“Negotiate a river by following its bends; enter a country by following its customs.” – Khmer proverb
From a breezy table at 1920 Hotel’s forefront, I survey the breakfast spread before me and postpone my first sip of coffee. It is a French roast, I’m sure, and I know it will be delightful once I dip in, a welcome refuge from the usual Khmer brew I’ve trained myself to enjoy every morning. Beside my mug winks a small dish of mango jam - freshly made, the hotel manager discloses to me, from Cambodia’s most generous and iconic crop – and a sumptuous croissant. In a moment I will wed the two, the sap of Khmer spring harvest and the emblem of French gastronomy, the bright nectar from the backyard and rich butter from somewhere down the Silk Road, but first I will reflect on the many ways that such a marriage has already been consummated on this visit to Siem Reap.
For the past year I have called a small village in rural Takeo Province my home and have hung my hat up every night, post-rice, among my host-Khmer family. I estimate that for whatever mental image you’ve just conjured about village life, our actual lives in the countryside are twice as bucolic and more toilsome by at least half a degree. It is my home and my heart lies there but it can be all-consuming and for the stretches I’m there, I forget that my Takeo bubble is not Cambodia-complete, not a thorough sample of this rich pocket of Asia. It is only when I leap out, usually of a bus in another province, that I remember Cambodia’s extraordinary depth and pace. This dichotomy is what I pondered as my travel companion, Caroline, and I stepped out of our moto-drawn carriage on the cusp of sunrise at the Angkor Wat temples.
The previous 24 hours had been a gratifying graduation from village life. It involved congenial bargaining in the Siem Reap market, tenuous string serenades from traditional Khmer quintets, half a dozen samples of street food, and finally retiring at 1920 following my first Italian gelato indulgence in months. The gelato sugar still hummed through my fingertips as we sat and watched the sun creep up behind the ancient edifice across the water. On the stone steps to our right was a menagerie of sightseers lured to the temples from every corner of the globe. Between snapping photos, their faces opened with that thrill of those who have travelled and discovered the collectable scale of our grand planet. I fixate briefly on the teeming display of shoulders and knees of all ages and hues before noticing that mine are not the only village eyes helpless but to skim the exposed bodies. To our left were several Khmer men and women of venerable age and that this was their first ever sojourn to the Mecca was evident in their reverent silence, the fresh kroma scarves under the grandmothers’ chins, and the modest wrists scarcely peeking from the grandfathers’ crisp white cuffs. Just then Caroline thumbed the spot on her ankle where yesterday a young Khmer gentleman had painted a heart with oil while telling us of how he divides his time between a village teaching job and giving expert foot massages in town for pocket cash. His bright laugh had been like that of my beloved Khmer uncle who operates our village van and who still jumps out of his skin with embarrassment whenever our limbs accidentally brush.
By late morning we found brief respite from the temple bustle at a vacant guard station in the undergrowth of the Royal Palace grounds near Bayon Temple. It was the first unoccupied locale of the day and so we tugged the rice mats down from the rafters and lounged. It was there that I breathed, stepped beside myself, and recognized the day’s endeavor for what it was: one of those experiences for which you are not necessarily present, but rather awe-struck and half-blind, amassing a coffer of impressions you will cogitate over and over forever after you’ve left. Eventually we meandered down a sandy path circumnavigating the Royal Pond. It became gradually more still and bordered on silent by the time we reached Preah Palilay temple, tucked deep in the undergrowth.
Its central chimney rose boldly, unperturbed by its utter ruination, and had made peace with the several defiant trees rooted about its apron. Of the whole scene, these trees would leave the greatest impression. Each tree had survived the insult of beheading sometime within the last decade and their broad bases were completely incongruent with the tender limbs that now sprang hungrily from the site of vivisection several meters up. It was at this silvery seam that we stared, the scar of a trial wherein death had been delivered but dismissed - and life persisted.
Depleted and brimming by turns, we located our tuk tuk driver, a kind man with whom 1920 had arranged us for the day. Despite his impassioned protests – It was barely noon! We must see some of the northeastern structures! – he finally yielded to our implorations and transported us back to town. We buzzed through time on his carriage and landed at last in present day where we were greeted warmly at 1920, the staff conscious of the toll temporal travel can take on the body. In our hushed room we unfolded, thankful for the fresh linens and familiar surroundings. In the shower – cleansed in lemongrass essence and natural light from above – I finally landed back inside of the moment. When I stepped out Caroline had opened the drapes to survey the dips and peaks of Preah Prom Rat Pagoda opposite our balcony. I exhaled, prostrate on the bed, as the purr of monks and dulcet cymbals made the glass door hum.
A few bites into a warming dish of stir-fried pumpkin at Khmer Kitchen that evening, we were caught again in absorbed silence and contented sighs, each reflecting privately on our days as all temple-goers must do. From the vantage point of our second floor table I combed through streets below to find the Khmer faces amid the tourists. Here they swatted at grandchildren and swept their shop fronts vigorously. Here they snapped selfies with friends, faces painted and bare limbs flashing in the streetlight. Here they grinned and raised arms to attract travelers to their tuk tuks’ or motos’ many merits. Here they smoothed out their aprons and asked if the mademoiselle would like anything else to drink. There below us on the streets of Siem Reap was Cambodia in miniature – bisected but prevailing, heedless of its seams.
Kelsey Swalwell is a community health education volunteer for Peace Corps Cambodia in Takeo Province, originally from Oklahoma in the States. She came to teach about nutrition but stayed for the Khmer grandmothers and banana rice cakes.