we emerged from the long shadow of old kingdoms nursing questions that made our outlook all the more profound. one never leaves the temples of angkor completely: the sound of my footsteps on the stone causeways will echo in my ears for a long time, and the texture of an artisan’s devotion, or fear of punishment, will leave a memory on the tips of my fingers just as my lips birth stories of awe and surprise when everything else loses their novelty. but the day was far from over, and rathana was far from finished in showing us glimpses of his cambodia.
he took us to the local market to witness the cambodian way of life. i still wore the red scarf cecil had given to me the previous year. i remember opening the bag and unleashing the scent of spices which drew me like rigid tentacles. i didn’t know what it was until we walked into the market and were accosted by the smell of amok powder: the spice which lends flavor and aroma to an enticing dish which i loved to the last morsel during lunch. amok’s scent floated like thick curtains in the air and latched itself onto our clothes although we made no contact with it. somewhere in the market were more bugs fingered by its seller. rathana bought a glass of a local refreshment: it was green, thick, and from its taste, was probably milk-based. as usual, i was the only one daring enough to gulp the entire glass, despite the suspect source of the ice.
after the market visit, we walked back to our guesthouse for a bath, and the minute the water touched my body, i felt the traces of the ancient temples that had clung to me collect into the drain. that evening, we had another hearty dinner, each for a song. afterwards, we went to the temple balcony to watch traditional khmer folk dances while we nursed a pitcher of anchor beer. after the series of dances, accompanied by a small orchestra of gongs and strange sounding strings, and which told stories of courtship, harvest, and faith, we went to the local club whose name i could not remember. of course, siem reap is not bangkok or singapore or kuala lumpur or even manila, and walking into the bar was like stepping into a wormhole: it had transported us to a bygone age in some distant rural town, where the locals come to display their reservations. the DJ was playing khmer pop, and some of the timid girls were hopping bashfully, lifting their fingers as the folk dancers did.
when they changed to western pop music, the filipinos took over the stage and shocked siem reap. one of rathana’s friends had called him the following day just to say that he could not forget how jojo gyrated on the dance floor.
after that brush with khmer cool, we returned to pub street for beer. we immediately found ourselves drawn to the noisiest place: angkor what, with its vandalized walls and raucous visitors. we also found other filipinos there, and just to illustrate 6 degrees of separation: many of them are my friend JC’s friends in the advertising industry, and some of them are my neighbors here in makati. i also found out that the bartenders are ilonggo.
at angkor what, i met many tourists like myself, and being the xenophile that i am, i had a grand time talking to them, practicing my french, my spanish, and toasting to siem reap. after a while, the irishmen left me with a small tin bucket of gin tonic, and this may have been the cause of the major headache that woke me that morning. thankfully, we had decided to start late. our itinerary for the day did not involve temples or ruins -- after the visual overdose of the previous day, i was less inclined to see more piles of rocks. i wanted to see a bit more of siem reap in its present form. rathana had great ideas.
first we went to artisans of angkor, a workshop which provides poor cambodians with the opportunity to earn. they approximate ancient carving techniques and make replicas of many of the sculptures and bas relief you’d find in the temples. i was even quite happy to realize that the workshop where deaf and mute artists reproduced paintings of rural life was funded by my employer. at artisans d'angkor, i found myself drawn to a nice scarf, the color of deep crimson, like dried blood.
and then we went to an orphanage. one might ask: why visit a cambodian orphanage? and my response would be: why not? it is not because angelina jolie herself had taken time to be with orphaned children when she was in town. it was a rather simple reason: rathana said he wanted to show us his orphanage, and it didn’t occur to me to question his proposition. rathana’s father died from complications related to HIV when he was 15, and he lived in this orphanage for a year, a detail which i learned only after we had left.
when we arrived, seats were provided for us and the children quickly gathered in front of us. i had no idea what was going to take place, but one kid began reciting nursery rhymes and singing children’s songs. everyone else was just shy, and hid their smiling faces when we coaxed them to do something in front of us. the children at the orphanage were all victims of the HIV scourge. they are beautiful little angels who could not speak to us in a language we could understand, but they surrounded us with affection which is universal.
we spent time playing with the children, teaching them new songs and new games, laughing with them, showing them their photos and videos on the LCD screens of our gadgets. one might ask why rathana brought us there, when in fact he didn’t even suggest that we donate anything, or that if we were inclined to, it would be better to give books, but i was happy we were there: it sort of gives the trip perspective, and atones for all the bacchanalian pursuits we commit ourselves to.
but my journey into the heart of cambodia was not nearly finished with that visit to the orphanage. when the afternoon arrived, rathana took us to another excellent restaurant where we gorged on local food that gets better and better. at this point, our guide wanted to show us another perspective of khmer life, floating on the source of life that is the thonle sap: southeast asia’s biggest freshwater lake.
we went to thonle sap, about 10km away from downtown, and drove through the dusty, narrow streets of siem reap. during the low season, the lake is already a massive patch on the map, but when the mekong reverses its flow and rains pour in, it could swell to as much 12,000 square kilometers, or about 30% of cambodia’s total land area. korean investors are putting in money to develop the area for tourism, and for USD15, we had a long boat all to ourselves. a canal had been dug to extend into the pier, and pretty soon, we were meandering through murky waters where the lives of many khmers are either anchored, or float, like canoes with neither sail nor paddle.
once we entered the lake itself, i was arrested by its size. i could not even see the end. somewhere in the distance were structures, and at the time, i did not know yet that the whole community was floating: houses, restaurants, gardens, basketball courts, resting on barrels and pieces of small boats.
the lake is filled with boat people who are ethnically vietnamese, who have drifted here many years ago, following the odd currents of the mekong. they depend on the lake in many ways: they wash their dishes, their clothes and their bodies here. rathana pointed out to me a roofless rectangular structure where the people on the lake respond to a call of nature. when i turned my head, a woman dipped a cup into the lake and brought it to her mouth. when we stopped at a floating restaurant, canoes approached the edge of the platform, and mothers and their kids shouted to us: one dollar baby. one dollar baby. hungry.
glimpses of life like this make me feel ultimately thankful about my opportunities and how privileged i am to be able to travel. i do not consciously seek out life worse than mine if only to satisfy a craving to believe that i am better off than many, but rather, i am drawn to such realities by fate and circumstance, if only to make me realize that my life is truly blessed. travel should not only be limited to what is beautiful in the outside, but rather, it should also involve an inspection to the underbelly of our artificial realities. oddly enough, while there are many unsettling things floating on the thonle sap, i found something soothing and calming in the midst of such stark poverty and suffering. that is why i willingly submitted myself to this contrasting experience which did not leave me in awe nor in amazement. it served a purpose, too personal and gratifying to explain.
after thonle sap, we returned to siem reap in the late afternoon. we passed by a field of lilies, and i discovered that they produce some kind of nut. my last encounter with rathana’s suggestions would be the rice wine, to which i am not a stranger. he gave me a jigger, and we were happily deconstructing the remains of the day. rathana has been an extremely helpful guide: showing us the different faces of siem reap, even the detritus under the rug. for that i was most thankful. not many visitors graduate from tourists to travelers. we accounted for the last two days’ expenses, and at one point rathana hinted at waving his fee, but i insisted: it’s his job, and he’s saving up for an elaborate 3-day wedding by the end of this year or early next. i said if he invites me, i will come.
the rest of the afternoon dozed off by itself. we walked around the town and waited for the sunlight to disappear, watching tuktuks and luxury SUVs pass by. i bought the most expensive shirt at a french artist’s store, and treated ourselves to ice cream and pastry. anywhere in siem reap you’d find wi-fi, often fast, many times, reliable.
that evening, we explored more of pub street and found the alley parallel to it, with its many secret restaurants. we sat at a khmer family restaurant and had the best dinner so far. near us were two white boys with whom jojo struck up conversation. i wasn’t so involved in the exchange, as i was more concerned with exploring the alley which seemed like pages from a book at the far end of the library. nevertheless, i found out that the boys, simon and kevin, were austro-italians, who have been traveling for the last 6 months prior to university in munich.
kevin was the talkative one, while simon often just watched him speak and nodded in silence. kevin spoke about how they were austrians, but carried italian passports, harking back to the time of mussolini’s friendship with hitler, at least from what i gathered. when the evening aged, i suggested we move over to angkor what? and asked the boys if they would like to join us. and they did. we ordered a pint of anchor beer and the evening rolled on shared passions for travel, adventure, and the temporary liaisons hatched over our momentary freedoms from responsibilities. i live for these ephemeral encounters, and i do not find them useless simply because they last no longer than the vacation, sometimes just a fraction of it. there is no certainty whether such meetings will forge lasting friendships, but the conversations that pass from lips to glasses become sources of inspiration to journey further a field. we exchange email addresses with promises to keep in touch, and sometimes, we are actually sincere about it.
so we toasted and took pictures and moved into the bar and bumped our glasses with those of other strangers whose names we asked and whose hands we shook and whose nationalities we inquired and to whom we said, oh! germany! guten tag! eventually, when we drained our pint of beer, i bought two buckets of red bull vodka while some stranger who said he was a filmmaker took my camera and took photos of bricks, tables, balls, scribbles on the walls, while i practiced my french with belgians and my spanish with argentineans. before i knew it, kevin was unable to keep his balance and he fell on the floor. we laughed about it, till a little later, he was being led outside of angkor what? by its bulky malaysian manager and hooligans from outside. i apologized on his behalf while simon tried to talk some sense to him. he did so by pushing him, and they spoke in austrian. i didn’t understand, and they were pushing each other while policemen watched.
hanz intervened and volunteered to take him home while simon pulled me back into angkor what? for a pitcher of beer which we had to share with tuktuk drivers because we couldn’t finish it. a bit later, i walked simon back to his hostel and we found simon sleeping inside a tuktuk. we tried to assist him into their guesthouse, but when he woke, he and simon ended on the dusty streets of siem reap, tangled in an olympic wrestling match. they shouted austrian invectives at each other while complete strangers warned that they’d call the cops. i pleaded that they be left alone. hanz asked what we should do and i said, they’d eventually get tired. and they did, in fact. after the struggle, i helped simon to his feet, and he was saying things i doubt he would remember. we helped them to their guesthouse not far away, placed them neatly on their beds, and wiped the dust and dirt off the scratches on their knees and elbows. hanz and i are filipino, and it is not in our nature to leave behind people in distress, no matter that we had just met them. on my part, i felt partly responsible for buying them beer and red bull vodka, which their young austrian bodies had difficulty handling.
hanz and i walked back to our guesthouse asking: what just happened? we laughed at the sudden turn of events which reduced us to caregivers of drunk austro-italians, and the funny anecdotes this short experience would provide us for years to come, until exhaustion claimed our bodies and we slept through our combined alarms. we were scheduled to leave for phnom penh at 7am, and we both got up only 10 minutes earlier. thankfully, we both had already packed, and we just rushed down to the awaiting tuktuks after a quick brush. when we boarded the bus, it left immediately.
i slept through part of the trip. during the only bus stop between siem reap and phnom penh, i interacted with kids selling mango sap and corn and bugs and pineapples instead of eating. they all tried to guess where i was from, and i have seldom heard stranger things. when we entered phnom penh, i was accosted once again by its paralyzing chaos: scooters lorded over the streets and slowed down buses and cars. the mini-motorcycles had no regard for traffic lights or the existence of side mirrors. people who complain about the lack of discipline in manila should visit phnom penh, and they would end up praising all our drivers. BF would have a panic attack here in the first 10 minutes of his visit, and yet, i found it charming, as though it offered something to be discovered. but alas, we only had 2 hours in cambodia’s capital, half of which we spent at the russian market where i tried to find something to buy, and ended up trying to find somewhere to answer a call of nature. our tuktuk then delivered us to the airport.
i found my seat at the back of the aircraft, and i wondered why the demonstration of the plane’s safety features did not include an instruction on how the life vest would be worn. i looked out briefly and saw nothing but earth under the clouds. it would be my first flight over nothing but land mass. i would have wanted more time for reflection: to digest and process the visual power of the last two days: both for providing me with the most amazing images i have recently seen, and as well because it opened my eyes to things that are often ignored and unseen.
but i only had 12 days on this trip, and i was nearly halfway: perhaps some other time, definitely not while on the plane. thailand is waiting, and i met it in my late afternoon dreams.