Location: Siem Riep, Cambodia, South-East Asia
When I visited the Angkor Wat temples in March 1994, Khmer Rouge still controlled the surrounding countryside, and few people ventured past Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. It was still unsafe to travel by land, so a 40 minute flight was the only way to get up north. There were no x-ray machines at the airport and each passenger, and their luggage, was weighed carefully prior to boarding.
We touched down at Siem Riep as grazing cows flashed past the windows of the plane. A horse drawn cart took the luggage to the terminal, and only a handful of guesthouses were open for independent travellers.
Renting a motorbike was the cheapest way to see Angkor Wat, and although I had never driven one before, I was determined to learn. When the guest house owner brought out his battered Honda, I eagerly hopped on the back and revved the engine. The bike leapt into the air like a bronco, spun its wheels in the dirt before it crashed into the bushes. After a terse demonstration in broken English and a few wobbly attempts I was released from their custody and I took off towards Angkor.
Within sight of the famous temple spires, the motorbike coughed, lurched, and ground to a halt. Cursing, I kicked the engine to restart and attempted to put it into neutral. The gear stubbornly remained in 1st, and all I could do was sit and wait, my destination tantalizingly out of reach.
Suddenly, out of the bushes jumped 5 young men with AK-47’s slung over their shoulders; they had no shoes, no army uniforms and no badges. One of them pointed his gun at me, and the others questioned me in Khmer. I shrugged and pointed to Angkor, hoping they would realize I was harmless. They motioned me off the bike, and I thought they were going to steal it; but instead, one of them, with an expert kick, restarted the engine, and with a smile, passed the bike back to me.
Then one of them tapped me on the shoulder, making a motion next to his mouth: Do you have any cigarettes? I shook my head, and thought, great, now they really will steal my bike. But I opened my bag and showed them my maps, journal and guidebook, with colour pictures of Angkor. Their eyes lit up when they saw the photos and I quickly tore them out and handed them over; they accepted them graciously before tucking them into their pockets. We shook hands, smiled, and I took off.
I never knew if they really were Khmer Rouge, but when I told my friend at the Cambodian Consulate in Saigon what had happened, his eyes widened in fear.
Later that afternoon, exhausted after a full day of walking and climbing the temples, I was heading back down the main road when a low boom thundered across the plains; a wall of coal black clouds was quickly advancing in my direction, and there wasn’t shelter for miles. Gunning the engine, I had visions of being struck by lightning as I drove out in the open countryside, and when looked again the clouds had advanced even closer; thunderbolts stabbed the earthand the musty smell of rain was in the air. Up ahead, I saw the spires of the Bayon, and I desperately revved the handlebars as dirt stung my eyes and ripped off tree branches crashed in front of me.
When I parked my bike, the storm broke: raindrops the size of metal coins pelted my head as I ran up the steps and into the 13th century building.
I was surprised to find the entire Bayon temple completely deserted: earlier in the day I had watched Buddhist nuns bless village children, but now the place was eerily empty, except for the booms of thunder and roar of falling water.
As the rain grew into a rushing torrent, water dripped from the ceilings, flooded the hallways and gushed through open windows. I realized my camera would be ruined so I ran from room to room, splashing through puddles, looking for a dry place, and eventually found one that faced the inner courtyard.
As I bent over my soaked backpack to protect it, I looked up to see 4 Bayon faces, the lips curled back into that famous smile, illuminated in a brilliant flash of lightning. As the thunderous boom echoed through the stone building, I watched in fascination as they dripped with water and lit up again and again, welcoming the first storm of the rainy season, just as they had done for hundreds of years. I stayed there for more than 2 hours, listening to the roar of the wind through the corridors, the glistening carvings lit up by lightning, and the steady drip of water leaking through the porous roof.
When the rain stopped I walked back to the motorbike. Amazingly, it started on the first try, and I carefully made my way onto the slick road.
As I drove through the cool damp air back towards the safety of Siem Riep, I passed under the main entrance to Angkor Wat. As the temples receded behind me, I felt stares on the back of my neck. The gods were watching.