By the feeble light of our phone flashes we trudged on. It was pitch black. I hadn’t experienced that kind of darkness in a long time. It engulfed everything and seemed to eat at the little light we had at our disposal.
We’d long ago left Siam Riep behind in a cloud of puttering tuk tuk exhaust and left the tuk tuk cloaked in a cloud of road dust.
Acquiring the services of a tuk tuk for the whole day had cost the three of us $12 in total. The 5 a.m. negotiations had been long and included some hassle from a driver chasing off other drivers but we’d come through.
While the tuk tuk had been cheap, we had to pay a tremendous fee for entry into the park. I chose a $40 dollar ticket for three days so I could come back the next day.
For now though, pushing away thoughts of money, I focused on my steps. The gravel crunched as though someone was munching on cornflakes before the milk had softened the cereal.
Unbeknownst to me I’d passed over water and was about to pass through a towering wall. I felt like a ghost wandering limbo. It was just my companions and I with our little sphere of light.
A short distance away parallel to our small group, a procession of lights and spirited guests wandered along. I felt like a fugitive in the spirit world, a curious, accidental intruder like the folk of ancient tales and songs. There was a yawning archway leading into an endless hallway. Before venturing further in I turned back to peer out the door. I straddle the threshold as though prepared to dive into the shelter of stone should I attract any attention.
I wondered. If I were to tiptoe closer to the dragon of light winding its way through the predawn ink, would I be able to make out the animalistic heads and glowing beings of Hindu legends? Would I find a company of lithe apsara dancing down the stone path instead of on the walls? Could it be a delegation of spirits from another Asian country visiting to pay their respects to the largest ancient religious monument in the world?
Would I become one of the rare few to glimpse a ceremony from another plane of existence? As I puzzled it over the parade of lanterns continued by, uninterrupted by my thoughts.
Closing my eyes from its entrancing sway I withdrew from the doorway and fled after my friends. I found them standing before a towering pillar. Flashing my light up I stumbled back to allow the figure to fill my vision. A sash of gold was draped across its chest. The multiple arms ended in stumps—a victim of time or vandalism, I couldn’t tell. Was it a product of the early Hindu period of the temple or its conversion to Buddhism? Whoever he was, he smiled cheekily, like he enjoyed the attention. Or perhaps he enjoyed startling break-off groups like my own.
Flashing him a salute my companions and I hurried on, our silence only broken by gasps and exclamations at glimpses of armies and bare-chested dancers finely and lovingly carved on the walls.
Breaking free from the great hallway of our guardian friend we stepped into the open air once more. A wall of trees rose to our left and open grass beckoned to our right. Our flashlights did nothing to penetrate the dark veil hiding the ancient buildings we knew to be around us.
Lost in thoughts as murky as my surroundings I almost didn’t notice another path converge with our own. It brought with it a woman and child. Slipping from the wall of trees with no assistance from a flashlight the two seemed to have melted into existence from nothing. In shock my friend brought his light to their faces for a split second. In that moment I had the oddest feeling as the small woman glanced at us through her black hair, took her young boy’s hand and turned her back on us to hurry forward.
Out of courtesy my friend pointed his light at their feet as we walked. The woman never once glanced back.
With no obstructions to navigate I allowed my mind to wander once more. I was just beginning to concoct the story of our spirit guide when the fairytale crumbled away from the force of a hollered, “coffee! Do you want coffee?”
The words had come from the woman walking ahead of us. She was looking at our faces, her head tilted inquiringly.
Annoyed to have lost the link to a good story I jerked my chin up and looked away to redirect my displeasure. My disappointment fled as I beheld a mass of people clustered before a small pond. They’d all come for the coveted postcard-perfect image of Angkor Wat backlit by the rising sun.
Shocked mid-step by the sheer number of early visitors I was left with my jaw hanging. Overhead large handheld floodlights pierced the black like lightsabers of high caliber or a some kind of pop concert. Smaller flashes popped into existence and then snapped away. It was a distant thunderstorm rolling over the prairies with the clouds flashing in silence.
With each strike I could see a mess of human emotions: anger, grumpiness, agitation, excitement, anticipation, cheerfulness and nervousness. Within this puddle of people vendors pushed their wares as easily as they pushed a path forward.
“Coffee! American-style coffee! We have best coffee! Booth number three!”
“Postcards, one dollar.”
“Would you like a book lady?”
Shaking my head at the foolish, noisy picture I looked back toward the gate. Where had the serene procession gone?
Didn’t it want to see the Angkor Wat temple in the dawn light like everyone else?