He watched my girlfriend and I approach the hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia the first night, I’m sure of it. He looked an honest man who loved hard work, cigarettes, and cold beer. He had options for scooters depending on what speed we chose to live. We were strangers in his land and he wanted to be our guide and just maybe, our friend.
Plans were made with him to visit Angkor Wat, a massive temple complex outside of Siem Reap for sunrise. We were naïve to think we were the only ones brave enough for a 3:45 a.m. ride. The night was darker than I was accustomed and my eyes strained to see my surroundings. For every person, animal, and bicycle shadow we passed, we were passed by an SUV pumping lights and air conditioning. I could feel the movement of man and machine out of the city and toward Angkor Wat.
The next couple of days were spent with our guide taking us from temple to temple. He told of his life and family and we shared ours. We talked about Cambodia-Vietnam relations, land mines, and his cousin in America. Angkor Wat was new and exciting to us. The expanse of this complex enabled pockets of intimacy and realness if you were willing to look. Although the heat, amount of people, and the tourist infrastructure built around these temples can easily take a moment away just as quickly as it is given.
Each night, our guide would drop us off at our hostel. I would like to think by the second day we were friends, but it was always hard to tell. This city made me overly conscious of myself and my place in this foreign land. I would buy him a beer as a friend, but would wonder if I was giving him his shift beer as his employer? He would smoke a cigarette and we would hand him 30$.
On our last day in Siem Reap, he brought us to his village outside the city. I flew homemade kites until I lost mine due to an encounter with an angry donkey. My girlfriend played and laughed with his daughters and was introduced to a form of alternative medicine by his wife. We ended up that night on someone’s farm laughing and exploring. I was 8,000miles from the place I call home. The sun was setting, the soil was cool, and workers were guiding their cattle home. Our guide, his 2 daughters, and my girlfriend and I shared 24 beers, 5 packs of spicy peanuts, and a handful of seeds from the lotus flower. It was Christmas day in Cambodia and we had unknowingly purchased the alternative countryside tour package.