The dark is lifting faster than I would like as our tuk-tuk rattles its way through the pre-dawn quiet of Siem Reap. It’s a little after 5am, the hour our driver assured us was plenty early enough to reach the temples of Angkor Wat in time to watch the sunrise, but as the sky grows ever less black, I find myself screaming inside with frustration. It’s a race we’re never going to win, and as the burnt umber streaks of light stretch out across the horizon like the limbs of Lakshmi, I realise there’s nothing to do but give in to the fact that we’re simply too late.
The day has dawned as we pull up beside the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat, making the uneven and rain puddle-filled terrace walkway to the temple easily navigable, but disheartening none the less. Even more disheartening is the ten-row deep crowd that have already beaten us to it.
Room for one more?
The day has dawned
It’s not the initial experience I had imagined, but there is still something to be said about this dream-come-true-gone-awry that can’t fail to move me. The congregational quiet, the shared revery, iPads and cameras and awe-struck eyes of strangers all straining to capture a moment they will never forget.
We head into the heart of the temple complex, where history hangs in the morning air like a tangible entity; a misty haze comprised of 900 years of stories, transformed into tiny droplets that hang suspended in the already relentless heat. It’s a place where the past tries to linger for as long as the visitors do.
The corridors of Angkor Wat
The beautifully intricate sandstone carvings
We continue on, exploring the temples of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Our progress is slow, partly on purpose, partly weighed down by the oppressive heat and humidity that has me dripping in sweat, my feet slipping out of my flip-flops with every step. The physical discomfort makes it hard to take it all in, and I berate myself for not being more grateful. Every time we face another set of stone steps I find myself hesitating… is it worth the climb? I know it is, and as the time-worn stone faces gaze knowingly down upon me, I can’t help but imagine all the people who battled this very same heat for forty years to build the temples I am now half-begrudgingly making my way around.
More steps? Really?!
The faces of Angkor Thom; totally worth it
The rubble of Ta Prohm
Time-worn and tree-twisted
By the time the sun has reached its highest point we are both eager to return to the refuge of our air-conditioned hotel, and decide to head back. I sit on the bed in the cool of our little room and begin to sift through the hundreds of photos we have just taken, once again feeling the frustration of my physical struggle. For years I have dreamt of this moment, the quintessential Cambodian experience, and the best I could manage was a meagre half-day visit. Did I just waste it?
My favourite shot from Angkor Thom
A couple of days later we find ourselves taking shelter from the pre-monsoon rains beneath the corrugated tin roof of a little street-side restaurant. Amidst the heavy pounding of the raindrops a young boy is weaving his way down the road. We watch as his hurriedly makes his way from restaurant to restaurant, stopping just long enough to deftly dip his hand into the pile of dirty dishes stacked infront of each establishment, retrieving a few remnants of discarded dinners. A smattering of rice grains, unwanted pieces of gristle. He moves effortlessly; a routine clearly, and heartbreakingly, well practiced. I look at Lee, at the huge pile of rice and stir-fried greens between us on the table, and in one of those humble moments that changes everything, Lee stands from the table and runs after the little boy, inviting him to join us for dinner.
Soaked to the bone, his little body shivers as he sits beside me, shovelling down a huge plate of food so fast I worry he is going the throw up. He speaks no English, and our Khmer is limited to only hello and thank you, but the universal language of a smile and thumbs-up is enough to put him at ease. I want to cry, but what right do I have? He doesn’t need or want my pity, but in this moment, at a tiny plastic table in the rain, I want to give him the whole world; to scoop him up and give him all the blessings my life has been filled with. It tears me up to know that I can’t.
His plate emptied, he points to the kitchen and signals for more food. Amazed that his tiny body has room left for more, we pass him a menu, and he points to the dish he wants; a simple plate of chicken and rice. Once again we watch as his plate is emptied, and I wonder when he last had such a good meal, or when he will have one again. Then, as soon as his last mouthful is swallowed, he stands, places his hands together and bows. “Aw koon”, he says, thank you, and walks away. He doesn’t ask for money, and he doesn’t look back.
It is a moment that single-handedly comprises every experience I ever hoped to garner from my time here, every lesson I ever hoped to learn, proving that not having everything can still be enough, that I don’t have to do it all to make the most of this journey. No temple will remain as clear in my memory as the face of this small, hungry boy. We shared our dinner with him, and in return, he gave me Cambodia. Indomitable, humble, and full of grace.