It is sweltering hot in Siem Reap in May. Probably not the best time to visit Cambodia, but we make do with the vacation days we have. There is a lot I can personally relate to in this country – the tuktuks, the climate, the physicalities. The food, which is rich and soupy and toned down in spice; that fermented fish taste, that sour, herby broth.
Over the next few days, we live and breathe temples. We take our time. We load up on water. We forego all schedules, staying as long or as quickly as we want. With clothes sticky on our backs and hair falling over our faces in a stringy mess, we stumble over rocks and cross carved arches and angle our feet sideways as we gingerly climb steep, narrow, crumbling temple staircases. Some complexes are big enough to visit without crossing other tourists. Others require us to queue, but people are chill and unhurried, having probably decided to take the same rhythm as ours.
We walk past Banteay Srei’s reliefs carved with scenes of duels, demon slayings, burning forests. Another time, we get separated among the pillars of Preah Khan, stage-whispering each others’ names to find one another. We rest on a pile of rocks just outside Bayon, the rock-cut sculpture of faces watching over us as we write postcards to family back home. We catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat, and another time we end the day at Phnom Bakheng, sitting on a rock ledge with our legs dangling, watching the sun set.
It wasn’t all temples.
Some days when we shun them altogether, heading instead to town then retiring to the poolside. An arsenal of books, cocktails, coconuts and ice cream keeps us company. We stay until mosquitoes chase us indoors. We stroll down Pub Street, daring each other to a fish massage, and in the end we all opt out, laughing at our cowardice.
I wonder what it would be like to live here. Holidays, after all, are romanticised. For sure, if one lived here the temples would fade into the background, revisited only with visiting family or friends, just another Eiffel Tower, Berlin Wall, Taj Mahal. Julien, who knows me so well, says Phnom Penh would probably be a better fit for me. But hell… there’s an allure to Siem Reap, with its slow pace of life and lack of excitement, and its unapologetic acceptance of this fact. On the plane back to Shanghai we agree that the country merits another visit. I predict my love for Cambodia will endure, like tree roots wrapping around a temple, inch by inch; a love affair that lasts centuries.
Currently listening to: