The morning was cold, but we were leaving our coats in Bobby’s apartment, because we had no desire to carry them through out sunny, temperate southern Asia. Our jog to the subway was mercifully brief, and after a long subway ride, we came to Incheon’s eternally and bewilderingly efficient airport. Within a few hours, we were in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Cambodia is a country where I really did not know what to expect. Being the specifically ignorant boob I am about certain areas of facts and history, my knowledge of the country extended to it containing Angkor Wat, and also some impressively horrific (and recent!) historic tragedy. The contours of its language, the colour and name of the currency, the ingredients common to its cuisine, the likelihood of its people to spit upon me once entering the country: all were delightful mysteries I was waiting to discover.
We arrived late at night, and after some time trying to finagle into a cab, we were whisked away to our hostel, through streets that looked beyond seedy and terrifying, but that we came to quickly recognize as safe as houses.
Waking up the next day, we began to realize our itinerary for Cambodia was largely empty, but for large, block capitals practically scrawled in bright green crayon reading “GO ANGKOR WAT.” We inquired at the front desk and thus took to the streets, and later made our way via incredibly cheap tuk-tuk to a floating village.
I am always struck when travelling about how instantly individual you can feel, how unique your experience seems. It is, of course, absolutely illusory, and often there are dozens of people around you doing the exact same thing, but being out and seeing the majesty of the world does have a tendency to make you feel good about yourself. And so we blasted through this floating village, townspeople gently canoeing back and forth from school and neighbours’ houses. Later we parked out on the open water and watched light pouring soft and heavy from an unfinished jigsaw of sky. It was breathtaking, and magical, and it showed us the glory of nature’s splendour, and so on and so on. It was our first day of vacation.
Going for a kind of sight-seeing overload, we then managed to struggle out of bed in the nether regions of the morning, and saddled into a tuk-tuk by 4:30 a.m. We drove down barely visible streets, Cambodian back-alleys and byways, red plastic chairs strewn and wild animals wandering along the side of the road. The path to Angkor Wat is wide and breezy, and we arrived with enough time for people to accost us with offers of breakfast, tour guides, and flashlights.
We trudged over dark, ancient roads, following distant beams of light from other travellers who had gone for the flashlight deal. It was hard to really get a feel for what we were experiencing, as everything was dark and naturey, and you can’t really gasp splendour in the dark.
Soon we came to a small pond lined with large rocks, and found seats for ourselves. People around us began to gather, though in the din we had no idea the size of the crowd. We gleaned snatches: little bits of people’s faces in the flashes of cameras in the early morning, tidbits of conversations in rapid foreign tongues. Only as the light began to pour over the structure before us did we see that the crowd was massive.
But we didn’t notice for a while, because all we could see was the sky and Angkor Wat. There are times in your life when you really have to check yourself, to make sure you are terribly aware of how awesome the things in front of you are. In these times I imagine that maybe I’m dreaming, or that I’m dead, or that everything is some sort of holographic projection, but then I get the jolt of happy realization—nope, here I am, sitting in Cambodia at sunrise.
The first hour or two after sunrise, no one really entered the temple, being wooed as they were by the siren call of the locals offering them breakfast and coffee at next-to-important-thing mark-up prices. We were able to wander the grounds practically alone, scaling huge, rugged staircases, crawling in between stones lain hundreds and hundreds of years before.
Our tuk-tuk driver around the temples became our kind of mental representation of the Cambodian people in general: uncontrollably pleasant, hard-working, and pint-sized. Pauly (I am choosing this Romanization over possible alternatives Polly and Poli) picked us right up at 4:30, and was constantly asking us questions about our trip, about what Korea is like (he was studying both Korean and English at the same time), and telling us his plans for the future. He was so constantly nice that we didn’t really understand how to deal with it, and when we treated him to lunch he seemed to be nearly overcome with polite ecstasy at the reciprocal kindness.
Also, he could fit in your pocket.
At our lunch, we both noticed that the table was maybe too high for him, built as it was for tourists, and thus he had to prop his elbows on the table to be able to reach the food. When he forgot our names, he would refer to us simply as Big Man and Tall Man, because we were practically giants towering over him, a kind of relative feeling I do not often get to experience.
Later, after briefly losing us in one of the more confusing temple surroundings, we got back to the hostel for him to pick us up once more. “I didn’t know where you went!” he cried. “I was asking other tuk-tuk drivers, ‘Have you seen Tall Man? Or Big Man?’”
I generally detest child labour (what a controversial opinion!), but being surrounded by it also causes you to grow numb to it in a way I didn’t really think possible. More than anything, the children approaching us with various wares I began to judge for their skills, and I found myself duly impressed by the sassmouth and marketing skills some of them developed.
Near a large lake, 2 girls approached us, 8 and 12. The younger one targeted Bobby, and worked the guilt angle: would he promise to come visit her store? She offered up her dainty, delicate little hand for a pinky swear. My salesgirl barraged me with questions. “Where you from? Where you from? What language do you speak?” I tried to not say anything, to march on, to which she responded, “Maybe you are from country where they don’t speak any language?”
Our time in Siem Reap was short, as our knowledge of it essentially extended to “Angkor Wat adjacent,” and indeed the local townspeople knew how to work this angle. Every article of clothing, every restaurant, every thing was adorned with visuals or some reference to the temples. The most popular bar in town was lauded for its simple punnery, being called “Angkor What”. There were at least two beers available, one named directly after the temples, and another (“Anchor”) making a play at the name.
But within a few days, we had exhausted ourselves of the temples and the simple, small-town life, and were headed for the capital, Phnom Penh.