The last bus for Siem Reap had left already when our flight landed at Phnom Penh International airport, which struck us as strange, since it was no later than 6:30. After collecting our bags and exiting the terminal we experienced an immediate assault on the senses- crowds, heat, the smell of food stalls, exhaust and acrid dust in the taxi waiting area.
Saving a few bucks flying into the capital city meant we’d have to play this leg of the journey by ear. This had been an exciting prospect while we were planning our visit to Angkor Wat from the comfort of our high-rise Bangkok apartment, but now that we’d arrived we were out of our depth. I looked to Aim for guidance, but even he, a Bangkok native, was visibly overwhelmed.
Just then, a lanky man in a khaki colored member’s only style jacket and navy work pants approached my mother, smiling chivalrously, and reached out with one hand to take her bag while motioning towards his car with the other.
With a furtive glance and a collective shrug of the shoulder, we followed him in the direction of his maroon Toyota Camry, a late nineties model with tinted windows.We watched the packed streets of the city fly by from the air-conditioned backseat until the cars slowed to a snail’s pace at the Independence Monument roundabout.
Vendors wove through the stalled traffic hawking flowers and snacks, dodging the constant flurry of motorbikes that took full advantage of any opportunity for progress by squeezing through impossibly tight spaces between cars. At one stoplight a shoeless child rapped on my window offering yellow roses for sale, and our driver sternly shooed her away.
When we finally made our way from the city an hour later, the contrast in landscape was astounding. Where there had been oceans of cars and people, there were now wide, open spaces.The verdant plains of the countryside were charming, speckled with huddled groups of palms that jutted awkwardly towards the sky, and the road was flatter and straighter than any I’d ever seen east of West Kansas.
Every few miles we approached a homestead, which were all essentially similar: a small rice paddy, penned chickens, cows or goats, and children running about in the cool of evening. Mamas, grandmas, and aunties chattered on the verandas while papas and uncles drank whisky and tended to the fires.
In each case the family seemed to orbit around a traditional style home- modestly sized,with high-pitched thatched roofs and wide porches. They sat precariously on stilts raised a meter or so off the ground to allow for evening breezes to cool the sparse rooms and to protect against the inundation of the rivers that cradle this swath of land-the spindly Sab to the west and the mighty Mekhong to the east.
My heart was tugged towards home as we ripped through this foreign landscape. I recognized in it a reflection of my own upbringing in the Missouri River flood plains. As they lit their cooking fires the smell brought me back to hot summers, line-dried sheets, damp soil, cornstalks, river mud, dirty feet.
The horizon became hazy as wood smoke rose to meet the setting sun, and we talked amongst ourselves for some time. Though Aim wasn’t familiar with Khmer, he made feeble attempts to speak to our driver in Thai, and an awkward, stunted exchange rife with gesticulations ensued. We wanted to know why the buses didn’t run later- a complicated question given the language barrier.
Finally, there was an epiphany of understanding, and our driver beamed as he said, in English, “Bus can’t drive in night. Too dark.”He was right. The sun had disappeared, and as I looked out the window it struck me suddenly- they didn’t have electricity out here. There were no streetlamps, no golden lights shining from the windows of houses. The Camry’s headlights cut only a short distance into the heavy smoke and fog that now lay on the road, and if not for the faint distant glow of a flame here and there, I could have imagined we were floating through space.
My eyelids grew heavy as I craned my neck and laid my cheek on the warm glass to gaze up at the brilliant stars. In a dream, I was walking peacefully through temple grounds when a deafening screech ripped into my brain. A powerful force jolted me upright in my seat, awakening me just in time to see a dozen steel rods smash through the windshield.
Time was molasses. Each shard of glass glinted as it floated slowly to the floor. The contents of the car heaved forward in slow motion, then back again where they came to rest in disheveled heaps. When we stopped moving finally, it was completely silent except for a resonating hum that I could feel in the bones of my skull.
I thought I must have still been dreaming. There was no pain when I reached up to touch my face despite the warm, wet, gaping wound on my forehead. I felt the edges of my skin with trembling fingertips. As I looked around dazed, I noticed that Aim was panicked, staring back wild-eyed from the front passenger seat. Then I could hear muffled sounds. My mother was crying. Her face was bleeding too. The driver had gotten out and was doubled over, a hand on his abdomen.
From out of the once-desolate darkness came a handful of villagers and I was led to the shoulder of the highway, where an elderly woman sat me down and sang to me while cradling me against her chest. She was braiding my hair as I watched three men carry a crumpled body from the road. In the flashing headlights of the taxi I saw his blood smeared on the asphalt, and I knew he had not survived.
He’d been driving a motorbike rigged up with a makeshift wooden cart for hauling farming supplies. The cart was made from scraps, and no lights were on the back. He couldn’t have been going more than half our speed when we’d come up behind him. Aim was standing with our driver, swatting away the men, women and children who had managed to open the trunk and were gathered around looking for valuables in our bags.
I was screaming for an ambulance, but the grandmother, the yeay, just shushed me, kept singing. I pressed a shirt to my head and bobbed in and out of consciousness. For a moment I was on the temple grounds again and the yeay was a monk. She smiled at me. I wasn’t afraid. It felt like hours passed, and then the police arrived smelling of booze and shined flashlights on us. One took a photo of me with his phone.
They seemed satisfied after surmising that no arrests were to be made, then left without having so much as taken down our names. Perhaps our driver hitched a ride with them, but I can’t be sure. I never saw him again. We didn’t even know his name.
As my mother tells it, we were party to a miracle that night when a pair of businessmen, one Thai and one Cambodian, happened upon us. They had been compelled to stop when they saw the commotion on the roadside, for at this point a small crowd had materialized to witness the incident. They knew of a clinic nearby and welcomed without question these three bloodied strangers into their car.
I remember the ride like you remember a dream: fragments of sound or smell or image appear then retreat before you can grasp them. By the time we arrived at the clinic I was delirious. The thick air smelled of urine and iodine, and the infirmed were lying emaciated in cage-like beds along the walls. A nurse carrying a baby pulled my hand and led the five of us into a small room.
I was smiling as she hurriedly sat her child down and begun stitching me up. She spoke to the businessmen as she worked her steady hands across my face.She looked deeply into my eyes, and one of the men told me, “She says you have a good spirit”.
The international hospital in Siem Reap was only a few more miles down the road, and we pulled up to the emergency room as the sun rose. Our heroes bid us goodbye rather unceremoniously, and we were wheeled into familiar surroundings at last. There was great comfort in sterile sheets and white coats.
Two days later, we made our way through the clean and happy crowds of tourists at the Siem Reap airport as we boarded our flight back to Bangkok. We couldn’t help eavesdropping on their reminiscing of the great mysteries they’d witnessed walking the ancient temple grounds.
“What a shame”, our friends said when we’d returned, as we told them our harrowing tale, “you didn’t get to see the ruins”.