A couple of guys from our guest house were waiting for us when the bus pulled into the dusty compound in Siem Reap. The gates closed behind us as we came to a stop, as if to momentarily keep at bay the tides of tuk-tuk drivers eager for business. This wise measure made the offloading quite efficient, and we were soon standing with our packs waiting for the gates to open again. I thought of a racehorse in its pen, tensed to burst out. There was the sound of a klaxon, which I may have imagined, and the iron door lumbered to the side with a groan, trembling on its runners. The drivers rushed forward with eager eyes and outstreached arms.
Our guides led us through the ensuing chaos of haggling and polite rejection, of disoriented travellers flustered in the dry afternoon heat. We piled onto a couple of tuk-tuks and were off, barelling down a busy road into town. The ride was short. Siem Reap is not a very big place, and our guest house was close. The building had the look of something vaguely colonial, threatening to embark on an irreversible course of decay should it not receive the most diligent maintenance. It looked like it had cost a lot more to stay there at some earlier time, but for us it was about two dollars each for a room with four beds. The wide common balcony looked out onto a courtyard of packed red soil that turned to a foaming sea of rust whenever it rained. Geckos roamed the walls, inside and out, and a troop of spindly red ants blazed an endless trail across the threshold of the balcony door.
Shortly after we settled in and had a bit of a nap, a storm roared through, flooding the streets with driving rain that drenched us as we ran to the balcony to watch. The lightning was spectacular, illuminating in bursts the bending palms and the bobbing mangos in the tree across the way. We decided to eat at the guest house restaurant, rather than go wading, and committed to an early night in preparation for the big day ahead.
The next morning we were up early, renting bikes from the guesthouse for the four kilometre ride to Angkor Wat. After some false starts and bickering over the route, we made it to the gates and bought our passes. We rode into the massive park with an urgent sense of its scale and desire to cover as much ground as possible in the three days we had available to us.
The road was lined with towering trees that dwarfed even the tour buses that passed at their feet. We saw workers sporadically raking away the leaves at each side of the road. This grooming struck me as odd, but it later occured to me that what they might have been doing was creating a buffer between the road and the dense growth of the jungle. The soil here seemed rather sandy, and without the presence of decaying vegetation it would likely be a poor host to trees and vines hoping to besiege the narrow road.
We saw a great many ruins, as we spent the morning exploring the complex of Angkor Thom, the former capital of the long obliterated Khmer empire. By midday I was starting to feel the combined effects of the heat, my illness, and a bike that was two sizes too small. The afternoon itinerary was less ambitious, and I spent an hour watching the sunset over the lake near Angkor Wat before hauling myself home and collapsing in bed.
The plan was to wake up at 3:30 the next morning to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise, instead I spent it between the bathroom and my bed, guzzling water and cursing the day I was born.