I have been back on good ol’ American soil for just about a week now—catching up on work and sleep, sorting through over a thousand pictures, and fretting over a case of missing luggage (which has since returned).
On our first layover, we waited quietly at a mostly empty gate. I hadn’t slept well on our flight from New York, but my legs were too stiff to sit still for long. I stood up. I sat down. I practiced some yoga. And then I noticed the sun. It was 4:30 in the morning at home, but the sun was setting in Beijing. It glowed orange, sent bright shadows through the floor-to-ceiling windows and over the many airport gates. For anyone who thinks time travel isn’t possible, I thought…
Our trip began with six straight days of travel: five flights, an eight-hour bus ride, and two hours on a catamaran. Every hour felt longer than the one before it, especially as Alexa and I tried to adjust to a fourteen-hour time change and then a twelve-hour time change. We just wanted to get somewhere and stay for more than 24 hours. But during that first week, we did get to spend a couple of days in two new and vastly different cities: Siem Reap, Cambodia and Bangkok, Thailand.
We flew into Cambodia early on a Sunday evening and walked from the plane to the airport building. The heat was already palpable, but we were so excited to make it to our first stop. The first thing we had to do was submit information for temporary visas—even though we would be there for just over a day. We expected to wait in line after line and spend a few hours there, but were pleasantly surprised when our visas had been stamped into our passports in under fifteen minutes. As we exited the airport, we were greeted by a Cambodian man from our hostel, Mr. Phol. We loaded into a tuk tuk, a small trailer attached to a motorcycle, and Mr. Phol drove us to our hostel.
I was mesmerized by another glowing orange sunset, by the warm and sticky evening air. By the unbelievable tofu, vegetable, and lemongrass dish I ate for dinner and the coconut shake I bought for $1. It was a short glimpse of another world.
We woke early the next morning, before any inkling of sunlight had stretched to our part of the world, and found ourselves back in the tuk tuk. We drove down the Cambodian streets in the dark and the heat did not touch us. We arrived at Angkor Wat still before we had seen any bit of the sun. Our driver, in very few words, instructed us to walk down a path opposite the tuk tuk and meet him back at the same spot in three hours. We followed throngs of people down an uneven stone pathway, up and down a few stairs, and across stretches of dusty ground—guided only by a phone flashlight—to stand among them and wait behind a large pond opposite the temple. When we realized the sunrise was blocked by the clouds, we wandered off to explore our first stop of the day.
Angkor Wat is a 12th century temple complex that includes the Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Phrom, as well as dozens of other temples. It is the largest religious monument in the world, originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire and then gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple.
As we neared the end of our visit at Angkor Wat, I took a package of fresh pineapple from my bag. I had bought it earlier in the morning, before we began our journey, and was only then hungry enough to snack on it. When I was only two bites into my 60 cent pineapple, we spotted a monkey climbing along a stone railing and playing near a tree—just ten yards away. We took pictures as we walked by, as did a few other people, but kept moving. Until the monkey turned around. There were five or six of us nearby, but he spotted me. A look flashed over his eyes before he lunged in our direction and started to chase me.
An actual, real life Cambodian monkey was chasing me at an over-900-year-old temple on the first day of our vacation!
I panicked—laughing and crying and running away at the same time—begging my friends for help. What should I do? What do I do? Alexa told me to throw something at him. I held my 60 cent pineapple in one hand and a two-liter water bottle in the other. I tossed my pineapple and we sprinted away as quickly as we could. The three of us finally stopped once the monkey lost interest, but it left us in an out-of-breath heap of hysterics for a good five minutes. I recovered fairly quickly, though remained cautious of any monkeys we saw later. At any point throughout the rest of the day, or our trip, recalling the incident sent the three of us into hysterics all over again.
We visited Bayon, Ta Keo, Ta Phrom, and a couple of other smaller temples throughout the morning—each one slightly different than the one before. We hiked and climbed and crawled up and down temple after temple in the unbearable heat, walking the same steps that thousands of Hindu priests and Buddhist monks had walked before (though we were probably a bit more out of breath). And to us, all of it was brand new.
Our sunrise tour concluded six hours after it had begun. By 11am, we had racked up over 20,000 steps each. There were still more temples to explore, but in the midday heat, we retired to our hostel for food and showers and long naps. That evening, we took one last tuk tuk ride back to the airport and headed for Thailand.
One quick flight and a quiet taxi ride to the city center later, we arrived late in Bangkok and checked into our hostel. We spent the night in a stuffy, unbearably hot room and awoke in the morning to realize that the girls in our shared room had simply decided not to turn on the air conditioner. (Ugh.) With less than 12 hours to spend in the city, we ventured out shortly after breakfast to make the most of our day. We explored the temples of Wat Pho, featuring Thailand’s largest collection of Buddha images, including a reclining Buddha more than 150 feet long. Wandered the streets in the hot sun, eating fresh fruit and drinking from a coconut. Meandered through the Grand Palace, marveling at each of the meticulously tiled buildings and statues.
Eventually, we found our way over to Khao San Road—lined with shops, restaurants, and market stalls on either side. There were backpackers and tourists in every space in between. We did a bit of souvenir shopping and headed back to our hostel. We walked past more shops and temples, fruit and food stands—watching cars and motorcycles and tuk tuks zoom past. We rested for a couple of hours (and soaked up the air conditioning) and then ventured back to Khao San Road for our last meal in Bangkok. In the dark, the street was still filled with just as many people.
Later that evening, we boarded a bus and began our journey toward our next destination: Koh Tao!