I’ll Carry You

I know these are difficult times. We are doing our best to keep our heads up and process events which are in many ways beyond comprehension. Maybe you are feeling a bit tender, or maybe you yourself have lost a loved one. If that’s the case, I want to let you know that the following text deals with loss. If that’s a theme that you do not feel equipped to read about now, please don’t, and know I’m sending you love. If you feel you are up to it, then please read on so I can tell you about an extraordinary individual I have been lucky enough to call a friend. Stay safe, stay healthy. 

 


 

Today I’ve written a blog post I had never truly considered I would need to write. It’s a post I wish I wouldn’t need to write. Not now, not so soon. It’s much too early. 

Last week, during my lunch break I turned on my laptop. I wanted to get a couple of things done before I continued my work day. One last read through of a blog post before hitting publish and a few Facebook messages to send. One of those messages was to a dear friend of mine, Phyllis. It had been about 5 days since we last spoke, and I wanted to check in on her, as we have done consistently for the past year. Our updates are routine. I send her puppy photos, tell her about new songs I’ve learned on the ukulele and report on my general well-being (she worries about me). She sends me photos of her vegetable garden, lets me know how her cats are doing and tells me how her health is (I worry about her, too). 

I’d gotten a friend request earlier in the day, and as the page loaded I saw that I had received a message from this stranger (now a friend). She informed me that Phyllis had passed away. Two days ago. It was a scooter accident. She told me your name a lot, so I wanted you to know.

Grief, I believe, is not a feeling the human mind or body can ever get used to. No matter how many times you have encountered grief before, that feeling, that stomach drop that occurs the moment you hear the news, never becomes less jarring. Loss is, quite simply, a shock to the system.

The next three days were a haze. Right now, typing these words almost a week later, I feel dizzy. My breath feels stolen from me, it hangs suspended, sticky in my throat. 

But writing is therapy. It’s the best way I know how to process things. It is also the only way I know how to honor my friend. So I will tell you about her in the hopes that it makes up for the goodbyes I am not able to say in person. I haven’t told much of her story; the impact our friendship has had on me is far too deep to describe in a mere blog post. I will tell you more one day, but for now, meet Phyllis.

I met Phyllis on February 2nd 2019 in Hoi An, Vietnam. I was looking for a hostel close to the beach where I could spend the lunar new year. Eventually, I made it to Seaside Bungalow. As the owner, Vy, booked me a bed for the night, I scanned the common room, wondering where I should sit – in other words, who do I want to socialize with? On one side of the room there was a group of backpackers around my age. Off to the other side of the room was an older lady. As Vy and I chatted about the menu, the older lady said “the noodles are real good.” Her voice had a rich, deep timber to it and I detected a Southern accent – Louisiana, she’d later tell me. We exchanged a few more words and as she spoke, her hands busied themselves with ripping the filter off a cigarette. I ordered the noodles and asked if I could sit with her. 

Within moments, I knew something remarkable was happening here. Phyllis was 69 years old, trans, and immediately very open with me. She quickly told me she had been in Vietnam before, during the US – Vietnam War. At that time, having not transitioned yet, she served her country as a marine. She had joined the Marine Corps because she was, by her own accounts, a troublemaker. “I needed structure, I needed purpose. The Marines gave me that,” she told me. Now, in 2019, she was back in Vietnam for the first time since then. “I always knew I would come back to Vietnam, though. Something was always callin’ me back here,” she’d tell me, eyes twinkling. “I was stationed in this area, just over near Da Nang. Being here feels right. Especially being close to the ocean. I’m a Mariner. A sailor.”

Sitting across from her, listening to her talk, was fascinating. Hours evaporated as we spoke; my beers did too. I’d watch her rip the filters off her cigarettes – “I don’t use the fuckin’ things” – and wondered how it must feel to return to a place that once held so much fear; a place that holds so much loss for her. At the same time, as she described the reasons she loves this place, I found I understood her fully. These are the things I love, too. 

For the next six days, Phyllis and I got to know each other. She lived down the road and came to the hostel every day. I was always there to meet her, and over the course of countless cigarettes, she strung together the events of her life for me. An upbringing in the South, enlisting in the war, falling in love, going back home, marriage, coming out, and later on in life, transitioning. 

Certain connections are difficult to put into words. The marks that people leave on our hearts and lives are often difficult to describe. I knew Phyllis far too briefly; it was only six days. Six. It seems so strange to say. It’s a flash in time, it’s seemingly inconsequential. But from the moment I sat down, I knew Phyllis was something special; I knew she would mean something to me. 

After five days at the hostel, my friend Michael and I made plans to leave. I said my goodbyes to Phyllis. I wanted to ask for her contact details, but a shyness came over me and I didn’t. I regretted it immediately. Lucky for me, the evening got away from us, – okay, we drank too much at a bonfire on the beach – so Michael and I decided to stay one more night. 

The next day, when Phyllis came to the hostel, I immediately asked her whether she would mind adding me on Facebook. She said yes, visibly excited, and that’s when I realized it. I meant something special to Phyllis too. 

For the rest of my motorbike trip through Vietnam and Cambodia, we spoke every day. She began calling me “sis.” I really liked that. She moved into a little home near the beach and sent me videos of the updates she was making. A palm frond roof, a vegetable patch. She shared with me her worries about something happening to her. She feared that her cat, Fantasia wouldn’t be taken care of. “She will be, I’m sure of it. You have friends in Vietnam, now. And you have me. We’ll make sure of it,” I would tell her. 

As I continued my travels, we spoke every few days. I told her about the shimmer of Singapore, I told her about learning Muay Thai in Thailand. I told her about how nervous I was to go to Australia. I sent her photos of the farm, videos of my friends. We used Google Earth so she could see the exact sheds where I packed paw paws and bananas. She said it made her happy being able to imagine me there – “it seems like a real nice place.” When I traveled through the Outback, I updated her whenever I had mobile service. I knew she worried. I would tell her about how at night you can see the Milky Way. I’d share our location and she would look it up on Google Earth; “looks dry; real desert out there. Make sure you have enough water.” I promised I always would.  

Ever since February 2nd 2019, Phyllis has been with me every step of the way. We’ve shared our happy moments with one another, as well as our heartbreaks. We have made plans and promises to meet up in Vietnam again in 2021. I never told her, but I was looking at flight tickets to go to Vietnam in October of 2020 because I felt it: that calling. I told my friends: “I’m not sure what it is, but I feel like I need to go to Vietnam sooner. I feel like I need to go see Phyllis. I want to see the places that she wants to show me, I’d like to hear the rest of her stories. I can’t explain it, I just feel like Vietnam, and Phyllis, is where I need to be.” I never told her that. 

Thankfully, I did tell her what she meant to me. Funny enough, we were both consistently vocal about that. Phyllis said it was our feminine connection. It makes me happy that one of my last messages to her was: “I’m so glad to know you, sis.” One of her last messages to me was to keep myself safe. 

On May 4 2020, Phyllis Austin left us. She was riding the scooter she had spent months saving for; she was so excited about it. She was on the road from Hoi An to Da Nang; her favorite stretch of road to drive. She always said that area was full of memories. The way I see it, there is a beauty to be found in the tragedy. A poetic balance in the fact that her final happy memories were in a place she had first traveled to under such different circumstances. A sweetness in the fact that she was doing what she loved the very most. 

Phyllis, my sister. I have no photos of our time together, nothing but my own memories to tell the story of who you are to me. It’s a story I will keep telling, it’s a story I have big plans for. I know you liked that. If I can find solace in anything, it is the fact that I know I took every possible opportunity to tell you how much I care for you. My only hope is that you truly heard me. You have changed me, you’ve grown me, you’ve made me feel seen. Thank you for sharing yourself with me, I love you and I’ll carry you. 

I’ll carry you forever. 

And we promise you, Fantasia will be loved.

Phuket

On April 12th, Sven and I flew from Langkawi Island back to Singapore. We said our goodbyes and I think I was still stammering my thanks as we parted. Hey you, I love you, you wonderful creature. After saying bye, I headed back into the city to meet up with Clay. One more night in Singapore before my next destination: Phuket.

April 13 2019

I wake up feeling incredibly hungover. We ended up going out last night and I drank ALL of the things. I head to the laundromat to wash my clothes – they need it. I say goodbye to Clay again, who I will see in Bali in a little over a week, and I head to the airport.

This part of the trip is another unexpected bonus. At some point in March, I received a message from a dear friend from university, telling me that she was going to be in Phuket in April to attend a fitness retreat and: would I like to join? Now, how often does it happen that your friends end up crossing to the other side of the world at coincidentally the same time as you so that you can hang out in the sunshine instead of in cold, rainy Europe? That’s right, not often. I booked a ticket.

I arrive in Phuket in the evening and my senses are immediately assaulted by the hundreds of taxi service people waving name cards outside the airport doors. After some time I am able to find the pickup service the fitness center, Phuket Fit, has sent for me. Phuket Fit is all the way at the south end of the island, so a taxi is a must. The ride takes a little over an hour and as we drive, I see water-soaked people heading home. Today is April 13; it is Songkran. Songkran is a water festival which celebrates the Thai New Year. The holiday is typically celebrated with water fights, and people spend the day splashing one another with water. I wasn’t able to get an early enough flight so I could partake, but seeing truck beds packed with soaking, smiling people feels like a pretty close second.

An hour later I arrive at Phuket Fit and there she is, my sweet, dear friend Annelie. It has probably been a year and a half since we saw one another last, but as we begin to excitedly catch up, it feels like it was yesterday. With good friends, it always does. We marvel at how quickly these plans came together, and we laugh at the fact that over the course of the next few days we will be chatting over green juices instead of glasses of wine as we usually do. To be honest, after the amount of cheap beer I have consumed over these past 5 months of travel, that might just be a good thing. 

I initially sign up to participate in three days of the fitness program, but after the first day I am hooked and I know I will sign up for more. On my second day, my throat infection comes back. I visit yet another doctor and get another round of antibiotics. This is not an ideal time to be pushing my body to the limit with physical exercise, but it feels too damn good not to, so I take my medication and push myself anyway.

I enjoy our daily routine. In the evenings we look at the class schedule and debate which classes we want to take. In the mornings we wake up early and get into our workout gear while it’s still dark out. I fall in love with Muay Thai and yoga. Between classes, we drink fresh coconuts and get Thai massages. We take long walks to the beach and the market. We sit in the sauna and lounge by the pool. Throughout this all, we talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. It feels good to have yet another friend from back home here with me. 

Much like my trip with Sven, my days with Annelie fly by entirely too quickly. Before I know it, we are going to bed on my last evening there and I am up before dawn to catch a taxi back to the airport. I leave feeling strong and reenergized. It feels sad to say goodbye again, but more than anything I am grateful to have had these days at all.

I board my flight in a sleepy daze, only half of me realizing that I am heading to my last stop on this trip through Southeast Asia: Bali.

Singapore

1 April 2019

Arriving in Singapore is … an adjustment. It’s uncomfortable at first, which is ironic, really. Towards the end of my time in Cambodia there came a point where I began to understand the concept of traveller’s exhaustion. There came a moment where after months of moving around, months of always being significantly dirtier than you are clean, I wanted a little bit of a break. Just one moment of wearing an item of clothing that actually smells of laundry, not sweat. Just one moment of taking a shower and actually feeling that the dirt has gone. Even if just for the moment.

There is something about the human condition that always has us craving more. Has us craving “different.” Has us craving somewhere else, be that a place or a moment. Human existence is steeped in nostalgia. This is something I ponder as I wait to board my plane to Singapore and I consider the fact that I am going to a place that will be drastically different to the Southeast Asia I have known so far. All of a sudden, a surprising desperation comes over me. A desperation to stay, a desperation to be dirty for a little while longer.  I look at the stains on my t-shirt, my love for the dirt, grime and grit rekindled.

I arrive in Singapore and it is practically sparkling. I board a temperature-controlled metro only to find myself wishing I was standing alongside a rural road in Cambodia, sweaty and covered in dirt. Once at my hostel, I shower and walk into my air conditioned room. My body barely gets a chance to begin to perspire before it is enveloped in coolness. This is foreign to me and you know what? I don’t really enjoy it at first. Cue the irony. I feel out of place and out of my comfort zone.

But the thing is, I have felt out of my comfort zone many times before. This entire trip has been a foray into the world outside my comfort zone, hasn’t it? This too, will become comfortable in time. Plus, I’ve got some very exciting plans to look forward to in Singapore; that helps.

I spend my first day in Singapore sick in bed with a fever. One very expensive hospital visit later, I am back in my bed with medication for a throat infection. Ah, Koh Rong Sanloem; the gift that keeps giving. Several people at our hostel were sick those last few days and it has finally caught up to me. I sleep, eat instant noodles and take my medication. Later that day I am grateful to be feeling better and I venture out to meet up with a friend from university who I haven’t seen in years. That evening, I am reunited with my friend Clay, and we sip tea whilst catching up on our latest adventures and reminiscing about our travels through Vietnam together.

Over the next few days, Clay shows me around the city and takes me to the famous Singaporean hawker stalls. We visit Pulau Ubin, an island just off the coast and spend an afternoon cycling through the nature there. Clay introduces me to his friends; we stroll through enormous shopping malls and I take in the sight of stores I haven’t seen in months. I meet with another friend from university. These reunions are sweet, and on April 4th an even sweeter one awaits. One of my best friends, Sven, has managed to time a business trip in Singapore with my time here. We will see one another for a few days in Singapore and then head to Langkawi, Malaysia for five days. I visit him at his office and as we sit and have lunch in one of Singapore’s many office buildings, it is the most wonderfully peculiar feeling to have two of my realities collide in this way.

Quite honestly, my days in Singapore pass by in a blur. I share meals and drinks with old and new friends alike. We watch the light and water show in Marina Bay and it gives me goose bumps. My initial discomfort now forgotten, these days feel somehow like a reminder of just how full my life has been and continues to be. To have friends tucked in all corners of the world; to have friends who will cover distances to see you; new friends wherever you go.

I look up at the glittering trees in Gardens by the Bay and, listening to the chatter of our mixed group, I feel a fullness.

I look down at my tattered sneakers and at the memories they carry.

We laugh at another joke and I feel the fullness even more.

Battambang

After our visit to the Angkor temple complex, it was time to do some planning. With visas running out and future travel plans unfolding, we were all scheduled to leave Cambodia. We said goodbye to two of our family (headed to Thailand), leaving four of us behind. One more day in Cambodia; one more day together.

Two of my remaining friends also had plans to go to Thailand. They would travel to Battambang together and catch a bus across the border.

I had heard of Battambang before and had actually hoped to visit. Several travelers had told me about these caves in the hills just outside of the city which are inhabited by millions of bats. If you visit the caves at sunrise or sunset you will see them entering or exiting the cave. Other travelers had told me about the bamboo trains – more on those later – and urged me to go there for a ride.

And so, with one day left and no concrete plans, we decided to throw caution to the wind. We would all go to Battambang together. Four hours there, a short visit of the sights, then two of us would take a four-hour bus back to Siem Reap in time for our flights the next day. The others would continue on to Thailand. Our plan was messy at best, but as we booked our tickets for the 9:30 am bus, I couldn’t be happier. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta live a little. 

30 March 2019

We leave the hostel in the morning and our bus takes the expected 4+ hours to get us to Battambang. I spend the time staring out at dusty roads and endless open fields. I daydream about riding my motorbike. Together, our team cooks up a plan for our arrival in Battambang. Our first order of business will be to arrange a bus ticket to Thailand for George and tickets for a night bus back to Siem Reap for Lesley and I. Should be easy enough. 

In the afternoon, we are spewed out at a bus stop outside of Battambang’s city center. We head to the hostel Elliott has booked for the night and store his and George’s backpacks. Then it’s straight to the ticketing office to arrange those bus tickets. It doesn’t take long, because the answer is simple: there are no buses. Oops. Back to the hostel it is then; looks like George spending the night. As for Lesley and I, who knows how we’re getting back to Siem Reap, really.

 We return to the hostel and our tuk tuk driver is ready and waiting to take us sightseeing. I cannot help but laugh at the impossible situation we have created. He offers us his help, telling us there is also the possibility to catch a private taxi back to Siem Reap. We tell him we are on a budget and ask if he can bargain for us. He promises us that he will. “I will find you a taxi. Now we go to the bamboo train!” he tells us happily.

The bamboo train (also called a norry) is a rudimentary rail vehicle. It’s essentially a series of bamboo slats laid over a steel frame. The steel frame rests on top of wheels taken from old trains and, I’m told, tanks. The whole thing is powered by a motorcycle or tractor engine, which can deliver a top speed of 40 km/hr or more. While in the past the bamboo trains were more readily used, nowadays they only exist on this small section of railway and are mainly used for tourism.

Our tuk tuk driver, whose name we have learned is Pow, drops us off and within minutes we have paid our $5 per person to ride the train. We climb on, the engine roars to life, and off we go. I immediately forget all about our current predicament. This is just too wonderfully bizarre.

There is something utterly absurd about barreling down a track at 40km/hr seated only on a wooden platform. It is rickety at best and as the trees whizz by, I hold tight to the small railing in front of me. All I can hear is the roar of our tiny engine and the bounce of my own laughter.

We meet a train heading in the opposite direction and get to witness its dismantling. Because there is only one track, it’s quite normal to encounter oncoming traffic. When you do, the rule of thumb is that the train carrying the least number of passengers “gets out of the way.” First, the two trains slow down. While the passengers climb off, our driver does so too and goes over to help the other driver. Within moments they have lifted the wooden platform off the wheels and placed it beside the tracks. They remove the wheels one by one and our driver comes back to our train. We pass the train beside the tracks, then he returns to put the other train (now behind us) back together. The process feels like it takes less than a minute.

The ride takes you to another small village where you have a break to buy souvenirs. Then the train is dismantled, turned around and we return to Pow.

He tells us he hasn’t been able to find a taxi for us yet. “But I will find one! Now we go to the caves,” and off we go in his tuk tuk, chatting the entire way. A small part of me is amused and surprised by the fact that I am not worried at all about how I am getting back to Siem Reap. I make a mental nod to past versions of me, thinking: oh, just look at you now.

Pow has an enormous grin and incredibly infectious energy, and he happily tells us about Battambang as we ride towards the caves. Soon enough, we are at the base of the hill. We climb up, find rock outcroppings to sit on and crack open one beer each. The sun lowers in the sky and we continue to chat with Pow as he tells us about his life and his dreams of becoming a tour operator. More tourists gather, and soon we are a group of billy goats on a mountainside. Billy goats with beers.

It turns out that Pow knows quite a lot about bats, and he tells us all about the difference between the “big bats” and “small bats,” as he calls them, the research that is done about their movements and the efforts that have been taken to protect them. We comment on the peculiar smell and he tells us that it’s the smell of their droppings. When we hear an unfamiliar sound, he says: “they’re coming. You can hear it, their wings.” He points to the left, telling us that that side of the hill is where the cave opening is. “If you watch there, you will see them soon.” And he’s right, because shortly after, a stream of black specks comes hurtling out into the sky. The stream loops and spirals in the air. As it stretches into the distance, I follow it, hoping to see where they are going. But they fly further than my eyes can see, and soon enough the first bats are out of my reach. All the while, more of them continue to stream out of the cave. Never letting up, never slowing down.

“How many bats are there?” someone asks.

“Oh, not so many. Only 1 million,” Pow answers. I laugh, because to me these bats seem limitless.

We watch as the sun dips lower and lower. The bats continue to flutter and Pow continues to talk. He tells us about the most important things in life, according to him (education, travel and friends). He tells us about the places he wants to travel to.

“I don’t stay [live] in Battambang,” he says. “Only work. But one day I will go to more places than only Battambang.”

“Where do you stay [live]?” I ask him.

“I stay everywhere in the world. I stay in your heart.”

I think about how to me, Cambodia seems to have become one long poem, carefully crafted by its people that I have met. I decide this is a time to listen, so I take another sip of beer and let Pow speak on.

 

***

In the end, Pow takes us back to the hostel where we say goodbye to George and Elliott. A private (and expensive – $50 if I remember correctly) taxi takes Lesley and I back to Siem Reap. I have seriously exceeded my daily budget, but as I sit in the darkened car, exhausted from the sun and full of new stories, I know it was worth it. We ride with a driver, a woman and child in the front seat and us in the back. When we pick up another passenger, rather than placing him in the back seat with us, he shares the driver’s seat with the driver. And so ends my last day in the incomparable Cambodia.

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.