A paddle fan chirrs and the view outside is of sky, which glides from cobalt to starless black.
The air is thick with cook smoke and heat when my flight arrives on a Friday afternoon in Siem Reap. I’m so drowsy that my head no longer feels like it’s attached to my neck, but hovering above it. The sensation makes my heart beat with a staccato rhythm that verges on panic. I hail a tuk-tuk and dash up the avenue to my hotel.
In the room, picture windows overlook somewhat manicured gardens framed by a steeply pitched red Khmer-style roof. It’s a clean and simple hotel, not one of the new luxury offerings whose spas are lovingly depicted in glossy pages. On the bed, three pillows perch invitingly on the bleached white sheets. It seems a cruel tease given the terminal case of insomnia that has tormented me since arriving in Asia five days ago.
Downstairs, I grab another tuk-tuk to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club, a handsome vintage watering hole, where I order a vodka & tonic. A paddle fan chirrs and the view outside is of sky, which glides from cobalt to starless black. I down my cocktail fast, and suck on the lumpy rind of the kaffir lime wedge. The waitress brings me a bowl of peanuts. It’s only 7, so when I’m done, I return to the hotel to figure out dinner. I’m here on a weekend break from a project in Singapore and have already noted a few restaurants that look intriguing. But within minutes, I burrow under the bedding like a pine vole and tumble into a dark, impenetrable sleep – my first in days.
At 11 pm I jolt awake, change into pajamas, return to the warm envelope of my bed. My head is constricted by hunger, thirst, fatigue. But I can’t fall back to sleep. I’m spinning, spiraling, frustrated to tears in my longing for the plunge. Since an Ambien mishap in Tokyo a few years ago, I’m unable to take sleeping pills. So when I travel my body is left to its own faltering powers. Jet-lag has turned, at times, into a chronic illness. The sensation is almost one of derangement. The brain whirls. No thought can be isolated to be spoken or considered. My mind is a blurry mash of fragments.
With the ruse that I am rested, I begin my day. At 3:30, I’m dressed. The in-room brew coffee isn’t half bad. A caffeine vice grips my head in almost-pain. Lucidity, or something like it, descends.
I had not planned see the sunrise at Angkor Wat at all. I needed to catch up on sleep. A dayside visit would do me fine. But a hand reaches through my brain fog and pulls me out the door. I hire a tuk-tuk for the morning. It costs $10. First, we stop to get my temple pass. The instant photo on my ID shows not me but a maniac with ashy semi-circles under each eye. A few minutes down the avenue, my driver drops me at the entrance, where he will wait for me. His name is Leap, and the canapé on his tuk-tuk is neon green. I tear a page from my small memo book and write the phonetics of my name for him: “Mar-sha”. It is 4:30 am.
When I travel my body is left to its own faltering powers.
Usually, I’m the one armed with all the stuff that matters.
I ramble along the rocks, tripping on roots, stumbling on stones. Fluid shapes of people and temple shards are rendered ghostlier still in the light of my iPhone. The crowd is sparse, and I find an attendant, who points me in another moonless direction. I arrive at a body of water. My toes graze the edge. It must be the famous reflecting pool, but I have no perception in this pitch-black vacuum. Within minutes, I sense a mob begin to swell behind me, increasing by tens, hundreds. A man with a long-lens camera and a lit cigarette almost shoves me into the water. This is why I did not wish to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I dig my heels into the dirt. The air smells of sweat, tobacco, earth.
At last I discern the famous outline, with its pair of symmetrical towers and central conical peak. There is just enough dim wattage from the coming day to rouse the mosquitoes to dart and buzz. My arms are so packed against other peoples’ limbs that I can’t lift them to swat away the pests.
“Would you like some bug spray?” the young woman beside me asks.
“Thank you,” I say.
She opens her pack and removes a bottle of Off, which I spritz on my hair, neck, arms, wrists. Alcohol and lemongrass.
The Asian heat emulsifies the night with the dawn. Sweat pools in the caverns of my collarbone, behind my ears. I sigh. It must be 80 degrees already.
“I have an extra water,” my neighbor says, fishing out an unopened plastic bottle. “Want one?”
“I can’t believe I forgot water,” I say, dangling my tiny purse.
A bottle of pure DEET sat in my toiletries kit back at the hotel, and I never went out without water. Usually, I’m the one armed with all the stuff that matters. I’m a mother and have traveled to sixty countries. I know better, but I was too tired to be embarrassed by my lack of preparedness.
I drink, we chat a bit. She’s from Toronto, just quit her job, is traveling solo, as I am, flew in from Chiang Mai.
Above me, shafts of violet and iron gray wrap around strands of dainty clouds. There, at last, is Angkor Wat. On the left stands the great lollipop palm tree. The crowd snaps away on cameras while I gaze and gape at this magnificent structure rising out of the night for another day on earth. A curtain of warmth begins to ascend from my chest and then up my face, which is glazed with cool sweat. My heart is drumming out a rapid patter. I’m so tired. I gasp and crumple against my neighbors and onto the woman from Toronto.
I fainted once in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. It is called Stendhal Syndrome, and it can happen, albeit rarely, when overcome by something of staggering beauty. But today, maybe it’s the heat or because I stood for so long the blood could not reach my heart. Might be my empty belly, the cocktail last night with no dinner. Most likely, sleeplessness blitzed my circuits and knocked me out.
When I come to, the woman from Toronto is pouring water over my face. I was out only a few seconds, she says. “I have a tarp, if you want to sit.” She brandishes a folded plastic sheet from her pack, but there is no room in the crush to rest. She helps yank me up me up and once again, I re-claim my same narrow upright cylinder of space. Perspiration has fastened my loose white blouse to my ribcage. All I see is snow, like bad reception in an old TV.
“I haven’t slept for days,” I say. “Literally days.” My hands shake, I blink and blink. Within a few moments, the outlines of two temples – the real one and its mirror image in the pond – come back to focus. “What else is in that pack?” I ask.
“Want a granola bar?” she asks. “I also have these.” She brandishes a clear bag stuffed with balls the size of grapes, each wrapped in yellow cellophane. “Tamarind candy. From Thailand.”
The answer is yes.
I rustle loose the sticky brown glob of tamarind pulp. It is sweet, sour, spicy, salty. It is everything and for the moment, it is also too much. I try to look elegant as I transfer it to my hand.
The sky ignites into full-on daytime. Behind me swarms a massive and terrifying crowd. Gillette Stadium parking lot after a Patriots game comes to mind.
The woman from Toronto says, “I’m heading back before it gets too nuts.”
I’m afraid to be without her in this place. “Do you mind if I come with you?”
“Sure, come on,” she says.
All I see is snow, like bad reception in an old TV.
I will ponder the devotion that built it and the sacred mountains it depicts.
I turn my head one last time. I struggle to believe that what I see is real and not a snapshot from a compendium of wonders. I have felt this elsewhere. The Grand Canyon. St. Basil’s. The Northern Lights. It is odd to be confronted with unfathomable greatness.
We bolt from the mass of bodies and return the way we came, across the same stones, past the figures that earlier seemed to float in the blackness. There are hundreds of tuk-tuks and she peels off to try to find hers.
“Thank you!” I call after her. Her arm raises in brisk acknowledgement, while her pack gently sways on her shoulders.
“Get some sleep!” she cries.
I turn my head and see an electric green canapé’ed tuk-tuk not far from the entrance gate. A man sleeps inside the carriage, hunched on the seat.
He springs out to greet me. “Mar-sha!” he says brightly.
It is 6:38 am.
Back at the hotel, I wash the tamarind off my hands. I kick off my sneakers. They are streaked with mud and smudged with sand. Later, I will eat some spicy amok in town and return to Angkor Wat. My feet will carry me up its crumbling stairs and my fingers will graze sandstone bas-reliefs. I will ponder the devotion that built it and the sacred mountains it depicts. But now, I can no longer feel the earth I’m standing on.
The sight of the bed scares me. It is enemy territory. I slide in anyway. I soar up against a brightening sky when my body becomes heavy as a boulder. I am crashing to the floor, through the ceiling, splashing into the groundwater and descending to the boiling center of the earth.
Photo header “Angkor Wat Sunrise Cambodia” by WIL