. It turns out Vanndy was the same age as me, and though our lives have been completely different, I feel that we really began a friendship on that little hike. The carvings themselves were amazing to me not so much for what was left, but for the work that must have gone into them, especially since most were underwater. The way back to the closer temples, though, was really the best part of that little excursion. Now the little houses on stilts that we had passed on the way in were truly awake. Children riding their bikes on their way to school waved excitedly, yelling hellos, their faces lit up with joy as we passed. Mothers now attending to other household duties would hold up their babies to wave as we eagerly shouted our own greetings. Everyone was so happy and friendly, I felt a part of the community in a way I had never felt anywhere back home. I felt like I was seeing the real Cambodia, and not just seeing, but feeling it and getting to know it. Afterall, it's the people that make a place what it is. If it's possible, I think the three of us fell even more in love with Cambodia during that ride through the dust and bumps and loveliness of the countryside.
Since Steve and Lee only had one day to view the temples, while I had three, we ended up packing a lot in to that first day. Though it all went by in a blur, each place we visited was extraordinary in its own way
. At Banteay Srei, I noticed this strange, lilting music coming from a a little wooded area near the outer wall. When Steve and I went to investigate, we found a whole band of Cambodian amputees with the strangest instruments I've ever seen making some of the most playfully sorrowful music I've ever heard. We sat and just enjoyed the shade and sounds and the breeze before moving on to view some of the most intricate carvings of all the Angkor temples. At Ta Prohm we discovered an temples where the trees were both destroying the buildings and holding them together. Vines hung everywhere and it felt like the whole place would crumble around us as we climbed up stairs and through dark passages. Famous for its use in the Tomb Raider films, it definitely felt as if we were the first ones ever to have explored its depths. As we approached Angkor Thom, the sun was beginning to settle behind it, so it wasn't until we had climbed the steep stairs to the first level that I noticed the faces. Everywhere, on every tower, huge half-smiling faces stared down at us, watching us. It's said that the King had his likeness put all around the city temple so that his subjects always felt as if they were under his gaze. I would say that it worked. The only thing that took my mind off those creepy stares were navigating the equally menacing steep stairs leading to the different levels. I haven't fallen down any stairs recently, so I could just see myself taking one wrong step and ending up in some crazy Cambodian hospital with another pulled ligament...or worse. But I survived, breathing a sigh of relief to be leaving behind both the stairs and the stares of Angkor Thom. Next, Steve and Lee visited the famous Angkor Wat while Vanndy and I spent a lovely hour chatting and taking in the beautiful vistas from the top of Phnom Bakheng, a mountain temple that was definitely worth the climb.
The next two days it was just Vanndy and me and the motorbike
. We visited smaller temples on the second day, but again, they each had something stunning and unique that never made the day boring. There were the strangely Greece columns of Preah Khan and the five pools of Preah Neak Pean that must be really something when filled up. At Ta Som Vanndy and I sat by the back entrance almost totally consumed by a huge tree, and just relaxed in the quiet of the place. Vanndy stayed with me through most of the day, explaining certain aspects of the temples to me and making sure that the venders outside didn't hassle me. It was nice to have someone to talk to and with whom to share the magic. But the part of the day I will treasure the most came when I went up one of the smaller temples on my own. It was at the end of the day and I was tired and hot. No one else was around and I didn't even feel like going up the last steep set of stairs to a temple Vanndy didn't even tell me the name of, but I went thinking that I'd be sorry later if I didn't. As I reached the top, everything had that orangy glow of late afternoon and it was very beautiful. Right away I noticed the boy sitting by himself holding the usual pack of ten bracelets. He asked me where I was from, as all the child vendors do, and I said I was from America, and as an afterthought I asked him where he was from. He said Thailand. At that I turned to look at him, both of us smiling knowingly. I played along and asked where in Thailand and he motioned off into the distance: Overthere, Thailand. We both laughed at that and I sat down. His name was Krum and he was 10 years old, the youngest in his family. As we sat in the waining sunlight he told me how he wanted to grow up to be a tuk tuk driver so that he could make lots of money, but that he didn't think it would ever happen. He told me how he was the youngest of his brothers and sisters and how his father had died. He told me about school and how he had to come up to the temple and sell the bracelets, but that no one was there that day
. A slow day. He was the saddest kid I think I have ever met. I wanted to hug him and tell him everything would be ok, that he would be a tuk tuk driver if he wanted, that he could do anything. And I did try to tell him this, but he just looked at me and looked away. It was hard to tear myself away from my new friend, but Vanndy was waiting and there wasn't much else to say. I told him good luck, thanked him for the time with him, and left. On my way down a little girl who couldn't have been older than 7 popped out from behind a carving with a little flower in her hand. "For free!" she said, and handed it to me. I thanked her and just as quickly as she appeared, she waved "Bye bye!" and left. Funny how temples that people come from thousands of miles to see, temples famous all over the world, could be upstaged by two special little kids.
My last day at the temples I sleepily met Vanndy at 5:30 in order to make it to Angkor Wat before the sunrise. Walking around the grounds before actually entering the temple there were tons of people setting up for pictures of the sun appearing behind the three magnificant towers. But I had other ideas in mind. I wanted to be part of that picture, I wanted to be at the top of the highest tower when the sun rose. So, cautiously making my way through the hauntingly quiet corridors, made eerier by the half light, I made my way to the center structure. And there before me were the tallest, steepest, and scariest set of "stairs" that I had ever seen. But I didn't have long to pause, and I had never fallen up stairs before, so I just started to climb. And pretty soon I reached the top. There, after a few shacky seconds when I made the mistake of looking down, I settled into a nice little perch to await what would be a sunrise that I will never forget. Maybe about ten other people were up there with me, but no one spoke
. Every so often you'd hear a camera clicking, but most of us were just content to take in the moment. Here we were, at the top of one of the most ancient and magnificant religious buildings known to man, and we had a front row seat of the sun beginning it's journey across the sky. As I watched the hot pink globe rise higher and higher, my thoughts drifted to what I had already seen on my trip, what I was yet to experience, my friends and family back home, and how much I've sensed a change in myself. It was one of those moments that will live with me forever. Eventually I tore myself away from my little reverie and made my way around the temple itself. I couldn't have asked for a better Angkor experience - the light made everything golden and threw shadows in unexpected places, and almost no one was up there that early. A perfect way to say goodbye to the temples, a perfect last image. Climbing back on Vanndy's bike for the last time, and then saying goodbye to him who had been my faithful friend and guide, it felt as if I were saying goodbye to an entire existence. And I was, my Siem Reap existance. It was special, truly special, and as I wearily boarded the bus to Phnom Penh to meet up with Steve and Lee, my heart ached even as I turned excitedly to see what the future would bring.
At 6:30 am it was still very cold as Steve, Lee, and I climbed into our tuk tuk. Though still sleepy at first, the goosebump-raising breeze that hit us as we zipped through the streets of Siem Reap soon had us wide awake. Huddled together trying to think warm thoughts, the pavement of the city suddenly gave way to dirt road and we were officially in the countryside. And it was beautiful, slowly coming to life in the early morning sun, mothers getting breakfast ready on open fires while children prepared for school. It promised to be a great day, though it didn't seem possible at the time. After an hour of bumping along the dusty road, we finally arrived at Kbal Spean, the river of a thousand lingas. Vanndy, our driver, decided to hike up the remaining way with us since he had only been up to the riverbank carvings a few times. Lee and Steve were in much better shape so they went up ahead, giving me a chance to get to know Vanndy. I learned a lot about Cambodian history, especially involving early female rulers, as well as life in general