Since the very first conversation we had about going to Asia, Lily had been super-excited about visiting Angkor Wat, a dream of hers since she was a child. So, I forced her to take notes for this part of the trip. Lily’s writing is in italics.
(August 22nd) NICK: We woke a little late, with me unwilling to go out in the morning. My rash was everywhere, it was unquenchable. If this part of our honeymoon was made into a film, it would be titled iItch. Lily left, did a little shopping, then came back to plan for the day: we’d do some Siem Reap research, get our last pho in Vietnam, go get a massage, then jump on a flight.
A little research on what to do in Cambodia gave us the awful discovery that the Western desire to work at and support orphanages there has accidentally led to an increase in child trafficking. With so much money coming into the country in the form of well-meaning ecotourists, criminals are now kidnapping children and taking them to fake orphanages, where tourists can then volunteer.
Also, entire villages have been displaced for resorts that are owned by foreign investors, so little of the profits of these hotels end up in the pockets of locals. We’d have to be careful where we spent our money. It’s three times more expensive to book tours or hotels with guaranteed ethical practices. So, we decided to book a regular, cheap hostel in Siem Reap and hope for the best.
On our way to lunch we decided to go to a different restaurant (one with air conditioning, because my heat rash was still awful), which took so long to serve us we didn’t have time for the planned massage. Not that anyone would be able to touch me! We went back to the hostel, picked up our bags, and flew to Cambodia.
LILY: Once we landed, we arrived at a one-floor, small airport, extremely organised and quiet. Got the fastest visa I have ever gotten and jumped in a cab. Driver told us a bit about his life.
Arrived at the One Stop Hostel, then went for dinner on a touristy street, at the Khmer Kitchen. We had Tom Yum and a fermented fish dish called amok. Nick says it was delicious, but it was nothing compared with Vietnamese food.
(August 23rd) NICK: Woke up with the alarm at 7 a.m., again incredibly itchy (and therefore grumpy, or maybe just sad that the rash had spread and worsened). Showered, then left to see Dr. Ian Ferguson, a GP who gives English language consultations at his family home.
A bit more on my rash. What started as tiny, skin coloured bumps on my right wrist had flared up into extremely itchy, swollen, lumpy red blotches. They were infuriatingly present, spreading everywhere until every part of my body was affected. The desire to itch was sometimes all-encompassing, and although it felt so good to succumb to it, but with the blisters on the verge of popping I couldn’t scratch everywhere.
Everything I did made it worse – I could no longer cross my fingers or shake hands, reach into my pockets, rest my arms on the table, or sunglasses on the bridge of my nose, or my ears on a pillow, lie on my back or my front, sweat, leave an air conditioned room to go outside, or visa versa, dress or undress, and god forbid I have to put on my backpack. At points the itchiness was so intense I couldn’t follow a conversation with the effort it took to not scratch. For some reason, it was hardest not to itch the places I couldn’t see – under my t-shirt, shorts, or my face. Worst of all, any exposed skin became intolerable with just the slightest wind. Travelling by tuktuk, sitting under a fan, or experiencing a slight breeze (that previously I would have enjoyed in Cambodia’s heat) had become a torture by tickling. I was desperate to see the doctor.
Ian Ferguson had only lived in Cambodia for 6 years, and his half-Cambodian son looked about that old. His Cambodian wife works with him as translator. He charges 90 USD to expats, 5 USD to locals, and nothing to those that can’t afford treatment. Ian was a GP for 10 years in London, gave up his partnership to travel for a year, didn’t like the conditions the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) set on practicing abroad, so decided to come to Cambodia and open a practice here. He’ll be returning to the UK in two months to a GP office in Worthing until he retires. Just waiting for his wife’s visa.
He diagnosed me not with heat rash, but with a bacterial infection, perhaps from something I’d touched in Vietnam. Lily and I completely disagreed on what this meant regarding my peculiar urge to touch everything around me. In her mind, an infection is the natural result of touching things to find out what they are, or eating food I’ve just dropped. I, on the other hand, understood the bacterial infection only showed that my biome was not yet strong enough to deal with Southeast Asia’s flora and fauna, so I must try to come in contact with as much of it as possible in order to strengthen myself.
Ian prescribed antibiotics which he said should work by the end of the day. I hoped the next would be the first day in almost a week that I didn’t wake up with a new patch of tortuous pustules. I was beginning to look like the oozing Baron in the movie Dune.
Back to the hotel, then out to buy a $6 sim card with 4GB data that Lily was sure was a rip off. I think that reading about the scumbags in the Cambodian tourism industry had made her trust people here less. Our next stop was to pick up a western coffee, then we jumped in a tuktuk with Samoeurn, our driver for the next few days, up to the Angkor Wat ticket office, back south to the doctor to pay the $90 in cash I owed him, and onto Christa restaurant to have a delicious green curry, on the recommendation of the two travellers we met on the first leg of our Vietnam trip (Eric and Shannon).
We spent much of the meal talking about whether they’d be good to travel with, whether he was too controlling of her, and then examining the power dynamics of our own relationship. My sweat and the breeze of the fans irritated me so much I had to apply steroid cream. Or maybe the conversation just made me itchy.
We also found out that they only use chopsticks for noodles here, spoons with rice, and their curries contain large green peas that are actually a type of eggplant (which is why Lily hated them so much).
LILY: In the evening we went horse riding at the Happy Ranch Horse Farm. The ride was okay, not sure the horses were as “happy” as advertised; I was asked to poke mine with a stick to make him go faster, which is something I’ve never seen.
We rode to a little temple, our first! It was romantic to step into, it was quiet, we were by ourselves, the contrast of the black stone and the vibrant green of the nature was beautiful. Outside the temple we saw a Buddhist monk student hitting a huge drum with rage, it seemed, like a violent moment from where we were standing. On his other hand, he was holding a phone, we thought he was texting while hitting the massive drum. After about a minute, he realised we were looking and he left…
NICK: It was beautiful seeing Lily react to our first temple sighting. She looked so happy. This one wasn’t big, but it was old and gorgeous and falling apart and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow, when we’d finally get to Angkor Wat – something we’d been talking about doing for at least a year by now.
On the ride home we sped up to a trot, which destroyed my infested fingers. At one point my horse lost its footing and fell forwards, its face hitting the floor. At another point, it suddenly lurched into a river, just as I was trying to film Lily crossing it. It was either mad or abused.
Along the way our guide told us his mum had died from a water snake bite, after which his dad drank himself to death. His wife has two kids from a previous marriage, who he hopes to put in university by starting a chicken farm, beginning with the ten hens and rooster he’s just bought. At the moment he’s living on the ranch where we rented the horses, as a live-in employee, not earning very much. After a tiring three hour ride, including a temple, he showed us his chickens, cooped up and clucking, which was cute, if a little too aspirational for a guy who according to him has no idea how to farm.
LILY: Our guide told us his life story; nine brothers, the death of his parents and his chicken dream, which I thought was fascinating, but also a bit staged. All the drivers and tour guides here love talking about themselves and their stories, their poor education, big families, hopes, but it feels to me they tell those stories to get tips.
(August 24th) LILY: We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, the most touristic attraction in Siem Reap. Nick was grumpy, he woke from a nightmare in which he was being bitten by wasps, to realise the treatment hadn’t had the miraculous effect we both expected.
Our guide and the tuk tuk driver took us to a dark parking lot full of Europeans. We walked through grass, then over an inflatable bridge that moved a lot on the canal, then we passed a stone entrance into something else we couldn’t see. I was excited, we were IN! I wanted to celebrate with Nick and kiss, but he was talking to the guide…
Our guide “S” (we weren’t able to understand his name in two days, and it was awkward to ask again) took us to a spot to watch the sun rise. By then it was possible to see Angkor Wat’s silhouette, so we sat at a little building facing it and waited. S told us some of the ancient Cambodian stories, the dynasties, and some information we didn’t fully catch, then silence. Well, almost silence – there was a very loudly talking tourist. As the sun got closer to the horizon we started to see Angkor Wat more clearly; it was majestic, and we were there! The sunrise wasn’t anything special, but still worth it.
We moved closer to the little lake, took photos, then went inside and took some kissing photos – in one of them there was a monk in the background, which our guide found very funny, as monks have no attachments, and we were there all attached through our love and tongues!
We moved to the “galleries”, where S started explaining to us the meaning of the carved drawings. Those stories were difficult to follow, but I found fascinating, it is quite creative and imaginative experience. Then we moved into the garden, then inside into the towers; you can climb to one of them, but it was a long queue, so we said we’d come back later. Saw the swimming pools, some other rooms and left, it was around 8:30 a.m., we’d spent 3 hrs there, it didn’t seem that long!
I felt it wasn’t as wowwww as I expected, I think partly because I was still zombie from waking up that early, plus no coffee or food, and having the brain tangled from trying to follow the stories.
NICK: Lily was underwhelmed because Angkor Wat – the goal for our entire Asian holiday – was smaller than we’d imagined. Also unfortunate, because when we returned to it a few days later, it seemed huge; our perspective had changed by looking at the other temples in the region. Funny that it seemed so much more impressive after seeing a dozen other smaller ones.
LILY: We had breakfast and went to the next temple: Angkor Thom. At the entrance there is a gate with guys holding a snake – on one side there are the gods and on the other side are demons. What a cliche. Outside there were some people offering elephant rides, which only Chinese people seemed interested in. We went and petted the elephants; it was very cute and they seemed to enjoy it too.
The temple had tons of large sculpted faces. It was a younger temple, more damaged than Angkor Wat, but you could still see all the faces on each of the four sides of every pillar. It was unique, impressive, beautiful. I think the bit of nature growing in the cracks added some magic to it. We walked around, S explained the style and history of the 7th King who built this and another 18(?) temples, and everywhere I looked I saw a detail, it could be a rock or a face or the window. We got to the main plaza with all the towers, including the smiley face, which is the famous one. S let us walk around by ourselves to take photos. By this point I’d stopped being impressed by every new thing – it’s a lot of faces, hundreds of them, one after another. Still, it is a magical, impressive place, quite unbelievable. So far my favourite temple!
We left to go to the next temple, the renowned ‘Tomb Raider temple’. This one was built by the same king, he did it for his mum. It was quite destroyed, and nature was taking over. There were lots of trees growing on top of the temples in such a majestic way that it looked like an improvement; it felt like exploring ruins in a jungle, and then you think that actually this is quite jungley, hot, humid and I’d say extreme location to build such amazing temples. Anyway, it was full of tourists, but we managed to get some tranquil, lonely, peaceful moments for the first time on the day.
NICK: The Tomb Raider temple was covered with the roots of colossal 200 year old trees, the kind of tree that has creepers that dangle down from the branches, looking for water. Once they reach an obstacle, they keep growing along and around it until they reach the ground, sometimes dozens of feet from the main trunk, where they bury down to the water table and begin to swell into quite giant roots that can be several meters in diameter, colossal tubular organs that have taken on the shape of the structure they’re resting on – in this case an ancient ruin.
The effect was stunning. It wasn’t like the photos you see of abandoned houses in Chernobyl, where weeds and shrubs and vines are reclaiming space. It seemed more intentional, a part of the design, a poignant mix of life and decay, on the one hand bulbous, vibrant and impressive, on the other crumbling and decrepit. Dry, angular, geometric, sculptured brickwork, out of which a series of dozens of giant, melty wooden tubes, curving and bulging over the bricks of the crumbling temple, before joining together and rising into giant trees towering over us all. In places, the roots had burst walls apart, in others they seemed to be holding it all together. Quite a remarkable sight.
Unfortunately, it’s so remarkable the temple had more tourists per square meter than Angkor Wat. Still, we managed to sneak a few photos and selfies without too many people in the background.
LILY: That was the end of our first proper temple day. Then we went to have lunch with the guides (Nick was very picky, as in he tried to pick a bit of everything on the menu, but nothing was really amazing), then we bought tickets for the circus, and then back to the hostel to cool down, shower, nap.
The circus was okay in terms of performance. The same tricks as always, ok execution, ok acting, but what was really inspiring was the organisation behind it. They support young, poor people, believe that art can help people, have opened up schools, bring these kids from Siem Reap to perform all over the world etc. It made me think about our young Colombian foundation and its potential.
NICK: The circus was made up of previously homeless, orphaned or just poor kids, who were now performing a well-choreographed show for tourists paying top dollar to see them. Some of the kids had travelled around the world, showing off their skills.
The show’s narrative was that a guy who is covered in sores and is ugly (I thought about my rash) asks the gods to make him beautiful. They transform him into a beautiful woman, but a curse is put on the village and a disease hits. To get rid of the curse, they kill the woman. The gods come back and bring him back to life, in his old form. Everyone rejoices. For some reason, there is a lot of acrobatics and juggling.
Left the circus depressed – they were fantastic, but all the clapping had made my hands itch to the point where I gave up trying to avoid scratching, and rubbed them vigourously against my shorts. One blister on my hand popped, and oozed a clear liquid, that continued to ooze well into dinner. Which was frustrating, because the antibiotics were supposed to have been working by now.