Siem Reap

I suppose I can’t write on without at least a brief acknowledgement of the current state of our world. In January I arrived in Amsterdam, ready to take a brief break from my travels. I came back to reconnect with friends and family. I came back for hugs, coffee dates and a more active participation in everyone’s lives, even if just for a few months. It’s safe to say that it didn’t exactly go according to plan (reinforcing my belief that no plans are the best plans). Coming home was an adjustment. It was difficult in more ways than I had realized. Writing about the many adventures I miss was, quite simply put, too hard. I’ll get to it once I’ve gotten my bearings, I told myself. And that will take some time. Which it did. But as with all things, it passes. And as I finally settled in, I was ready to write. Which is when COVID-19 made its appearance on stage. I’ll be honest, motivation has been difficult to come by in isolation. I have also wondered whether writing about my travels, about the freedom and the adventure wouldn’t make me feel worse about being stuck inside. But with the blockage finally gone and the words finally flowing, I’ve found that it doesn’t. On the contrary, it feels good. So here goes. In the coming weeks of my continued self isolation, I’m going to dive back into the drafts of my remaining stories from the road. It’s my hope that though we are grounded for the moment, these stories might be able to offer some kind of escape. Perhaps they can even reawaken our sense of wonder. Or hey, maybe they’re just something fun to read that isn’t the news. These stories have been patiently waiting for us. 

March 27th 2019

After a long day of delving into Cambodia’s past at S21 and the killing fields, I board a bus to Siem Reap. I will be catching up with my friends (read: family) from the island and we will explore another part of Cambodia’s past. That’s right, it’s time to visit the temples.

Six hours and  one tuk tuk later, I am dropping my bag off in our hostel room. I practically sprint to Siem Reap’s pub street, searching for the name of the bar they’ve sent me. We spend late hours of the evening drinking and enjoying short bursts of dancing in the street. 

The next day we all head out to explore Siem Reap. We visit APOPO, a non-profit organization that is conducting a large scale landmine clearance project in northern Cambodia using – and this part is my favorite part – mine detection rats. You read that right. Rats. At their visitor center we are able to watch a live demonstration in which Adrian, a 4 year old retired rat shows us how the demining process works. It is equal parts fascinating, impressive and just flat out bizarre that I am watching a rat in a harness work as a trained professional. It’s also shocking to learn about the history of mines in Cambodia. Cambodia has highest ratio of mine amputees per capita in the world, and there are still millions of mines to clear. The work that APOPO does means that local communities are able to return to their plots of land and actually live off the land and use it for agriculture again. (Here’s a video you can watch. It’s fascinating stuff, I promise you).

After APOPO we visit Phare, The Cambodian Circus and are blown away by a beautiful combination of theater, modern dance, live music, art and circus acts. To try and describe it won’t do it justice anyway, but feel free to add this to a list of things to do if ever you visit Cambodia. I’ll just drop their link right here.

After a lot of negotiating and bargaining, on March 29th we are picked up at 4:30 am by two tuk tuk drivers who will take us to the Angkor temple complex. There are a whole lot of ways to visit the complex. You can go for multiple days or for one day. You can cycle, take a tuk tuk, rent a car. Lots of travellers will describe to you what the “right” or “wrong” way is. In my opinion, find what works for you and let that be your “right.” So long as you remember to be respectful.

In my case, my “right” was a bleary-eyed early morning ride in our duo of tuk tuks. We barrelled through the darkness chatting and mainly confirming to one another that we were all sufficiently covered up to visit the temples. We completed the necessary ticket-buying-and-photo-registration process. We crossed a bridge and before I knew it, there we were, in front of the main complex of Angkor Wat temple, waiting for the sunrise. Again, having heard the many tips from fellow travellers about what to do and how to do it (or not to), I had heard about just how many people would be there at sunrise. Having now seen it with my own eyes, I can agree. It is a whole lotta people. 

In the moment, however, it doesn’t bother me all too much. I plop down on the ground and I observe. This is people watching at it’s best, after all. I watch different sized cameras be mounted on different sized tripods. Test shots are taken; the tripods are moved. Poses are practiced and I am imagining the conversations. 

“Should I put my arms out like this?”

“Should I look at the camera, or away?”

 “Do we want the trees in the photo?”

The comedy of all these people gathering at the same place to try and get exactly the same photo distracts me from other thoughts. Such as the fact that I am still missing my motorbike terribly. I find myself wondering whether Jackie has already left Phnom Penh, or whether her backfire which I had repaired just 3 days ago – for the umpteenth time – has already returned or not. I am thinking all of this as the sky slowly fades from black to blue. I am cracking jokes with my friends as it blends from from purple to pink. Then pink turns to orange and I study the gradient of color, hoping it will distract me from the thought that soon I will be missing my friends, too. 

Once the sun has risen, the crowd dissipates almost as quickly as it appeared. People head back towards the car park, ready to “do” the next temple, and we head inside to explore the complex. I marvel at the stone structures; we admire some of the ruin. I listen to a monk speak in quiet prayer and wonder what he is saying. 

After Angkor Wat we visit Ta Phrom (yes, that’s the one featured in Tomb Raider) and Pre Rup temples. We stop for an overpriced lunch then debate where to go next. As I stand and watch tuk tuks whizz past in different directions, I realize that I am exhausted.

We continue to debate and I find myself thinking about sacred sites and their cultural significance. I ask myself whether enough tourists actually register that significance. Now, in the light of day, this morning’s comedic elements take on a different form in my mind. Thousands of people trudging to and through a sacred place, in search of not much more than that one perfect photo. I find myself recalling countless conversations I’ve had with people about “good” and “bad” travellers, and the “right” or “wrong” ways to visit a place. 

At the same time, I admit that I am thoroughly tired. I would love to learn about the history of this place; I would love to immerse myself in the meaning that these stones hold, but the truth is that my traveler’s exhaustion has kicked in. I recall the words of other travellers I have met who have told me there is such a thing as too many temples, and for the first time, I agree. 

It turns out that I am not the only one, and though there are many more temples to visit in the complex, we decide to visit only one more place: the city of Angkor Thom. 

Angkor Thom’s temple is situated at its very center and is called the Bayon. There is a large peak in the center, and the peak is surrounded by a multitude of towers. The towers are faces. Enormous smiling faces. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. 

I walk beneath the faces with my friends. We move through narrow passageways and into interior courtyards. We peer through open windows and as I soak in the beauty I decide that this is more than enough. No thinking of right or wrong necessary, just take in this these stones; these stairs; this last day with your friends. You’re doing enough.

Having finished exploring, we head back to the tuk tuks and find our drivers sitting with their legs up, chatting with a few friends. We greet one another enthusiastically as always, and as I clamber back into the tuk tuk, one of the friends says something to me that I don’t quite hear. 

“Sorry?” I ask. 

He gestures towards the temple and then at me, his smile large and his laugh lines deep. 

“You! You’re smiling like the Bayon face.”

I smile into his laughing eyes and all I can think is:

Ha, see that? More than enough.

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