Three bruised apples, two unripe oranges, one bright yellow lemon, “We did not just endure 14 hours in the air to be fined because we forgot to eat our packed lunch,” I think to myself as a Chinese customs agent methodically weighs each piece of fruit, ignoring my questions. He presents me with a pink slip. The paper is in Chinese and I don’t know why he wants me to sign it. My confusion comes with the language barrier and foreign norms, something I will have to get used to travelling in Southeast Asia over the next few months.
Upon landing in China all the foreign passengers are corralled, finger printed, then packed into a bus. We are dropped at the international customs gate, the only words of direction, “you SFO? Go there.” Blank stares return our many inquiries.
The fatigue of the journey, and frustration from being shuffled around the massive airport, are quelled as we learn we are receiving free accommodations for our nights layover in Guangzhou, China. After getting through customs, assured I will receive no fines or other consequences for the smuggled artifacts, a bus from the RJ Grand Hotel picks us up. The hotel is grand, bordering on garish. The red and black building is thirteen stories high with marble statues dotting every floor. The room is four times the size of our yurt in Northern California. There is minimal decoration but the furniture conveys the luxury, the centerpiece is a huge porcelain tub almost as inviting as the beds.
After a mostly sleepless but comfortable night, due to jet lag, we make our way back to the airport for the last leg of out trip; a 2 hour flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Waves of heat greet us as the euphoria of arriving sets in. Winter in this region is summer at home. After getting visas we are greeted by our driver, packing into the back of his ride, known as a Tuk-Tuk; an open air carriage with seats facing each other, hitched to his motorbike.
The Urban Farmhouse, our residence for the next two days, is not much of a farm. We try our darndest to stay awake but at 4pm the jet lag wins. Awake at 4am we do our morning routine waiting for the sun to rise before heading into town. Pub street is the main road and by eight o’clock it is bustling with Tuk-Tuks, tourists, and of course an endless array of seller’s. They are hawking everything from suspicious hunks of meat to “I ♥️ Angkor Wat” memorabilia. We order traditional Khmer food at the first restaurant we find. Loaded with MSG and oil the meal is quantity over quality, and for $7 including coconut juice straight from the husk, we are content.
The Khmer where once the reigning empire in this region. At its peak it included Laos and Thailand. During that period, around one-thousand years ago, Khmer kings constructed elaborate temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat. These temples are the main attraction in Siem Reap and how we will spend our next few days.
The next morning we hang out with a fellow traveler, Ashley, on here way to Sihanoukville, the country’s coastal attraction. She tells us to be sure to visit Preah Khan and Tap Rohn, her favorite temples. Both are ruinous affairs with trees affirming their dominance over the salt slabs.
Our driver arrives at 1 and we make our way to the temples. We hope that by going later we can avoid the crowds. The first temple has an exterior wall rising twelve feet high with hallways leading through to the center, a pointed dome reaching 40 feet high. There have been restorations efforts, cables binding the tenuous domes and piles of ancient rubble neatly assembled. The hundreds of engravings on the walls look plaster cast but many were painstakingly engraved with an impossible eye for detail. Because we neglected to hire a tour guide our self guided tour was interpretive, not ideal for archeological sites.
Arriving at our fourth temple for the day, fatigue sets in. It is an admixture of jet lag, the relentless heat, navigating amongst the hundreds of other tourists, and of course the challenging terrain of the temples, including steep flights of stairs and uneven footing.
Hot and bothered we find a shelter corner in the temple and debate whether or not we can make it through 3 days of this. We end the day at Angkor Wat. Moated by water we walk in on a floating bridge made of plastic, no doubt one of the brilliant innovations of Suryavarman II.
It is a five minute walk to the center of Angkor Wat, the largest dome we have seen all day. We decide not to go up, retreating from the throngs of tourists, like coyotes circling a lone sheep.
We sit near an outer structure to relax before walking back to out Tuk-Tuk. After a few minutes a couple excitedly approach us and take a picture a foot away. A minute later a middle aged Indian man approaches us, pointing at the wall nearby, “I found it” he grins to is wife, they both approach, “What is it?” I ask, all I see is another nondescript godess engraved in the wall. “There are ten-thousand engravings like this in these temples,” she responds, “but this one is the only one smiling with teeth” she exclaims.
When they leave Esther says, “He was a rogue, a nonconformist”
“I think he was probably tired,” I respond, “He was thinking about lunch and forgot people don’t smile with their teeth for another thousand years.”
That evening our host, Bill, takes us out to the night market. A nondescript road we passed earlier that day is transformed. “This is where all the Cambodian come to eat in night,” there are children zipping around on roller skates, jumping houses with blaring music, and more street food vendors than tourists.
The next day we chose a new strategy for seeing the temples: Instead of circumventing each one, making a cursory pass to check it off the list, we amble through until finding a particularly paintable tree, or good contrast between shadow and light. Settling down in front we proceeded to render our subjects in watercolor.
Trying to capture the miniscule details of the stone work and elaborate architecture is a practice in patience. Each element I chose to focus on gives me better appreciation for the Khmer project: constructing awe inspiring places that would be appreciated for generations. Finding the micro cosmos at the slug pace.
At the homestay that evening we put away a stack of paintings that will probably sit in out backpacks for the next few months.
After another late breakfast we get started on our last day in Siem Reap, returning to Angkor Wat. Armed with yesterday’s experience we spend the whole day there, painting, drawing, playing ukulele, and writing.
We drift to sleep as our night bus makes its way to Phnom Penh, the country’s capital, than Sihanoukville for a few days on one the Island of Koh Rong Samloen.