As an introvert, I spend much time inside of my own head. This makes for a rich internal world but can distract from the rich external one I keep hearing so much about. Travel has a way of demanding presence, and my unique brand of wanderlust stems from an appreciation for the rewarding way it can pull me from myself. There are some crossroads of time and place that have done this particularly well. This is the story of one such crossroads…
Siem Reap, Cambodia – October 29, 2012
It was the bicycle that saved me. I had rented it the night before in anticipation of this moment when my bed-brain would deem another few hours of sleep worth more than a Cambodian sunrise, worth more than the choice to be daring. Locked up outside my $4 hotel, the bike was already paid for. Worse than that, it had expectation. My non-bed-brain had promised I would travel to Angkor Wat to see the sun rise over the ancient temple, and the thought of that lonely bike waiting outside my hotel was too much to bear. So, I flung myself out of my bed at 4:30 a.m. and into the pitch black streets of Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat lies 5.5 kilometers from the town of Siem Reap. The straight shot along tree-lined pavement can be chaotic in the midday sun, but in the wee hours of the morning, it is made simple and serene by the straight-forward play of dark and light. I rode from pocket of streetlight to pocket of streetlight, the hazy blur of my flashlight made silly by the tuk-tuk and tourist bus passers-by. They turned me into a circus shadow – part girl, part bike – and I reveled in my transformation, in the freedom of having wheels for legs.
As I took the final turn to the temple, the stars came alive above me – the same constellations I had been misidentifying since birth turned upside down and shaken in their sky like the pieces of a puzzle game. I yearned to lie down on the uneven stone slabs of the causeway traversing the temple’s moat – to live in between the stars of the sky and the stars of the water – but I had a sunrise date with myself to keep, and I wouldn’t be late. I passed through the temple’s outer walls and into its protection.
There isn’t much that can be written about Angkor Wat that hasn’t already been committed to page or computer screen. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it is the largest religious monument in the world and only one of the dozens in the countryside surrounding Siem Reap. They are the ruins of a city that was the political, social, and religious epicenter of the massive and powerful Khmer empire, a domain that stretched from Burma to Vietnam in its heyday – and, as the Lonely Planet travel guide likes to point out, “boasted a population of 1 million when London was a scrawny town of 50,000.” With ruins like this, one can only imagine how grand this city must have been.
As the day began to cast its first timid rays over the temple’s silhouette, I pulled an envelope from my journal – a secret message I had carried with me for weeks on my Southeast Asian expedition. Collected at a friend’s art installation in London, it held a typewritten message from a stranger. Ever since it came to be in my possession, I had been waiting for the perfect moment to reveal its incidental wisdom. So, I opened the envelope and held its thin paper contents up to the sunrise. It read: “this is somewhere i never travelled gladly beyond.” Though I didn’t recognize them at the time, I would later discover the words were e.e. cummings’s – the first line of a love poem written in 1931. But, in that moment, they were my words. They were a love poem to the sunrise, a love poem to that crossroads, and a love poem to myself.