“Two for one dollar, three for one dollar, four for one dollar!” The little girl with her basket of postcards trailed imploringly behind me. When l shook my head she repeated her plea in German and then Spanish. She was one of the hundreds of children that wandered the temples of Angkor Wat. Built during the reign of the Khmer empire, it is the largest religious monument in existence and has the honour of being named the 7th ancient “Wonder of the World”. Once a place of sanctity and worship it is now home to monkeys and barefooted children selling postcards to the throngs of tourists that flock there every day.
I was one of those tourists and this was why l had come to Cambodia. l had arrived the evening before with my backpack and visions of haunting temples reflected in pools of lily-covered moats. Stepping out of the airport alone, not knowing where l would stay or who l would meet l was greeted by the setting sun sinking below the plains where the town of Siem Reap lay hazily in the distance. Friendly smiles of tuk-tuk drivers surrounded me, all anxious to take me to the “best hotel for miss”. I opted for a youth hostel, as l like to meet other people when travelling alone and hotel rooms, although quiet and clean, are lonely. The potholed road into town was a whirling chaos of bicycles, cars, and occasional cows, for 5 dollars l was given the grand tour and my first taste of Cambodia.
First impressions were the dust. Everything was covered in dust, having just flown in from the lush islands of Thailand, this far inland l felt claustrophobic.
Arriving at the “Siem Reap hostel” l checked in and signed up for a 5am sunrise tour the next day. Then l traded my flip flops for runners and went to find some street food. In this respect, Cambodia did not disappoint. The streets were littered in food carts, where everything from fried ice-cream, fruit shakes, noodles or grilled meat could be bought. In a country where the currency is so weak, that they prefer to use Dollars than their local Riel, it almost felt like being in a pound shop. It seemed everything you enquired the price on was “one dollar” a plate of noodles and a mango shake later I was two dollars poorer and ready for bed.
4:45 am the alarm rang and groggily l stumbled off the second bunk fumbling around for my clothes in the dark. I had spent the evening talking with my roommates until pure exhaustion turned my replies into mumbled incoherence. Making my way down to the entrance l exchanged nods with the two others who had signed up for the tour. We were shown to our tuk-tuk, which is basically a motorcycle with a small carriage attached to it. The first 15 minutes we all silently sat in the dark watching the city fly by on our way to the temples. But soon the wind cleared our heads and we introduced ourselves. There was Neal the New Yorker with the ready smile and dark unruly hair and Felix the stoic Berliner, who would casually drop stories about being abandoned in Bolivia or trekking the Himalayas. These two would end up being my steadfast companions for the duration of our stay in Cambodia; we would get lost together, climb ancient ruins, eat crickets and scorpions, and stay up all night talking and drinking 50-cent beers in dodgy bars.
Arriving at the temples we made our way to the sunrise viewpoint and patiently sat waiting for the sun to slip over the temples carved domes. The moment l had dreamed of was now a reality. Slowly we watched in awe as the cool dawn air turned thick with heat, the sun slowly burning away the mist. The pools of water reflected the temples like a mirror and the colours flared orange and red. Monkeys chattered in the trees beside us and you could almost imagine yourself thrown back to the days of the Khmer empire.
All too soon the sun cleared the temples and it was over, the little girl arrived with her basket of postcards going from group to group her discount increasing with every shake of the head. I had been warned not to buy anything from the children as it encourages the parents to keep them out of school, but l couldn’t resist reaching for my bag of crisply wrapped caramels. Guiltily I passed her two. One for her and one for her brother who sat on a nearby tree stump, bare bottomed in a ripped Adidas t-shirt. She instantly scampered away and gleefully shared her sweets with the little boy who sucked on the wrapper and smiled at me, dark eyes crinkling with pleasure.
The rest of the day Neal, Felix and I wandered the ruins and exchanged stories of travels and shared tips on where to head to next. Our characters couldn’t have been more varied. As we explored I would argue that “danger signs” were merely the starting point of daring adventures. Felix in perfect German fashion would suggest following the arrows while Neal would smile his million-dollar grin and claim to have read of a secret chamber in a lonely planet guide and dare us to find it.
Sometime later in the afternoon we settled into our tuk-tuk for the ride home. Just as we started, Felix suddenly shouted, “Wait! Look guys!” Gesturing excitedly across the road he pointed out an old man with a cart. He was surrounded by big bags of what looked like branch stalks. Much to our driver’s dismay, he pulled us out of the tuk-tuk and toward the cart, where he showed us that the branches were actually sugar cane. “l drank this stuff all the time in India you guys have to try some!” The man took out a machete and deftly chopped off a section of the stalk with amazing vigour for his years. He pushed it into a hand wound press, cranking the handle steadily. Liquid streamed out into the waiting cup, light green and foaming slightly. The usual “one-dollar” was quoted with such a cheerful look that you couldn’t help but wonder what the stuff really cost. But we handed over our dollars with a little bow and accepted our drink. It tasted sweet, but somehow fresh and the sweetness wasn’t overpowering, it was just “right”.
Sitting in the tuk-tuk with our cups, grinning foolishly at each other Neal broke the silence in his New York twang. “So guys we saw the sunrise, are you up for the sunset tour tomorrow?” There was no hesitation whatsoever in our replies.
After three days together we went our separate ways but it still amazes me how fast friendships form when travelling. Traveling alone is never lonely and that day two strangers became as close as lifelong friends and the moment we shared watching the sunrise over the ruins of Angkor Wat will always be with me.