It was a quarter to four in the morning, and as the city groaned with damp, pink light at its far edge, my friend and I made our way drowsily to the taxi we had hired just five hours earlier. We moved past a steady trickle of tuk tuks and motorbikes that tugged plumes of colored dust along the side of the road.
Our arrival at Angkor Wat was something majestic. The temples of the complex were silhouetted against the groan, which had by then risen to a chorus of orange and red that hurried through the paper-thin clouds pasted high in the indigo sky above. The water of the reservoirs below held this scene and stirred it idly with a few ribbons of the humid breeze that whispered past us.
"I wish we had gotten here twenty minutes earlier," my friend said to me as the sun rose with a decided impatience.
As we approached the temple, we were hassled by a cadre of tour guides and vendors hawking water and other wares. One of them--a long, gangly strand of man--followed us and engaged us in determined conversation. We did our best to express our utter indifference to his unwelcomed advances, but he was earnest.
"My name Nelly," he said. "Like the rapper," he added for clarification.
It wasn't long after five o'clock in the morning, and the thirty-degree heat was courting our flesh with a fine film that beaded in the folds of our hands. Three girls came into view before us talking of the heat and their films, and we exchanged introductions and polite conversation. Two of the girls were British, and the other was a doctor from Finland.
We moved wordlessly toward the mouth of the temple together where were greeted by a sign that read "Possibility of Visit" with two arrows leading away from it. We followed one of the arrows toward a row of ornate stone ribs that exhaled small clumps of camera-toting, cargo short-clad tourists.
"This might be a stupid question, but when was this built?" I asked our new friends.
"891 AD," replied one of the British girls.
"That's not precise at all," I said, ribbing her gently.
She flashed a wounded smile. "I was just reading about it," she replied.
"Which month was it? August? Was it a full moon?" my friend added.
"What was the harvest like that planting season?" I piled on.
As I learned later, it wasn't built in 891 AD. It was a valiant effort, nonetheless.
The sun darted between the sharp angles of the temple's stone structures and screamed through the short green grass of the courtyard. We moved through these structures, blackened with time and green with plant life, past statues of the Buddha and bare-breasted Hindu carvings that protruded from the walls.
"Zack--did you go cliff jumping in Koh Phi Phi," The Doctor asked me.
"No--the last time I went cliff jumping was in Corfu and I bruised my ass," I replied as I carefully descended a flight of steep steps whose edges had long ago acquiesced to the softer shapes time had chosen for them.
We came upon a stone courtyard that held the largest tower of the temple yet. A flight of broad stone steps fled up the tower's side, though they were blockaded by a crude wooden fence. One of the British girls slipped past the fence and scurried up the steps.
"Be careful!" her friend called after her.
"I don't want to get caught!" she replied.
She was followed by her friend, another British kid who had joined us, and my friend until only The Doctor and I remained below. We eyed the scene cautiously, assessing the risk therein. I took a few pictures of my friend seated on a ledge above. I turned back to The Doctor, but she was already gone. I hadn't any choice at that point. I turned and took a few photos of the gate behind me in a feeble attempt to appear as inconspicuous as possible before hurrying up the steps.
"Really?" I heard a tourist call after me with waxing condescension from below.
I suppose I had ruined his picture, but it was no matter. Any guilt I entertained fled quickly. I was young and selfish.
I arrived atop the steps and turned to reap the fruits of my verboten labor. A great verdant scene, mottled with the blackened gray of the temples below, unfurled itself before me. My friend and I agreed it was the best view we had seen yet. I pulled my camera to my face and began to take pictures, but my heart was beating something furious in my chest, and I had difficulty keeping the camera steady.
We climbed over another crude fence that threatened little in the way of punishment if trespassed and came upon a "Possibility of Visit" sign, which suggested to us that our illicit detour wasn't as illicit as we had initially believed. As we came upon yet another stone courtyard, we spotted someone at work cleaning a shrine just a few meters away, and so we negotiated its periphery delicately. We were quite high now, and the horizon appeared above the trees as a steady, unbroken line.
Fear--and the thought of spending any amount of time in a Cambodian jail--got the better of us, and so we descended and returned to the courtyard below. We realized that the fear and the scurrying and the trespassing had thickened the films of our skin. I lifted the corner of my shirt to fan my face, but it was heavy with sweat. It was around eight in the morning, and it had to be at least 35 degrees. We decided on a break.
We made our way back out of the temple complex and found Nelly idling as if he had anticipated that just such a moment would eventually arrive. He was earnest as ever, and he promised us a discount if we ate at his restaurant, so we obliged him. "Restaurant" is a rather generous description of Nelly's establishment--it was two tables situated beneath a striped tent--but it did just fine. We made nice conversation over a breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit, fried rice, and cigarettes. We discussed the particularities of own countries until they appeared as foreign to us as Cambodia once had.
"It is pretty weird that we let kids drive when they're sixteen in the U.S.," my friend said to me.
"Yeah--Jesus. That's so young," I replied.
By the time we left, it was around nine, and the sun was already well into its midday work of peeling the shadows from each object in its path. A breeze that was about as hot--and about as satisfying--as dog breath moved past us.
We continued on to another smaller temple about a mile away and stood in its cool, darkened passageways until we felt we had the energy to ascend it. We moved through its narrow corridors and paths, which were populated with clusters of umbrella-toting Chinese and sunburned Russian tourists who eyed the spaces around them absently with stares that groped about for miles. We settled in what little shade we found strewn about the temple's stout towers and talked about Berghain in Berlin, surfing in Indonesia, and magic mushrooms in Laos.
We set out again for another temple--the "Tomb Raider" temple--whose structures had largely been put to rubble by time and weather. What structures remained, however, were intertwined delicately with large trees that grew indeterminately from the ground.
The Doctor talked of how she had made the decision to skydive after she met a twenty-three year-old from California who recounted how he had once bungee-jumped using an apparatus that was tethered to him by just four piercings in the flesh of his back. My face convulsed with a sort of horror as it made assortment of crude shapes of my expression. Apparently, she had become convinced that her fear of skydiving was but a minor inconvenience after having heard this story.
"He told me he was the 56th person in the world to ever do this," she said.
On one point, we were all in complete agreement: None of us was terribly keen on becoming number 57.
We finished the temple complex and came upon a street filled to its graveled brim with tuk tuks and taxis.
"Do you want something called 'weed?'" asked a small girl. We politely declined.
We spotted the men who had brought us and said our goodbyes. The Doctor pinched her eyes in the glare of the midday sun and said to my friend and me, "I wish we had more time together."
She was already gone. We were all in transit.