Tuk Tuks and Tourists

THERE WAS THUNDER OVER the Bayon and it made the place seem eerie and haunted. The temple’s corridors grew even darker. The air shuddered with each crackling “BOOM!” Carved faces with broad smiles looked down from every ruined surface; in each a look of compassion, otherworldly knowingness. It started to rain down hard and thick drops trickled off their stone noses.

This was day two in Angkor park, but day four in Siem Reap. I’d been painfully sick for most of it — a side effect of the anti-malarial pills that I could only imagine was worse than the disease. It made me nauseous, which made me not want to eat, which in turn made the nausea more violent. I’d spent an hour or so the day before trying to appreciate the famed and holy Angkor Wat in this state, doing all I could to not desecrate it by ralphing.

But I felt better today. We called for a tuk tuk once the afternoon heat had passed and then zipped and bounced our way from town into the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a grand metropolis of nearly a million people. Now it was populated mostly by trees and silent stones, tourists and tuk tuk drivers. A more modern temple on the roadside played a recording of distinctly jungle-sounding music out toward the narrow road. I couldn’t imagine what for (party at the temple?), but somehow it added to the atmosphere.

As much as this all felt adventurous, once we arrived at the Bayon the idea melted away. Clumps of tourists from China, Japan, Russia, some plodding around in high heels and wedges, gathered to take photos — probably of places they’d seen in photographs before. There was one spot, a kind of carved window, where everyone seemed compelled to sit and have their picture taken. Butts and backsides wore away at the bas relief.

As they waited for their turn, the clusters of umbrellas made a bouquet of colors that were set off by the dark gray stone behind them. It was lovely; I snapped a photo.

The rain let up as we rode back toward Siem Reap, and in the patches of clear sky I could see the gathering of dusk. It was the start of what photographers call the “magic hour.” J and I looked out the back of the tuk tuk as we passed Angkor Wat, and for the first time I sensed its power, its magic. I thought to call out to our driver to stop, but he wouldn’t have heard me.