open my sketchbook the last completed drawing inside is a portrait of my dog Peg, who died three years ago.
As with other aspirations, I really enjoy shopping for this future, potential-reaching Me. Buying a new coal-black 8B pencil or a kneadable eraser gives me a buzz and I often wish I had the equipment on me when I’m out on the street. If only I had a pencil for every scene I’ve seen.
Until recently I didn’t believe you had to be that accomplished to capture the essence of a landscape. In Portugal, I realised I could sketch an outline of a rustic village in pen and then wash it all over in water colour and it looked kind of contemporary - intentional, even. For Angkor Wat, I’d keep it similarly loose and sketchy, I thought.
My photo-taking has never been that successful – but suffers from a lazy, hipstagram-born faith that whatever I take will turn out cool: looming close-ups of a tiny stone monkey or a bloom of lichen. Or I’ll turn my camera on the other tourists, trying to sneak a photo of that eccentric-looking woman I keep spotting who has decided fishnet gloves and heels are the thing to wear at Angkor Wat.
Rather than stock-standard images of grey monoliths I could just as well buy in a pack of postcards, I think: my photos capture the true detail and quirks of the temple experience.
But typically when I look back at the kinds of photos I take, all I seem to have captured are the odd details - and none of what I actually saw. I mean I saw those things, but I didn’t see them.
This time, I decided, I would visit fewer sites but I would see more.
I start my drawing day at Bayon: it has the right shady, elevated stone nooks for sitting a long time. The giant four-way head I choose isn’t the best, compositionally, but few tourists stop to photograph it.
I start at the top of the towering forehead, then work down to the nose and those fleshy, joking lips. My perspective is a bit off but that’s OK. I’ve got the foundations. A German tourist pretends to find something behind me interesting and I hunch over my work protectively.
“It’s not finished,” I mutter.
As I draw, the problems of the amateur sketcher become even more apparent. My sketch gets more scribbly and confused.
I need a vanishing point, God I need one – only I can’t remember what a vanishing point actually is. After a while my smiling Bayon face, the only discernible figure on the page, has acquired a mocking air.
I put my pencil down and look squarely at the giant head again. As I do, a soft clicking sound that has carried on almost since I sat down stops, and I notice a man in the nook opposite, with his lens aimed at me. He lets his camera drop and looks at me expectantly.
A group of quiet Chinese tourists have also materialised, to my left. I continue drawing and the cameras go wild. I keep my head down but feel compelled to grin for them. A camera guy gives me the thumbs up. The pressure is immense.
By doing something slightly unexpected I have become the lady with the fishnet gloves! Had I camera, I would have snapped me too. I wouldn’t mind a photo from them, but it probably seems vain to ask.
After sketching three temple scenes, to similar attention, I feel ready to pack up. At the exit to Ta Prohm there’s a young guy selling acrylic paintings - formulaic idylls of stone towers and wispy palm trees, on paper.
Wow, that’s really good, I think. I buy one.