I arrived in Siem Reap in the early afternoon. I’d planned on spending basically all of my three days there seeing Angkor Wat, but when I stepped off the bus, I considered it and decided that I wasn’t going to bother with trying to do any of it today. Right now all I wanted was some food and a place to sleep and a relaxing walk around town. So I found all those things.
Siem Reap is much like Chiang Mai, full of hip shops and cafes that the locals can’t afford, except maybe once in a while for a big celebration, or if they’re pretty well-heeled, like the tuk-tuk driver sitting near me at the Khmer food place where I stopped to eat and get my bearings. I had amok, which has become famous among people who go to Cambodia. You can tell right away that it’s Cambodian: it’s served in a folded-up banana leaf bowl. Banana leaves are the plastic bags of Cambodia. Every time I got food inside one in the country, I felt a little like I had come to a long-lost land that no one had ever explored. Inside the leaf is the amok: vegetables and fish in curry made with coconut milk. The only way I can think of to describe it is that it tastes very relaxing. It’s the taste of being in the tropics, probably lounging on a papasan chair and watching people walk by unhurriedly. I wished the banana leaf were bigger so I wouldn’t have to do anything for longer. But the amok ended, and I had to figure out where to sleep.
I ended up at a place with a bunch of mattresses spread out on a deck inside of mosquito nets, at a dollar a night. Then I took off walking. I found the river, which is lined with curlicuing trees that would seem more at place in an ancient fairy tale. Nearby there was the most well-maintained temple that I saw the whole trip. It was in a courtyard made by four walls all covered with bas-relief story murals, and inside was a reclining Buddha made out of half of the boat of a 1500s monk who would make a long river journey every day just to get rice, but always return with the rice somehow still warm. With everything in the temple so well-kept and shiny, I felt like I was finally seeing the fully intact, as-intended version of the temples I’d been seeing this whole trip all centuries old and run-down or ruined.
I noticed that Siem Reap had a lot less garbage than everywhere else I’d seen in Cambodia. I hadn’t mentioned this yet, but Cambodia is a dirty, smelly country. The normal method of disposing of garbage is to just throw it on the ground. They’re completely unashamed about this, and the gutters of the streets are basically buried under paper, cups, plastic bags, and food wrappers. This is true all throughout Phnom Penh but also on the intercity roads between places. It never gets cleaned except for the items that can be sold, like cans or bottles.
I was about to climb a tree when I heard drums, and ducked down an alley to find people celebrating Chinese New Year. They were doing the same thing yesterday in Phnom Penh, but it’s a multi-day celebration, so it made sense. It was a squad of teenagers and younger boys, dragging a wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow had a big drum on it, and the chief of the squad was banging out an entrancing, energetic rhythm on it. Nearby, inside a building, were other kids dancing under two different two-person dragon costumes, bouncing up and down and apparently having a great time. Another boy was dressed as a smiling Buddha. As Buddha passed me he gave me the peace sign with his hand. They finished up with a final rhythm from the drum and all the Cambodians around applauded, and the squad moved on to the next place. I guess they just go into different buildings—this time they went into a massage spa. It was really cool to watch.
Wandering some more, I stumbled upon an Australian guy and a Russian girl and hung out with them the rest of the night. We had cheap food at a little Chinese place in the Old Market, and then the Australian guy had to go so I went with Olga to a cafe where she’d been hanging out with a highly international group of friends nightly for a while. I joined the group and we talked for a long time, and eventually I went to bed feeling great about Siem Reap.
It turned out that the price of one dollar was available at my hostel because it would be hard for them to charge more with the amount of noise and light that come from the rooftop bar that the hostel runs. But this worked out okay for me, because I had actually been planning on getting up at 4:30 in the morning so I could see Angkor Wat at sunrise. I shambled downstairs, rented a bike for the day, wrested the menu away from some late-night drunks, and took a baguette out on the road. The way was surprisingly smooth and flat, but there were hardly any streetlights. I felt like I’d done the ride before. I realized why: it was like the time I biked to Rock Creek State Park, along a smooth, unlit path in the dark. Except that this time I ended up at one of the most stupendous monuments in the world instead.
I parked my bike in a place that I deduced to be near the temple based on the huge numbers of other vehicles parked there. I couldn’t see anything, though, so I just had to take each new thing as it came. That started with a huge stone bridge guarded by seven-headed serpents (and a human gateway of ticket-takers). I walked over it across what I assumed to be an enormous moat, and passed through a wall. The wall was surmounted by an enormous carving that I couldn’t make out, and I was passing through just one of several arched gates big enough to ride an elephant through—and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that happened regularly back in the day. Then there was a walkway, and the silhouette of the wat, topped with its otherworldly stone pinecones. The sun was starting to cast purple light behind it. I stood on a lawn, a little away from a pond and outside the crush of hundreds of other tourists. I stared at the brightening wat as the sun revealed its details to me. And boy, was I not disappointed. I was prepared to be bored by just another wat in the long series of wats that I’ve seen on this trip, but Angkor Wat might as well be in its own category. The sunrise came to fullness and showed me a building that seemed eternal. The gods themselves could have placed Angkor Wat when they created the world. Or it could have grown there, now waiting patiently and watching the story of the world until it eventually ends.
With enough light now, I walked up to the building on a wooden staircase that was there to replace a stone one that had crumbled in some forgotten century. I could hardly get in the doorway at first for wanting to look at every detail I could find. Once I got into the open-air hallway on the bottom level, still piled high enough that a jump to the ground would injure, I started to get a better idea of what kind of place I was in. The inner wall of the hallway was a bas-relief carving mural stretching from the floor up to the high ceiling, illuminated by light bouncing in from the jungle between the columns on the outside, and all the way from where I was standing to the corner of the temple, and keep in mind that this is the largest religious building in the world, so that’s a long way. Hundreds of graven soldiers away, and I stared at the carvings of all of them, and their swords and horses and wagons and elephants and gods. People go to museums to see paintings made with as much skill per unit area as any part of this gallery wall. And here the walls were built of it, as though the concept of plain, smooth walls didn’t even exist. Everything in the temple but the floor, in fact, was carved, no column left unpatterned, no scrap of wall space unclaimed for the evidently limitless Ramayana stories illustrated. I circled the entire building on this gallery, walking the better part of a kilometer in the process, and it was like that the whole time. Halfway around, I stopped to look at an eroding stone stupa in the grass outside the temple. As a tour guide stood there explaining it to some tourists, a monkey walked casually out of the forest and climbed up the stupa. When I came down to look, it was eating fruit from an offering plate left there for Buddha.
Without even breaching into the interior, I’d seen all this. I went in now, and the carvings turned from complex stories into simple repeated patterns, but they were still everywhere. Faces, flowers, elephants, monkeys; plain walls still not an option. The effort it must’ve taken—were there even that many people in the kingdom of Angkor? Apparently so, and they were all master stone-carvers an artists. The size. I could’ve wandered around for days and not seen everything. Months, even. A person could write books about the enigmas drawn in the stone.
I made it to the top level, a courtyard in which there stands a tower of rock surmounted by the beehive lotus buds that make Angkor Wat like nothing else on the planet. The clifflike stairs that went to the top of this place wouldn’t open until 7:40, and the line had already started forming over half an hour ahead of time. A French couple, the woman bald and the man in a typically French striped shirt, had circumvented this by getting drunk, climbing over the fence, and sitting barefoot at the top of the steps with a can of beer and utter disregard for tradition and propriety. The weird thing was, there was a guard, but he did nothing to them. They just sat there like children gleefully getting away with something their parents told them not to do. He barely even scolded them when they later came down: “You are crazy.” (The guy, clearly amused that this was the worst they could do to him, said, “Yes, I am crazy.”) Anyhow, the time came and they opened it and I stood in line and reached the top and had a tremendous view from the seat of an ancient empire’s power, and got a closer look at the lotus buds but still didn’t really understand them. Maybe someone does, somewhere.
After several hours of fascination, I came down out of the temple and walked over the bridge. There was in fact a moat under it, as I’d guessed in the dark earlier—an absolutely enormous moat. I got supplies from some of the unlimited supply of little kids and old people here who peddle trinkets and sustenance and hassle you and try to guilt you into giving them money. The girl I bought the water from was with another girl. Both of them had guided me to a place where I could park my bike for free, which was a sham already because you can park your bike anywhere along the road here. One girl said, “You want cold water? You buy from me.” I asked how much and she quoted a price over two times too high. The other girl immediately offered to sell me some water. I managed to haggle her down to a reasonable price. Then the first girl said, “Wha bout me? You know I said free parking first.” As if that entitled her to a free dollar or something. The soup was a ramen, probably available at a cost of a dime to the locals, but the lady at the stand told me the price was three dollars. I got it down to one dollar, and to be fair she did put an egg in it for me.
Then I moved on to Bayon. Because there’s not just one wat at the Angkor Wat complex. This used to be a city, the capital of the Angkor kingdom, an empire that was bigger than any country that still exists in this area, claiming most of Thailand and Laos. There were temples and lakes and moats everywhere. Then the empire collapsed, and the houses of the people, all made of wood, rotted away, leaving only the houses of the gods, and even those were forgotten or abandoned, except a few.
Years ago, archaeologists came to this place and chose Bayon as the temple they would completely disassemble and examine. They took it partway down and turned it successfully into a giant field full of blocks, keeping meticulous notes all the while. Then the Khmer Rouge started their insanity and in the mess of everything all the notes were lost forever. So now it looks as though it exploded a few decades ago. To get there I rode through a massive gate in a city wall that was about the same scale as the one in Chiang Mai, but in terms of architecture skill, made it look like something a kid had made with just the square Legos. At Bayon was where I first got the feeling of being Indiana Jones. Far enough away from other people, I could almost imagine myself exploring a series of abandoned temples in a remote jungle that hadn’t seen humans since the time of the ancients. It was completely different from Angkor—smaller, few enclosed spaces or intact ceilings, and instead of lotus buds there were lots of giant heads, each with four serenely smiling faces—but it had the same feeling, made out of the same softly eroded blocks and probably carved by some of the grandsons of Angkor Wat’s carvers. I walked around and wished there weren’t so many signs telling me not to climb stuff, because this was the perfect place for summiting an ancient head and feeling like the master of everyone down below. I watched some men with heavy machinery among the blocks in the grass, trying to piece some of the walls back together. But I had a lot of temples to see, so after an hour or two I called Bayon done and moved on to the next place.
Angkor Thom had its own character, just like the last two—this one was grand and taller than the others, but also more wild and primal, having been left to meld with the forest for what must have been several generations. It’s walled with forest and full of secret nooks and crannies, which allowed me to climb to weird vantage points just as I wanted to. Even the trees in the temples here look like nothing I’d ever seen before, with roots like a flying squirrel’s wing between the trunk and the ground, and trunks like logs rolled hastily out of clay, ascending completely smooth to heights taller than most entire trees back home before even bothering to sprout any leaves. Or others had roots like a serving of tangled pasta being lifted from the bowl. I hid and climbed in the tree roots and witnessed the spectacle of a man asking his tour guide how many more temples he had to visit today. How could anyone possibly be bored here? Outside the temple was a long wall with bas-relief scenes of elephants and gods and the sea. I looked at everything and then found myself at my bike again, so I moved on to the next place.
Preah Khan was where I started realizing that these temples had at one point been seriously abandoned. It was the same scope as any of the other temples, though on the ground instead of raised up. But the roofs had fallen in on whole hallways, even wings of the building. Trees were growing in what were now courtyards, but might once have been rooms. Trees were everywhere, in fact, even growing on top of the roofs, with person-sized roots somehow reaching down to the ground around the walls like an attacking octopus. Most people stuck to the intact halls, which made it easy to get away from them for a while. I climbed heaps of fallen stone and saw young papaya trees. A lizard was cautiously looking out from under a block. The air was warm and quiet. I could just as well have been the first person here since the ancient city fell.
But I wasn’t, and I had more temples to see. The next, Neak Pean, was a bit like Preah Khan, except that it was surrounded by an ancient manmade lake instead of a a forest. I found it hard to conceive of people making something like this without even the help of a single bulldozer, but the lake was vast, easily big enough for playing a league’s worth of simultaneous underwater football games, and perfectly rectangular. Out front, on the walkway to it, was a platform where a band of amputees were playing hypnotic traditional Khmer music on handmade-looking instruments. Later that day I saw another band of amputees. Later still, someone told me that Cambodia has more amputees per capita than any other country, on account of all the land mines left over in their country from when the Khmer Rouge wanted to keep anyone from farming land they weren’t supposed to farm. Inside, Neak Pean was of course as amazing as the other temples, but it was an amazingness that I had gotten used to, because it was like the other temples. So I was more impressed by what was special to this place: the causeway over the moat outside the back entrance (which historically was the front, but the road was simpler if it came the other way). It was lined by a long row of headless Buddhas. Fascinating, perplexing.
There were a few slightly more modest temples—a short one called Ta Som and a tall one called East Mebon. At the next, Pre Rup, I stopped and played a pen-and-paper game involving dots with some Cambodians who were selling books to tourists. Even these temples were sights worth traveling a long way to see. But I wasn’t able to devote much mental energy to them, because I was looking forward too much to the last temple of the day—Ta Prohm. By now I was dead tired and it was nearly time for sunset to arrive, so I headed there to watch sunset. Ta Prohm was left alone for longer than most of the other temples, so it’s been engulfed by trees much more thoroughly. I got there and found that it’s still definitely more a temple than a forest, but the land doesn’t belong completely to either the gods or the jungle. I treated it as a playground and climbed and visited the giant crowned four-headed faces up close. Kings and priests once walked where I was walking now, on this land now woven with tree roots.
Unfortunately for me, there were so many trees that it was impossible to get a view of the horizon for the sunset. But I made the most of it and left while there was still a little light in order to try to see it inside the Angkor Thom walls. Not much luck, but I had seen enough splendor to last me years already today, so I was feeling pretty satisfied when I biked back into town.
When you buy a ticket to Angkor Wat, you get a one-, three-, or seven-day pass. I wasn’t even going to be in Cambodia long enough for a three-day pass, so I got a one-day pass, and now I couldn’t go back without paying another $20. But that was okay, because even though Angkor Wat is enough for one town to have, Siem Reap is also just a modest, bumpy bike ride away from the Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. I got a bike from my hostel again and went there, with really no clear idea of what I’d find. Olga had told me you could find some cool things exploring the shore, and there was a floating village, although it could only be seen by a $20 boat ride. Along the way I left the domain of English-language signs and entered an area that I think few travelers bother to see. The forest fell away to a low-lying plain covered in wet rice fields. I was biking along the Siem Reap River, and it got wider and its banks soggier as it got close to the lake. But people didn’t let that stop them from building houses on it; they just built their houses on stilts. Here and there dirt roads plunged away from the (mostly) paved one I was on and headed out into the rice fields.
I could tell I was getting close to the lake, and then a gate appeared across the road. To get around, I had to go through a tollbooth and pay $2. I emerged from the tollbooth on a vast area of gravel and got instructed to take a long pointless circle on it before getting back to the road. And then it turned out there wasn’t all that much more road. It became gravel and then dirt and then seemed to peter out into a place where people were doing things with gas tanks and stuff. But I was on the banks—I could see water, though I couldn’t see what was going on in it.
The only place where people were going was a white building on top of a slope above the water. So I went there. Inside they were selling high-end souvenirs and snacks. I got an ice cream bar and sat down in a papasan chair on the side of the building facing the lake, which had no wall, and listened to a band of amputees playing traditional Khmer music and watched boats come and go at a dock at the bottom of the slope. Streams of rushed-looking tourists were arriving and departing and I guessed this must be the place where you buy the $20 ticket to the floating village. But I’d already seen some houses on stilts, so I was content to lounge back with my ice cream bar and a friendly cat I’d found and relax from biking.
After a while I got up, intent on getting my two-dollar toll’s worth. I headed toward the gas tanks I’d seen earlier. It turned out that beyond them was a spit of dirt that stretched out into the distance, as wide as a dirt road, with water on both sides. All along it were lots of things: restaurants (that is, tables with umbrellas, or sometimes without, and a burner somewhere nearby), motorbikes, shacks, shallow wooden boats, boats being built, garbage, more garbage, naked children, clothed children, people on motorbikes that somehow stayed upright on the gouged dirt, a Korean church, a Korean-funded school—everything, it seemed. People waved hello to me. There were no other tourists.
Just absorbing all these sights, I walked down this spit of land. It kept going for quite a while. A white guy on a bike overtook me. Shortly afterward, I passed a few dirty, parked trucks and discovered that the land had sloped all the way down into the water and this was the end of it. Then, after a moment: “But what about that guy on the bike?” I asked myself. I looked ahead and there he was, pedaling furiously to get through the water to a stretch of sand a few dozen yards away. “Looks like an adventure,” I thought, and took my shoes off to step into the water. As I crossed, some children came past me the other way.
This spit of land was much shorter. When it ended, there was nothing across the water to walk toward, just a house on a steep-looking bank. To the sides were narrow but deep-looking channels with boats in them. The bike guy was there. “Well, I guess that’s it,” I said to him.
He agreed that it wouldn’t be possible to bike any farther. “I think this is the part where I don’t really know where I’m going next, but I find someone driving a boat and get on.” He gestured to the shallow wooden boats puttering back and forth on the water that was now nearly surrounding us.
“That sounds amazing. Like exactly the kind of adventure I’m always wishing for. If you do that, I’ll go with you.”
While we talked some more, he held his hand out to the first boat that went along, but it didn’t stop. Then he tried again with a boat piloted by two teenagers. They came over to the bank for us. Wasting no time, he balanced his bike across the front of the boat and stepped in. We both quickly discovered that you have to stay very still exactly in the center of one of these boats in order for it not to tip. The teenagers knew we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them to say where we wanted to go, but they seemed to have a plan, so the bike guy and I sat back and relaxed as they drove us down a narrow corridor lined on either side by something like bamboo, which we couldn’t see over. Now and then another boat would pass us from either direction, usually going faster than ours. Despite my canoeing experience, the wakes from these boats alarmed me, but we never tipped. I saw people standing chest-deep in the water, collecting firewood from the plants lining the channel, and other people setting up wooden structures I didn’t understand—maybe fish traps.
The bike guy’s name was Graeme, and he came from Canada. He told me he’s been going around southeast Asia in about this way for the last few months. Whenever he’s in a place and wants to go to another place, instead of worrying about bus timetables he just looks for some form of transportation that can take him toward there and asks the person manning it if he can ride. For food he eats whatever the locals eat, at the same place they eat it. He avoids any other Westerners, because there are plenty of those back at home. (Except for the occasional drink he enjoys with Westerners. For example, he woke up with no money in his wallet and a black eye that morning, and didn’t remember why, but wasn’t too worried.) Travel is the time for getting in touch with locals. I didn’t just agree, I was inspired. Here was someone traveling in a strange land in the exact way that I aspired to. And it was simple. Just do what the locals do. It was too late for me to make much use of this inspiration here, but I told him he was exactly the sort of kick I needed and I would definitely be traveling like this in Mongolia and also for basically all of the foreseeable future.
The channel emptied out into an open area of water, and all along the banks were houses built on boats, all rickety wood structures made permanent through sheer determination, with Buddhist pictures on the walls and children lounging on hammocks on the decks. Boats rumbled hither and thither all around us, sometimes piloted by little kids, though mostly by adults. Our pilots dropped us off at the most likely-looking place for us, inasmuch as it wasn’t someone’s home: a restaurant boat with souvenirs and about one other tourist on it. We thanked them as much as our command of the Khmer language allowed, gave them a dollar, and checked out where we’d ended up.
There were crocodiles in an enclosure that opened up to the lake below. That made Graeme wary of swimming, which had been his main goal in biking to the lake. The boat had three floors, the top two empty. We sat down with a Cambodian and a Japanese guy who were talking in what English they knew. Beers appeared, and we started bullshitting each other. The Cambodian claimed to be from London, and Graeme said he intended to wrestle those crocodiles. Someone bought a sheet of snake jerky and a plate of shrimp and we all shared them around. (Snake jerky tasted a lot like beef jerky—I guess the seasonings are similar and you don’t get much of the flavor of the meat itself. But I thought, “Man, I’m going to have to start catching snakes!”) Graeme and the Cambodian arranged to have drinks together later. Later I went off on my own for a little and found three little boys all holding big constrictor snakes. I took a picture of one of them, and a couple of them let me hold their snakes. “One dollar!” they said. They were charming enough that I actually did give them some money.
Graeme swam, despite the crocodiles, and came out unsavaged, though he’d lost a bracelet given to him by a Dutch girl to remember her by. The Cambodian and the Japanese left and some Australians appeared, and eventually Graeme and I decided it was time to head back. Though if he hadn’t had to return his bike, he said, he’d probably have tried to hitch a ride with a local going all the way across the lake and then get to Battambang.
The first boat that went by was piloted by a middle-aged woman who had it completely full of fruits and vegetables, so we couldn’t get a ride. But a minute later, a man chugged by and was willing to stop and let us get on and ride with him back to the place we’d started from. He wanted ten dollars from us, but that would have been absurd, so we gave him one and we were glad that he had to stay in his boat and couldn’t chase us for the money or anything. Then we walked up the spit of land again, fording the underwater part, and looked for food.
We found an old woman at a portable table and she made us a sort of Khmer soup—egg, vegetables, broth, all extremely fresh and combined while we waited there on plastic chairs. And it was delicious too, Graeme and I agreed. Besides a $20 bill I didn’t want to break, we only had $1 between us—but we didn’t even have to break the twenty, because it cost us fifty cents each. Delicious food at an absurd price: that’s what happens when you travel like a local.
We split up here because he was planning on heading back to town by asking someone if he could hold on to their fender and just roll, but I didn’t have nearly that much trust in my guesthouse bike. With nothing else for me on this side of the tollbooth, I left through it, and since I was inspired, I looked for anything on the side of the road that seemed interesting.
It didn’t take long—there was a staircase with dragons for banisters, leading up a steep, tall hill where I’d be able to see forever. I got to the top of the stairs and found that there was much more hill before the summit, but a man was insisting that I needed to pay or have a valid Angkor Wat pass to go the rest of the way. I decided I was content right where I was, because as I looked out, I did already have an excellent view. There was the road I had come in on, and there was where I’d see the floating village if it weren’t so far away and low to the surface, and there was the way back to town, and off to the horizon was an expanse of rice fields.
A guy I’d met through Olga and hung out with in our favorite cafe, Mike, came up. Go figure. I told him the awesome stuff that had just happened to me, and he told me about when he went to Nepal and we talked about what a shame it is to travel without actually experiencing anything. This was what the busloads after busloads of Korean and Chinese tourists tooling down the road below us seemed to be doing. The buses would go through the tollbooth, empty out at the boat launch lounge, and all the tourists would get on the busy $20 tour boats. They would see—from afar—a village of houses built on boats, very nice, good photo. Then they would turn around and go back up the steps to the lounge and get on the bus. They could have accomplished the same thing by looking at a photograph of the floating village, because that small, framed image is all they saw anyhow. While we were talking, a bike came speeding down the road at the top of the stairs, and riding it was Graeme. He briefly stopped to say hi but then went back to being a badass.
Mike and I resolved to bike back together and go down any side road that looked even faintly interesting. So we climbed down the dragon stairs and rode. The first turnoff was a little dirt path, sized for an ATV or a motorbike or our bikes. The path was lined with bushes a little taller than a person. After a while we saw a woman and her kids in the bushes, and I told Mike that on the way back I’d stop and ask if I could help her with whatever she was doing. After a while and a couple forks, the road dead-ended under a tree next to a sea of rice paddies. The low sun was shining off the water in them. We walked on the earthen berms separating the fields out toward a guy walking through knee-deep mud in his paddy and pushing a machine that seemed to serve to churn up the mud. We didn’t get close enough to talk, and anyhow there was no way he spoke English, but we stood there and appreciated the effort that goes into rice.
The woman and her children were just collecting firewood, and she seemed to think I wanted to take some of it away from her, so I let them be and we found the main road again. Within not too long, we had found another side road, this one bigger and higher above the water table. There were a few buildings but we didn’t want to accidentally walk up to someone’s house, so we stayed on the road looking at some mysterious structures we found. They were wooden frames the size of a full-length mirror, but instead of the glass they had plastic like from a trash bag, and at the bottom was a tray full of algae-covered water. At the top of each one was a fluorescent light set up to shine down. Beyond the fact that something was supposed to grow here, we had no guesses whatsoever.
Then an old man walked slowly up to us from a field below. He was nearly with us before I noticed that one of his legs was prosthetic. He handed us each a lotus flower bud, pink and the size of a fist, and gestured us to open up the petals and smell. It was as fragrant as any rose I’ve ever smelled. And in a complete departure from everything I’d come to expect while on the tourist trail, the old man didn’t ask for money. He apparently just wanted to give us flowers. We thanked him and really meant it. Mike asked about the plastic-algae contraptions. With more gestures, he tried to explain that the plastic caught something from the air and kept it in the algae tray, but we couldn’t figure it out entirely until he reached into the water and pulled out a big beetle and mimed eating it. We asked what happened to his leg, and “mine explosion” was an easy concept for him to get across in sign language. For a little while, we just stood there, paralyzed by the moment. Then the old man waved goodbye and walked away.
We got back on our bikes and made for town, since sunset was coming, though we had time to stop and drink some coconuts. Mike got a flat, so I ended up back in town alone and ate with Olga’s group at the cafe. I told my stories and felt utterly relaxed and content.
The next day I took a series of buses to Bangkok. The only interesting thing that happened on that trip was that I saw a sign at the border, put up by the Thai government, that said, “illegal drug trafficking will be punished by the death penalty.” It was in the lightning-bolt font that was designed for the cover of the Harry Potter books. A Korean guy helped me find a guesthouse near Khao San Road and I went to bed early.
Olga had told me about something in Bangkok. It was a Sikh temple. One of the many things I didn’t know about the Sikh religion was that every Sikh gurdwara (temple) offers an absolutely free communal meal every day to anyone of any religion or nationality who comes by. I had never seen a Sikh temple before, or their rituals, or anything, and free food ranks high in the pantheon of life’s great joys.
I walked there. The walk took me through a few of Bangkok’s distinct districts. For a long time I was walking through the electronics district, passing shop after shop selling amps, speakers, clocks, TVs, fans. Then I turned a corner and transitioned to the flower district. Underneath an archway of colorful umbrellas, flower sellers were peddling tens of thousands of blossoms, and the whole sidewalk tunnel I was walking smelled like what a bee smells when it finally finds the perfect flower full of nectar and gets inside.
I almost missed the gurdwara, since it has a small frontage on the street, but a long, sunlit hallway takes you to the main body of the huge temple—huge for a city as crowded as Bangkok, at least—round and tiled checkerboard, with men in turbans with big beards walking around purposefully. I felt out of place and did my best to look like someone who needed instructions. A beard-and-turbaned man told me to take my shoes off and hand them over a fenced pit to a man standing in it with his head at floor level. Then I tied a cloth around my hair like other people were doing and took some wide marble stairs to the fourth floor, where someone had told me to go.
People were sitting on carpets watching the front of the room. At the front there was a pedestal, like a curtained royal bed except podium-sized, on which lay the last guru. Olga had explained this to me. At the beginning of Sikhism, there were ten gurus. The last one declared that after him there would be no more gurus, and the last guru would be a book collecting the writings of all ten of the gurus who had lived. Since then the Sikhs have treated that book as one would a human guru. Each gurdwara has a copy of it; they put it to bed every night and wake it up each morning before reading from it throughout the day. The guru had already been awakened, so now there was a man standing in front of it reading intently in a language I didn’t understand even slightly. I sat cross-legged for a while watching the reading. Occasionally someone would bow three times before leaving the room, or someone would enter and sit down to watch the reading. At one point the man doing the reading took out what appeared to be a feather duster and waved it over the guru.
After a while, I decided I wasn’t likely to understand anything else by sitting there longer, and went down to the cafeteria on the third floor. There are no fancy rituals there, although I expected some. I just got a plate and walked down a long table spread with Indian food: yellow rice, spiced chickpeas, naan bread, lentil curry soup, yogurt to mix with it, tapioca pudding. Food given away free is so rarely this amazing. I sat down and ate but I didn’t have the luck of sitting down next to an English-speaking Sikh, so I ate alone. I did talk to an English speaker and he explained how to get seconds, which must have been funny for him because there’s no ritual in it and here was this American who was such a nitwit he didn’t even know how to serve himself food. I was happy to provide the amusement.
I ate way more than I realized I was eating, and descended full to bursting. Retrieving my shoes, I walked out to the bright Thai day and wondered what to do until my bus to the airport. I walked toward where I was pretty sure the river lay. Before I got there, though, the Chinese market got in the way.
The market was easily as bountiful as a mall. But infinitely better, because there’s no Muzak and no sedate tiled floor and no giant hallways, and hardly even a ceiling, except for the plastic shelter that’s overhead at some points. It’s the biggest concentration of store-booths I’ve ever seen. All of them are packed together with the maximum possible efficiency, leaving no square foot of ground space unclaimed by either a merchant or one of the narrow lanes for customers to walk on, so crowded that I felt like there should legitimately be traffic lights for the pedestrian traffic flow. All the goods were cheap, often obvious knockoffs of more prestigious brands, all of them made in China. There were stores for everything. I found cheap headphones at an electronics store, and got looseleaf tea at a tea store, and had drinks from wagons in the street, and admired the other things I saw. Plastic hands and plush pairs of breasts, rolls upon rolls of raw fabric, plastic toys, jewelry, stationery, all of it endlessly fun to just stop and look at. An acquisitive person could spend a fortune in there and fill up several wheelbarrows and still have a long wish list of other cool things he saw.
But I had gotten what I came for, my headphones and tea, and I had a bus to catch. I walked back to Khao San through a slow but relentless rain. The bus was a van. I loaded my stuff and then stepped in, taking my feet off the streets of southeast Asia for the last time.