I rose at 4:30, determined to have at least half a day to wander through the temples at a more leisurely pace by myself. In darkness I walked through the gates of Angkor Wat. I found a spot away from the crowds, off to the side of the reflecting pool, patiently waiting for the sun to rise. Within moments, I was surrounded by throngs of Japanese tourists setting up tri-pods, attaching ridiculously long lenses to their cameras, chattering loudly about many things. I looked around, sure that I was on camera. This truly was a scene from a movie. But it wasn’t; it was actually life.
I thought about what had brought me here, the twists and turns my career had taken over the past several years. I watched Angkor Wat transform from black to crimson to lavender to gray as the sun rose. Once the sun was on its way to rising, I left Angkor Wat, lighting incense and saying a prayer on the way out. I met my driver, Kim, and hopped in the back of the tuk tuk. We made our way to Bayan, the temple with 54 faces carved in it, representing each of the 54 steps to paradise. I wandered around the temple in solitude, grateful for a morning free of meetings. From behind stone walls I snuck glances at monks preparing their altars, lighting candles, offering gifts of food to the gods. After a peaceful hour I returned to Kim, ready to explore the next temple.
We made our way to Ta Prohm, the jungle temple featured in Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. I walked through, careful not to slip in the muddy puddles present because of the recent rains. A young teenage boy approached me. “Follow me, I’ll show you a great spot.” Not even considering this was something I shouldn’t do, I followed him. We ducked through crumbled doorways, retreating further and further off the beaten path. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t a good idea. “Careful. Slowly, slowly,” he encouraged me. I continued to follow. “Here. Look at the majestic view.” And it was. The roots of gigantic trees overcame solid stone walls, causing them to crack. The leafy patterns of the trees created patterns of light which danced over carvings of goddesses and spirits. Shades of green, brown, and gray melded together, creating a mosaic of history. I stood, transfixed. “Nice, yes?” “Yes, very nice.” “Here, this way. I show you more.” We ventured even further into spots unexplored. Anxiety and excitement clashed in my mind. What will we see next? He’s gaining my trust so that he can rob me. Will anyone hear me if I scream? I continued to follow him. He showed me more and more treasured spots, free of tourists, until we came to the gate. I placed my hands together and bowed. “Akun.” He smiled. “I showed you many special sites. You pay me?” I smiled. Of course. The small village which suddenly became a major tourist destination created a generation of entrepreneurs, peddling their services for a dollar, a riel, a bhat.
I returned to the parking lot to find Kim, on a motorbike. “Next temple is very, very far. Better to go by moto, no tuk tuk. Hop on.” Again, anxiety and excitement fought. You shouldn’t ride a moto without a helmet. It’s a beautiful day, it will be fun to ride on the back of a moto, exploring the countryside. Excitement won. I hopped on the back and we were off. In the 30 km to the next temple, we passed truckloads of young men who stared and pointed as we passed. I marveled at the Cambodian countryside, endless fields of green, rice paddies, water buffalo, and few houses. The warm sun shone, the blue skies put a smile on my face. I watched as we passed children on bicycles peddling to school, yelling “Hal-lo!” as we overtook them. We passed another moto, an elderly man put-putting along with two large pigs strapped to the back of his bike. We slowed as we approached a herd of cows coming towards us. Kim masterfully maneuvered through them, never stopping.
We arrived at Banteay Srey. Kim went to rest in a hammock while I went to explore on my own. The temple was small, but the work awe inspiring. Intricate carvings adorned every space. I walked around, each turn presenting a new marvel to ooh and aah at. I returned to Kim. He woke up, sleepy from rising so early in the day. We rested under the shade, the noon sun draining our energy. He talked about his brothers and sisters and his dream of operating a tour company. After a nice rest we hopped on the moto again. I thought we were returning to the hotel; he had other ideas.
We went down roads unfamiliar to me. He pointed out many temples I was unaware of. We repeated the same pattern. He would rest or talk to other moto drivers, I would explore the temples. After the eighth one, I laughed, “Kim! Enough temples for one day.” He smiled. “Are you sure? There are hundreds more you have not seen.” Next trip, next trip.