Water, Water Everywhere
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat – the name conjures an image in ones mind; a vast impressive ancient temple covered in intricate designs and surrounded by lush green vegetation. Clear lakes surround it serving as mirrors to reflect the splendour of one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring structures ever made.
Those who have been will tell you of that magical moment when you first lay your eyes on Angkor Wat. They will speak of how, when you step through the gate and feast your eyes on it, you are left standing for seconds staring in silent awe. The magnificence leaves you dumbstruck and amazed. You are moved by something beautiful in the world.
Since deciding that I was going to travel to Cambodia I had anticipated this moment. I had been intrigued by the images I had seen of Angkor and I knew seeing it I would be amazed. As I walked across the bridge towards the gate I thought about how this would be one, if not the, most impressive thing I would ever see in my life. Now, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on a steaming hot November day I found myself crossing the bridge heading towards a gate on the other side of which laid Angkor Wat. My body tingled with anticipation and excitement. I walked through the gate and raised my head. My eyes caught the view before me. I stood momentarily and looked ahead waiting for that amazing feeling to come. The first thought that came into my mind was… “Damn I need some water.”
Cambodia can be a viciously hot place. Copious amounts of water are required to survive a 12-hour tour of Angkor Wat. Particularly, that is, if you are touring around on a shonky dollar-a-day rental bike. Earlier that day I had exchanged a dollar to a toothless old man for a days use of a seemingly road worthy bike. I had opted for a bicycle for two reasons. 1) I suck on a motorbike and 2) I envisioned touring Angkor on a bicycle in a very romantic light. I thought it would be a pleasant and peaceful way to take in my surroundings.
At around 8:00, after cycling for half an hour I arrived at the entrance to the Angkor complex. The smiling guard informed me that I should visit other ruins in the Angkor complex before Angkor-Wat itself. The Wat was best enjoyed in the early afternoon, and that the complexes of Wat Prohm and Wat Bayon are best enjoyed in the morning. While I was itching to go straight to Angkor I decided to adhere to his advice. I spent the next couple of hours exploring Wat Bayon. Walking from sight to sight my camera clicked constantly in an attempt to capture everything around me.
By mid morning it was heating up. The sun climbed higher and the streams of sweat that trickled on my body turned into rivers. I gulped continuously at the one litre bottle of water that I had brought with me. After taking in what I could of Wat Bayon I decided I needed a break from the heat and some lunch. About 10 minutes later I was sucking down the last noodle in my bowl. As I opened my wallet to pay the vendor I realized I was down to my last 2 dollars and when I received the change was down to my last 10 cents. Oh well I thought, I had my bike, my ticket, a full stomach and half a bottle of water…I’ll be fine….
Climbing on my bike I headed to Wat Prohm, stopping frequently along the way to fix the pedal that had developed an annoying habit of detaching itself from my bike. The jungle enshrouded ruins of Wat Prohm were spectacular. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones film, re-discovering a site that had been abandoned for 100s of years. At around 2:00, just as I was leaving to see Angkor Wat I swallowed the last mouth-full of water in my bottle. Panic momentarily seized my body as I realized the consequences of my actions. I looked to the cloudless sky and to the unrelenting sun. It remained proud and fierce. It wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Fuck,” I said out loud as I hopped on my bike and headed to my final destination of Angkor Wat.
Strategically, I stuck to the shady areas of the road. I tried not to think of the water situation and focus on the experience that lay ahead of me. But as I rode on my mouth became drier and drier. I felt like I’d just been to the dentist and had a visit from “Mr. Vacuum”. Wiping the sweat from my forehead I peddled forward with firm resolve. And as I neared the Wat the thoughts of my thirst were pushed away to the back of my head and walking across the bridge and through the gate all I could think of was what (or the Wat) lay ahead of me.
So, that was how I found myself in front of Angkor Wat, not thinking of the magnificence and beauty of it but rather of ways in which I could acquire water without a cent to my name. Hearing horror stories of what happens if you don’t drink bottled water in South East Asia I thought it was not worth the risk to try and find a source other than bottled. I would need at least another 500mls to survive the rest of the day and the ride home. A bottle of water was only around 70 cents, but I had less than 20 to my name. I thought about hitting up some other tourists, but dismissed the idea as soon as it occurred to me. I just didn’t feel right about striking up a conversation with someone and then asking for some change.
While these thoughts were swimming around in my head I moved towards the Wat. As my tired feet pushed me forward the shrill cries of child hawkers echoed in my head… “Hey Mister, you wanna buy postcard?…. hey mister you wanna buy some film……? You wanna buy water….. Mister Mister you buy water???? I walked inside the temple and tried in vain to enjoy the intricate designs that spread across its vast walls. All that was on my mind was water.
Then, it came to me. In my bag was a copy of a Lonely Planet South East Asia guide. After Cambodia I was only visiting one more country in the area and I knew I could pick up a fake copy when I arrived there. So I decided to try my luck in selling it to one of the vendors. Walking back along the path to the entrance gate I looked for a stall that was selling books. Eventually I found one being run by a boy, maybe 11, selling a variety of things, including guidebooks. Greeting him in Khmer and smiling I reached into my bag and pulled out the book. He smiled back at me. Like most Cambodians his smile was gentle and warm and told nothing of the hardships and sufferings that his people had endured. Showing him the book I asked if we would like to buy it. Shyly he took it from my hands and examined it. A frown formed on his head and he began shaking his head.
“Sorry mister…No good, No good” he said pointing to the dog-eared pages and ripped cover.
“Sure it’s good” I replied earnestly. “It’s an original too, no fake. See?”
“No”, he smiled firmly “Sorry I can’t sell this”.
I thought about his situation. Maybe he hadn’t made many sales today and he did have a point, the book was in bad nick. I decided to try once more, this time in very slow English explaining my water situation to him. He looked at me intently, trying to figure out why I so desperately wanted to sell my book. Then as he began to understand my situation his expression changed.
Smiling he told me to wait and quickly he scooted off to the vendor two shops down. Greeting the older lady he asked for a bottle of water then pulled some of the few notes in his wallet and handed them to her. He returned and handed me the water, smiling widely.
“Here you go mister.”
“Thank you, thank you so much.” I replied.
As I walked away slowly I thought about what had just happened. Monetarily he had given me less than a dollar. But in many ways it was the greatest experience of giving I have ever witnessed in my life. Here was someone who might be making a few dollars a day, if lucky. Someone who is significantly less well off than I am who acted without thinking twice when he knew I was in need.
And as I walked away and thought of his smile and his deed the feeling that I had been searching for earlier overcame me.