Siem Reap – 11 January
A day in Angkor Park
It’s still dark outside but the promise of sunrise projects a halo of light at the horizon. We’re late and we’re rushing through the gates of the temple, past people who decide to take pictures of the gates, in the dark, just because. There are lots of people, but apart from the shuffling of feet on the stone walkway, it is quiet.
It is the best time to see Angkor Wat. Somehow in the dark, it’s protected. Somehow in the dark, it’s still majestic, it still has power over the landscape. Somehow in the dark, the hundreds of visitors keep their mouths shut. We cut across the lawn and sit down on one of the smaller temples, facing the outline of the iconic Angkor Wat towers, waiting for the sun to rise. Flashlights ignite everywhere and this is how I know how many people have gathered on the lawn to watch the day break.
I stare at the horizon for a very long time and the light grows stronger. I’m starting to make out the walls of the temple, shapes moving on the lawn, palms and birds shooting across the sky. I try to absorb everything, to take it all in. It’s a moment I should not underestimate. It’s so beautiful I can’t properly process. I turn my head in the opposite direction, trying to take note of everything around me, and see the moon still bright in the sky. At the same time, the sun’s rays pierce from behind the palm fronds and illuminate the world. The sky turns red and the temple is in full sight. I am happy and sad at the same time. The temple seems smaller in the light, less capable of holding its ground against the hoards of tourists.
The sun is now half up in the sky and we start feeling the heat rising. Red becomes pink and the day evolves under our eyes, growing from a tiny seed to full development. We cross back the bridge over the moat surrounding Angkor Wat and notice a monkey is also watching the sunrise. The moment is perfect. There is only one thing I would change if I had special powers: I’d kick everyone out. The sun, the trees, the birds and the monkeys are enough!
We cycled the whole day under the scorching sun. Angkor Archeological Park is best seen on two wheels, unrushed by drivers keen on taking you from one temple to another fast, so they can rest in a hammock underneath a tree. On two wheels we can interact with our environment.
We saw monkey fed bread by local women and, noticing us watching, one of them shared her bread with me. And so I cycled with it in my bag and fed more monkeys along the way. We stopped at Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate and took pictures, harassed by local children. On two wheels, I can observe the world around me at leisure: large trees with protruding veins, brown monkeys camouflaged on carpets of fallen leaves, red earth beginning where the tarmac ends, the incredibly loud sound of crickets propagating through the trees.
We now sit on the first floor of a restaurant by the lake and I silently watch the four little girls downstairs who approached us earlier, selling trinkets and postcards.
‘One dollar! Everything one dollar!’ they shouted as if the universal price would change our minds. They now play quietly waiting for us to finish our food and try another sales pitch. They squat in the dust and play a game.
Cold beer is delivered to our table and my overheated body almost sizzles in contact with the cold amber liquid.
Two of the girls leave my visual spectrum; the other two make their way to a buddhist shrine and squat next to it. I notice that there is a little pond of water underneath the shrine and they are washing their shins. The smaller of the girls washes her knees with infinite delicacy and doesn’t leave until she’s completely cleaned up. I feel tears forming in the corner of my eyes. I know I’m not supposed to buy things from them, but I have this sudden urge to adopt them all. I realise that I absolutely adore the children of Cambodia!
We fondly call them ‘street urchins’. They seem to feel at home on the street, playing with each other like puppies, rolling on the pavement, pinching adults and looking at you with big curious eyes. And when you least expect it, they burst out in laughter.
Earlier, we’ve been ambushed by another group inside one of the temples.
‘Hello!’ they said as one.
‘Hello!’ I answered.
‘Hello!’ they continued.
‘Hello!’ I played along.
‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ they almost sang to me.
‘Good bye!’ I sang along.
‘Good bye! Hahahaha!’ they continues. ‘Hello, good-bye, hello, good bye!…’
We sang to each other until we were out of the temple. They followed us up to an invisible border they did not cross, as if they were confined to the premises of the temple. We heard their laughter long after we were gone.
We pay the bill and step downstairs. I have asked the waitress to give me small change in Cambodian currency. The girls are waiting at the bottom of the stairs, all cleaned up and ready to sing-song: ‘One Dollar!’
‘Here, buy yourself something sweet!’ I say and hand them all money. ‘But don’t forget to go to school!’
I will be very sad to leave Cambodia, I think as I board my sore ass back on the bicycle saddle. I’ll really miss the street urchins!