A Stranger in Siem Reap




OVER THE LAST decade, I have developed a travel mania. No sooner do I land in one place than I begin to scheme, in the back of my mind, ways of escaping it. I’ve never taken anything like a proper vacation: every time I board a plane, bus, or train, I’m simply executing one part of an intricate plan to rocket through multiple cities or countries as fast as possible, to burn through all my money immediately, thus returning to a state in which travel is, once more, out of my price range — a state almost as unbearable as traveling itself.

“Plan” is perhaps too strong a word. The travel guru Rick Steves would beat me senseless with a copy of Asia Through the Back Door if he saw my most recent itinerary. After a short stint teaching at a university in New Zealand, I had more money than I knew what to do with — over a hundred dollars, I mean — and I decided to blow it on a high-speed, enlightenment-free chase through Southeast Asia.

Halfway through my six-country course, I had already driven a motorbike to a 14th-century Balinese Hindu temple outside Ubud, and haggled over a new tire when I got a flat in an unfamiliar little town. I had spent a few days in the chaotic Indonesian megacity of Jakarta, dancing to American ’90s music in a smoke-choked club, clinking beers with an old friend on a high rooftop bar that had, basically, no guardrail, and wandering the almost seven-million-square-foot labyrinth of Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. In the Cambodian capital, I had eaten beef with ant sauce and gone to a baffling drag show. On a shaky Angkor Air flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, I nodded off every few minutes, jolting awake whenever we hit turbulence. Burnout already loomed.

That didn’t stop me from noticing a cute passenger across the aisle on my flight to Siem Reap. He looked Arab-ish — born in Iraq, I later learned — and around my age. He spoke French with an attractive Asian woman, his traveling companion. Their intimate laughter reminded me how lonely I was, barreling through the region on my own. After we landed, this pair, Karim and Sylvie, approached me at the baggage claim.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but on the plane, we were trying to figure out what you do.”

Me?” I was flustered to be seen and commented on. “Well, what did you guess?”

Sylvie hefted a rolling suitcase from the carousel. “I thought cinematographer. Something to do with the image, with composing the scene.”

“I was thinking teacher,” said Karim. A half-smile suggested mischief — flashing visions, perhaps, of just what kind of lessons I might teach him.

“I wish I was a cinematographer,” I said. “But I’m a writer.” Saying so felt like oversharing, as if I had confessed a psychological disorder.

The three of us shared a cyclo taxi into town. Karim said he was exhausted, managing, in spite of this, to add flirtatious shading to his words. “I just flew from New York to Shanghai to Phnom Penh to here.”

“What you need to refresh you,” I said, “is an eight-hour, 25-mile off-road mountain bike tour of Angkor Park.”

Il fait chaud,” said Sylvie, fanning herself. The weather that week hovered around a comfortable 110 degrees. As I hopped off the cyclo at my hotel, they told me they’d think about the mountain bike tour.

They showed up for it the next day. Karim and I, I thought, could certainly fall in love while enduring hours of biking over rough paths, sweating through our shirts, and looking at one galleried Khmer temple after another in potentially lethal heat and humidity. I admired his legs as he pedaled, the hint of chest hair at his drooping collar, the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into this unrelenting expedition. As the afternoon wore on, we took available opportunities to bike side by side, chatting about work, family, travel. He horrified me by saying he had developed a shellfish allergy in his late 20s.

“I ate shrimp, crab, lobster, everything, all through my life,” he said. “Then, one evening in New York, I had this huge crab dinner with friends. Within an hour, I started to turn red. My throat closed up, and I had to go to the hospital. I can never eat shellfish again. Who knew it could happen all of a sudden, just like that?”

“Terrifying,” I said. “I can’t imagine life without lobster.” But I was thinking, that yes, one’s vulnerabilities can shift in an instant.

A twinkle in his eyes suggested interest dancing behind the encroaching fog of fatigue. I hoped that if I simply continued smiling and asking questions about his life, he’d get the message: I was too tired to sweep him off his feet, so I wished he would sweep me off mine. Whenever he fell back to cycle alongside Sylvie, I hoped that some part of their French conferral concerned me.

Sylvie suffered mild heat stroke toward the end of the tour, nearly fainting, and took a cyclo back to their hotel. As for me and Karim, we found little to say in the final hour, perhaps too concerned with getting to the end in one piece. When will he tell me he really likes me? I thought. When will he tip his hand?

Later that night, I met them for beers, but felt so paralyzed by exhaustion — perhaps he did, too; or by fear masquerading as exhaustion — that we ended up returning to our separate hotels in short order. He was waiting for me, it seemed, to act; I was waiting for him. Normally I don’t have this problem, at least when it comes to sex. The pursuit of sex, which is all masks, all theater, requires so little real exposure. What petrified me was that I wanted more than sex from Karim: I longed to fall fully in love with him, which isn’t the least bit modern — love demands that you rest in place offstage, endure heroic passages of time together, time in which one must confront, continually, the tired, the ridiculous, the ugly actor behind the role.

I held my face in my hands as the cyclo took me back. I was spending the night alone, again, for fear that love might discover my devouring need of it.

Karim and Sylvie had convinced me to wake up before dawn the next day to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Somehow I managed, even though my every instinct howled for me to stay in bed, in hiding. Yet another cyclo carried us through the checkpoint and into the tremendous temple complex. Many other tourists milled about the grounds, taking photographs, buying souvenirs, and wondering aloud whether or not the conditions were right for a really good sunrise. They were. Karim, Sylvie, and I sat on the lawn, bleary-eyed, as the glowing orb of the sun rose, warm, clear, trembling, perfect, touching the tallest spire.

“This really was worth it,” said Karim. “Look at that,” he said. “Look!

I looked at him, wanting to grab his face with both hands and kiss him. That would have meant to live, though, and in front of all these people. I only played at living.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the temple grounds in a delirious state, giggling and striking absurd, sometimes lascivious poses in front of statues. I took a photo of Karim and Sylvie in flattering light. “For my mother,” he said. Sylvie then took one of me and Karim; I put my arm around him like a friend. A troubling relief came as I felt our hours together fast slipping away.

On the cyclo ride back to town — the last time I’d see him; I slept through the evening, and left the next morning — Karim, unable to stay awake any longer, leaned against me in a doze. The side of his head rested on my shoulder as the rickshaw rumbled over uneven roads. Sylvie, in the opposite seat, her eyes shielded by large sunglasses, smiled, blessing this union — and perhaps still trying to guess my true vocation, even as its comic mask grinned back.

¤

Evan James is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.


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